When the Indiana Pacers drafted Kawhi Leonard with the 15th overall pick in the 2011 draft and traded him to the San Antonio Spurs in a draft-night trade involving George Hill, not a lot of pundits thought the San Diego State product was going to carve out a Hall of Fame career.
However, through hard work and dedication to his craft, Leonard has not only established himself as one of the best small forwards in NBA history, but he’s also won two titles, two Finals MVPs and two Defensive Player of the Year Awards.
In 518 NBA games with the Spurs, Toronto Raptors and Los Angeles Clippers, Leonard has career averages of 18.6 points, 6.4 boards and 2.7 assists. His stat line and total numbers would be a lot better, though, if injuries didn’t ruin his 2017-18 campaign with the Spurs.
During Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Dubs big man Zaza Pachulia hurt Leonard’s ankle. Kawhi landed on Pachulia’s foot, rolled his ankle (for the second time in a matter of minutes) and did not play again during the series.
The Spurs led the Warriors by 21 points with about eight minutes remaining in the third quarter when Leonard got hurt. San Antonio wound up losing Game 1 after Kawhi left and the overall series in four games.
The 2017-18 season was an utter disaster for both Leonard and the Spurs. It’s actually a campaign for the ages when you consider the NBA landscape was changed because of it.
Leonard’s ankle healed during the summer of 2017. However, his nagging quadriceps injury wasn’t getting better. So, the California native missed the first 27 games of the 2017-18 season rehabbing the ailment before making his season debut on Dec. 12, 2017 against the Dallas Mavericks.
Leonard played 15:51 in that contest versus the Mavs and finished with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field. The injury he had was quadriceps tendinopathy, meaning it can linger throughout the year.
Unfortunately for Leonard and the Spurs, not only did the quad injury remain all season, but Leonard also suffered a partial tear in his left shoulder in January. The last game he played in 2017-18 was against the Denver Nuggets on Jan. 13. Leonard finished with 19 points.
NBA fans as a whole are familiar with that transpired next.
Toward the end of the 2017-18 season, Leonard was cleared by Spurs doctors to return to the court. However, the All-Star swingman was never cleared by his own doctors to play. As a result, that caused some friction between San Antonio and Leonard.
Spurs legendary point guard Tony Parker, while speaking to media, said the quad injury he suffered in 2016-17 was “a hundred times worse” than Leonard’s. Parker’s comments were the “last straw” for Leonard in San Antonio.
It also didn’t help that Parker and Manu Ginobili organized a players-only meeting in which Spurs veterans asked Leonard whether he planned to return for the season. Multiple reports at the time said Leonard was caught off guard by the meeting and left the team for New York to rehab his injury away from the club.
During the summer of 2018, Leonard requested a trade from the Spurs. San Antonio’s brass was planning to have an all-hands-on-deck meeting with Leonard in the hopes of working out their differences and continue what had been largely a positive and productive partnership up until the 2017-18 season.
However, Leonard was not interested in a return and wanted to be traded to either the Los Angeles Lakers or Los Angeles Clippers.
The Spurs wound up trading Leonard to the Raptors, who managed his body perfectly. Toronto load managed Leonard during the 2018-19 regular season, with Kawhi saying multiple times last season that he was happy with how the Raptors took care of him.
All that rest in the regular season paid off, as Leonard guided the Raptors to their first-ever title in 2019 over the Warriors in six games. It’s worth noting, though, that Leonard did deal with left knee tendinitis in the Finals.
However, the man they call “The Terminator” was still able to dominate the Warriors, as he averaged 28.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists to capture his second title and second Finals MVP.
Before the 2019-20 season was suspended in March, Leonard appeared in 51 games for the Clippers. The 28-year-old was averaging 26.9 points, 7.3 boards and 5.0 assists in his first season back home.
The Clippers, like the Raptors, were load-managing Leonard.
The Spurs had to watch Kawhi Leonard shine during the 2018-19 season. Maybe if the franchise had done a better job of treating his quad injury, Leonard would still be starring for San Antonio.