Gregg Popovich said Wednesday that Kawhi Leonard will most likely be out the rest of the season due to his lingering quad injury, tendinopathy. What does this mean for the Spurs’ star? What exactly is tendinopathy? There are so many questions looming around Kawhi and this injury that no one knows exactly what is going on.
Kawhi Leonard was reported as having a quad injury back in September during a team scrimmage. Popovich said that the injury would cost Kawhi the beginning of the preseason and maybe even a good portion of it. A few weeks later it was reported that he would miss the season opener and some games after that as well. No timetable was listed for the injury, as it was reported as a slow process and that Kawhi was rehabbing on a daily basis. The Spurs gave a slight detail about the injury after three weeks into the season by saying the injury would be resolved “sooner rather than later.”
Yet, here we are at the end of February and Kawhi has only played a few games this season. It was on December 12th that Kawhi played his first game of the season, and he would go on to play eight more. He averaged 16.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2 steals a game. He never played any back-to-backs during this stint.
Out of nowhere, Kawhi Leonard was listed as out indefinitely with the same injury on January 17th. How does a player of this caliber miss so much of a season with an injury that seemed so simple? Kawhi’s teammate Tony Parker had ruptured his left quadriceps injury, which is considered to be a worse injury. Parker actually came back before Kawhi Leonard, and he has been playing consistent minutes since his return. If Tony Parker’s injury was worse, then what is preventing Kawhi Leonard from returning?
Kawhi is suffering from tendinopathy. This term is not specific to an exact injury, as odd as that sounds. This term could be used to describe the injury as multiple different issues, such as tendinitis, a tear in the tendon, or even a disease in the tendon. If the injury was misdiagnosed and treated incorrectly, then it could be a contributing factor as to why this injury lasted so long. No one in the NBA really believes that to be the case though, as the San Antonio Spurs have been considered to have the best medical staff in the NBA for years. There were no reports ever of a setback that would cost Kawhi extra time, but the belief is that he was having extreme soreness in his leg, even after off days.
The major difficulty with this injury is where it occurred. The quadriceps are an extremely powerful muscle group that we are constantly using on a day-to-day basis. Having a sore quad could mean that your leg isn’t strong enough to be doing the activities you should be. And for Kawhi Leonard, that would be a lot, considering he is an NBA All-Star who has defined himself as the best two-way player in the game. The constant cutting, stopping, changing of direction, etc. that he uses in his game could be the reason he is feeling so much soreness. Kawhi’s quadriceps aren’t fully strengthened enough to be 100%. It may not be the injury at all, but just a weakened muscle group from all the time this season he has spent not working out that leg.
A full run-down of Kawhi Leonard’s rehab program at this point would consist of four main aspects, such as checking for full range of motion in the joints (hip and knee), are movements done smoothly, is there full strength compared to the other side, and testing the overall stability of the knee. If any of these four aspects are off, Kawhi will most likely not feel comfortable to play. If there is no full range of motion, how will he be able to score like he does and play defense at an elite level? If his movements are not controlled and have no fluidity, then I doubt he is running properly at all. If his leg is not at the same level of strength as his other leg, which I believe is the issue, then it will lead to soreness in that weakened leg, or even soreness in the healthy leg, because you are overusing that leg and not balancing out your movements. That issue is as much mental as it is physical. His mind has to trust the injured leg to where everything he does is even and he is not favoring one leg over the other.
Lastly, knee stability. We see NBA players go down with knee injuries far too often. Kristaps Porzingis and Andre Roberson earlier this season, Jabari Parker twice, and even Giannis Antetokounmpo sits out every now and then with knee soreness. If Kawhi Leonard’s knee is not properly stabilized, then the knee would be more likely to suffer a significant injury to any of his ligaments.
However, Kawhi Leonard has been medically cleared to play. He could play this week if he really wanted. But for some reason, he is choosing to get a second opinion in New York. Perhaps his body is ready for the NBA, but his mind is not. We hear of athletes who suffer from significant injuries say that the toughest part was getting mentally strong rather than physically. You have to trust yourself in every motion that you do. You want to get to the point where you make a cut or move and don’t ever think how it might affect your knee, ankle, or quad. You have to do those movements with no thought, trust your body, and move on. Do not look back to an injury that is fully healed and continue to question it day after day. Regaining trust in yourself can easily be the hardest thing any athlete will ever do after an injury.
All of this has led to a frustrated Kawhi Leonard and an organization that is now having their medical staff questioned along with their relationship to their star player. Kawhi Leonard has a player option after next season, and who knows just how many games he will actually play until that time. Will this affect his decision? Will a team still give him a max contract that he clearly deserves? The questions that loom around this entire situation are complicated and unanswered. The saga at this point seems to have no end. Will he play this season or not? Will this injury change his career? No one knows.