In February, Gregg Popovich said he’d be surprised if Kawhi Leonard played again during the 2017-18 season. Leonard didn’t, but the Spurs never followed Popovich’s doubt with a clear statement on Leonard’s status. Instead, Popovich repeatedly deferred questions of Leonard’s health in the following months to Leonard’s “group.”
Privately, officials within organization had hoped Leonard would let the Spurs declare him out for the season due to his injury, according to sources with knowledge of the situation. Believing he’d eventually return, Leonard declined each time
Did Leonard not realize this made him – not the Spurs – look bad? Especially once it leaked he’d been cleared medically. Especially when he told the team repeatedly and public once he’d return soon but never did.
Perhaps, this was just genuine competitiveness. Maybe Leonard really thought, or at least wanted to believe, a return was around the corner. This could have been him valiantly never giving up.
But there’s a reason teams usually err on the side of caution in long-term injury announcements. It’s to protect the player from looking bad for remaining out if he’s not quite ready as quickly as initially projected.
The Pacers received a disabled-player exception for Paul George in 2014-15, and he still beat the odds to return late in the year. The Celtics called Gordon Hayward out for this season and weren’t going to stray from that public stance until he suited up, even when – for a moment – it appeared he had a chance of returning.
Even if the Spurs publicly declared him out for the rest of the year, nothing would have stopped Leonard from playing. It’s not a binding resolution. Instead, he repeatedly missing targeted return dates and looked soft to many because of it.
And he insisted on the strategy that led to that perception!
This is just more evidence those around Leonard might not know what they’re doing.