Kawhi Leonard is not a robot.
For how much us fans like to joke about it, we know it. We learned that hard truth during the playoffs seven months ago, which happens to be the last time we’ve seen him play (infinite crying emojis).
He went down in the Western Conference Finals with an ankle sprain but told reporters the soreness went away after about two weeks. Now he’s afflicted by some black magic the Spurs are calling “right quadricep tendinopathy”--inflammation of the tendon in the quadricep.
… That’s it? Inflammation is keeping a 26-year-old, 230-pound hunk of solid muscle at the peak of his NBA career out 21 regular season games and counting? Inflammation has stumped grandmaster Pop to the point he said he’s “never seen anything like it?”
It doesn’t take a private detective to notice that something is off. It was weird when the team suddenly announced the injury on Sept. 30 in training camp. It was weird when they announced he would miss the season opener because of it. And now, it’s extra weird because a 35-year-old Tony Parker (who had to have surgery to re-attach his quadriceps tendon last season) beat him back to the court.
On top of everything, the team has offered no real explanation, clarification or even a loose timetable for his return. We know he’s taking contact. But even after the man himself spoke to the media before Monday’s game, we still know nothing concrete.
I’m not saying the Spurs organization owes the fan base any explanation. I have a day job as newspaper reporter, and I’m very familiar with private organizations holding back every bit of information because, well ... they can. And the Spurs have done that since the beginning of time. Nothing new there.
They have, however, left the door wide open for a few conspiracy theories to surface about what’s really going on, from the implausible to the probable to the intriguing if unconfirmed.
I have rated the following utter conjecture by percentage of plausibility.
1. He’s not injured at all, and the Spurs are extra sneaky (11.3 percent):
I don’t think this is the case, but I also wouldn’t completely put faking an injury past the Spurs. They value the off-season, and what better way to rest your star player than hide him in a practice facility for three months ? They’ve also wanted to give LaMarcus Aldridge more room to develop, but more on that in the next theory.
2. Kawhi sustained an extremely minor injury (sneezed too hard, for example) and the team is milking it (34.6 percent):
Once the team learned about Kawhi’s devastating sneeze in training camp, they shut him down with the goal of giving LaMarcus all the space he wants.
This theory is compelling because the playing without Kawhi for as long as legally possible is paying off. LaMarcus, who had condensed his game to accommodate Kawhi’s meteoric rise, put up 41 points last Wednesday in a rain of hellfire against the Grizzlies, and he is now the clear leader on a team with a 14-7 record.
He was clearly miffed when he didn’t make the All-Star team last year. He wants that back and the confidence that comes with it. After Pop outright said he’s been playing like an All-Star following his 41-point outburst, I’m beginning to think that’s been the part of his goal the whole time. The team needs both All-Stars on the court if they’re going to have a chance at the title.
3. He really is injured and it’s much more severe than inflammation (65.08 percent):
Orthopedic sports surgeon Sabrina Strickland told the Express-News Kawhi could return “sooner rather than later” – a phrase we’ve heard about a thousand times by now – provided his condition isn’t chronic.
Strickland was speaking from a birds-eye view with no personal knowledge of the situation. However, I think we put “sooner” in the rear view a few games ago, and we’re now comfortably cruising through “later” territory.
It’s fair to think Kawhi sustained an overuse injury that became chronic. We’ve all heard anecdotes about how hard he goes in the summer. After sitting out against Golden State last season, Kawhi likely sprouted some forehead veins of frustration.
That dedication is why he’s such phenomenal player. It can also be a downfall in these situations.
4. He legitimately has a mysterious form of quad tendinopathy. He’s just not rehabbing with the Spurs training staff (90 percent):
The Spurs are a great organization from top to bottom, including the medical staff. The team never releases a plethora of detailed injury updates, but there’s almost always some kind of timetable, especially for a star player.
You couldn’t pay me to believe team doctors still don’t know enough to release a timetable. But maybe there’s a reason for that. Maybe they really don’t know what his progress is because he’s not under their watchful eye.
Kawhi could be rehabbing with someone not affiliated with the organization at all. Most of the signs—lack of updates, Pop’s utter confusion, Tony coming back quicker after a surgery, Kawhi dodging that second opinion question—point to this theory.
Kawhi won’t be back on the court for a bit still, even if he’s good to go right now. When he does, Spurs Nation will quickly forget all this ever happened. But for now: there’s likely something going on behind the scenes.