San Antonio's wing rotation will be a bit sparse without Kawhi Leonard
. (Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)
Injuries have hit the Spurs in a wave, as the defending Western Conference champs suffered a third significant blow to their playing rotation on Wednesday when Kawhi Leonard sustained a fracture in his right hand. The break is expected to keep Leonard out of action for 3-4 weeks, per Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News, overlapping his absence with that of Danny Green (who also suffered a non-displaced fracture in his hand) and Tiago Splitter (who sprained his right shoulder earlier this month).
Splitter could theoretically be the first player back in action between the three, but his timetable -- initially marked as a window from Jan. 26 to Feb. 9 -- is also the most variable. Besides, the compounding injuries of Green and Leonard would seem the more difficult to handle; with Marco Belinelli already filling bigger minutes in a starting role to replace Green, San Antonio is short on options to log minutes at small forward. It's for that reason that the Spurs are reportedly eyeing D-League forward Othyus Jeffers, per Marc Stein of ESPN.com. Jeffers has spent the last season and change with the Iowa Energy, but previously was called up for a few short stints in the NBA. One such stint came with these very Spurs, back in the 2010-11 season.
In order to make room for Jeffers, San Antonio has waived 25-year-old forward Malcolm Thomas, who had just seen his first action with the team a few days prior. Earlier this month the Spurs chose to keep Thomas on the roster through the contract guarantee deadline, meaning he will be paid the entirety of his $702k salary this season despite his release. Jeffers will likely only be filling that roster opening in a temporary capacity, though, as the Spurs' needs on the wing exist only as long as both Green and Leonard are out of the lineup. Manu Ginobili is also likely to see an increase in his playing time in the short term, while Cory Joseph and Patty Mills could also slide over to help fill the void.
In all, Leonard's absence is impossible for the Spurs to address on the fly. But Gregg Popovich -- beneath his initial disappointment over his forward's injury -- sees opportunity in the ensuing scramble for minutes, touches, and defensive responsibility. From Sam Amick of USA Today:
"Well I feel two things (about the injuries)," Popovich said. "For one, I'm disappointed for the team, because this is a time when we always try to make hay. Historically, that rodeo road trip, that time before, during and after the All-Star break has always been good for us. We've got a lot of away games. It's a great time to come together and get the bunker mentality, and all that trade crap. But it works for us. So this road trip, and the one right after it, you'd like to be at full strength for that because it has been important for us getting momentum for the season. So I'm disappointed for them.
"But secondly, I'm strangely excited about playing the other guys and watching them fill in. I think it steps up the energy a little bit, because your back's against the wall. You just look at it a different way. That's kind of exciting."
That's certainly one way to look at it, and a perspective that empowers these undermanned Spurs to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. As a counterpoint, Leonard's injury could be a difficult turn for a San Antonio team that hasn't looked quite right for much of the season. It's hard to mount a full-strength defense without a player as valuable as Splitter, and tough to get fully clicking offensively without Green's sharp-shooting. But the Spurs have been a bit off even when fully healthy, and now will have to make do without a rangy wing defender, useful wing rebounder, and utility scorer.