It's been exactly one month and 15 games in all that Kawhi Leonard has been out with torn ligaments in his right (shooting) hand, but at long last he'll be making his return to the lineup tonight against Portland at the AT&T Center, and starting to boot.
"Yeah, why not?" Gregg Popovich asked. "Somebody's got to start."
That "somebody" has been a rotating cast of characters in Leonard's absence, from Marco Belinelli to Austin Daye to even rookie Kyle Anderson. All they've had in common is that they've uniformly been poor imitations of the unique Leonard, offensively to be sure, but even more so defensively.
"Without Kawhi, we stink on defense," Popovich said of the 23-year-old reigning Finals MVP. "That's the bottom line. He guards the best player, he guards a couple different guys, he rebounds the position, he makes steals. He covers for teammates. He does a lot of things for us."
The numbers have certainly borne out Popovich's claim. Leonard has the best net rating on the team by some margin, with the Spurs scoring 106.5 points-per-100 possessions with him on the floor and allowing just 94.4, for a difference of 12.1 points.
When he's sat on the bench, regardless of whether he's been in uniform or not, the numbers have been 103.2 points for and 103.7 points against, meaning the Spurs actually get outscored on average without Leonard. Indeed they are 9-9 without him so far this season and 15-7 with him. In fact, the Spurs have been a .500 team the last two seasons without Leonard, as they went 8-8 last year without him as well.
Popovich compared his situation to that of Patty Mills, who returned to action for the Spurs after off-season surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff on Dec. 28, a few days after doctors cleared him to play. Despite the clearance, Pop wanted to make sure Mills went through a couple of practices with contact first, just so the first thud he took to the shoulder wouldn't be in a game.
"Yeah (it's) pretty similar," Popovich said. "He's been doing that, playing against people competitively, taped and going after it, so he might as well play in a game."
How much Leonard plays will likely depend on his own conditioning. He's been running on the treadmill and doing sprints and all those kind of things, but nothing compares to playing in an actual game.
"I think he'll probably limit himself with conditioning, I imagine," Popovich said. "It's not like he's coming back from an ankle sprain or a hamstring where overplaying him is gonna injure it again. If he falls some screwy way on his hand, then he'll get injured again."
Even with Leonard back, the Spurs will still be down one small forward, however, as Marco Belinelli will miss his third straight game with what Pop termed an "abdominal/groin thingy" and the injury is apparently significant enough that Belinelli is expected to miss 10-14 days, per Popovich's best guess. He does tend to err on the side of caution with those estimates though, so stay tuned.
With Belinelli out and Tony Parker still working his way back into shape after a long layoff with a left hamstring strain, expect more playing time for the pair of Mills and Cory Joseph, who've been pretty effective together despite their size disadvantage. The two seem to compliment each other's strengths well and aren't afraid to scrap in their own end, which is the most important thing as far as Popovich is concerned.
"I think they've done pretty well," Popovich said of the pairing. "They play good basketball. They move the ball, they move themselves, they make good decisions. They really compete at a high level. And they're fun to watch. I never know exactly what they'll do."
The Spurs will need all the energy their dynamic duo can muster plus whatever lift they can get from Leonard and even the juice from the home crowd after their three-game road trip, to overcome a talented Portland squad that's already beaten them twice, including Dec. 19 at the AT&T Center where they prevailed in triple overtime 129-119 behind a career-high 43 points from Damian Lillard.