Spurs coach Gregg Popovich never has been one to mince words, and he was no different after practice Wednesday when he was asked about the status of injured All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard.
“I’ll be surprised if he returns this season,” a somber Popovich said.
Leonard, an All-NBA first-team forward the past two years, has played in only nine games this season while struggling to overcome tendinopathy in his right quadriceps.
“We only have X amount of games left in the season," Popovich said. "He’s still not ready to go. If by some chance he is, it’s going to be pretty late into the season, and it’s going to be a pretty tough decision how late to bring somebody back.
"That’s why I’m just trying to be honest and logical. I’ll be surprised if he gets back this year.”
Later Wednesday, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Leonard spent 10 days before the All-Star break in New York consulting with a specialist to get a second opinion on the quad injury.
Citing sources, Wojnarowski reported that Leonard has been medically cleared to resume playing, but has opted against returning to the active roster since he was shut down on Jan. 13.
After missing the first 27 games of the season, Leonard played for a month before the Spurs sent him back to rehab because of concerns he hadn't fully recovered. Popovich hadn't given a timeline for Leonard's return.
Popovich did have some good news for Spurs fans, saying that leading scorer LaMarcus Aldridge, who missed the last two games before the All-Star break with a sore knee, and veteran reserve forward Rudy Gay practiced Wednesday and are expected to play Friday.
Gay, signed last summer to back up Leonard, has missed the team's last 23 games with bursitis in his right heel.
"He and LA are back," Popovich said. "They participated in practice. Looked pretty good. We’ll practice again tomorrow and see how it goes there, but we expect them to be ready to go."
Wednesday's workout was the first after the All-Star break for the Spurs (35-24). The Silver and Black resume their annual Rodeo Road Trip on Friday in Denver, where they lost their third consecutive game before the All-Star break. They end the trip in Cleveland on Sunday.
There had been rising speculation that Leonard, who is in his seventh season with San Antonio, might not return this season after he was taken off the court last month. He made his season debut Dec. 12 and appeared to be getting back to form before the Spurs shut him down.
Asked Wednesday if he was ready to list Leonard as being out for the remainder of the season, Popovich replied: “I’m ready to say what I just said.”
“We’ve got to move on,” he said. “The team has to realize that this who we are, this is who we have, this is who we play. Wishing and hoping doesn’t do anybody any good. We’ve got to do what we can to be the best team possible as the season winds down. There’s only 23 games left, something like that.”
Despite playing most of the season without their best player, the Spurs have stayed in third place in the Western Conference standings throughout the season.
Gay and veteran point guard Tony Parker said the team will remain focused on playing as well as it can without him and press on. But they also held out hope that Leonard could return by the end of the regular season.
"Obviously, we support Kawhi," Gay said. "But we can't sit around waiting for anybody. We're a team. People have stepped up. LaMarcus has stepped up. Kyle (Anderson) has stepped up. Davis (Bertans) has stepped up. People have definitely tried to fill the role as best they could.
"If he comes back, obviously he's one of the best players in the league. We'll welcome him with open arms. We have a job to do. We have to do that with or without him."
Anderson, in his fourth season with the Spurs, has subbed for Leonard at small forward for most of the season.
"I'm going to stay positive," Parker said. "I think we have to prepare for both. If he comes back, great. If he doesn't come back, a lot of guys stepped up. Kyle, Bryn (Forbes), all those guys, they've been playing well.
"We've got LaMarcus and Rudy back. Right now we should focus on what we got because that's more likely what's going to happen. We're going to play with that team. Right now we're in third place and we have to try to fight to keep that place. We should just focus on that. If he comes back, it'd be a bonus. We just have to play like he's not going to come back."
Given the lingering nature of Leonard's injury, Parker said he understands why Popovich would be reluctant to bring Leonard back this season.
"Knowing Pop, he's not going to take any risks," Parker said. "We didn't take any risks last year in the conference finals, so we're not going to take risks this year. The Spurs have always been great with the health of guys. That's a priority for the Spurs. They want you to play a long time."
Leonard reinjured his left ankle in Game 1 of the conference finals against Golden State last season and did not play the remainder of the series.
Parker chuckled when he was asked what he would tell Spurs fans who say the team's season is doomed without Leonard.
"That's a good point. That's a good point," Parker said. "Kawhi is one of our main guys. A lot of guys been playing great to replace him. We'll just have to focus on what we can do, what we can control, and this team believe that we can go far and try to make a run."
Gay expressed the Spurs can do that.
"We'll have to prepare to make a run with or without him," Gay said. "I think we'll be happy if he comes back, but we've still got to go out there and compete every night. We still feel like we're a superior team."
Gay, who was averaging 11.5 points and 5.2 rebounds before his extended absence, likely will split time split time with Anderson at small forward now. Gay hasn't played since the third quarter of the Silver and Black's home game against the New York Knicks on Dec. 28.
"It's a team sport," Gay said. "We've got to find ways to get it done if we want to be successful this year."