Leonard missed the first 27 games of the regular season, and he returned to participate in nine contests before the Spurs made the decision last month to sideline the forward indefinitely. Recovering from right quadriceps tendinopathy, Leonard has told the organization at various stages of his rehabilitation process that he wasn't comfortable with his ability to play through the injury and that the Spurs should shut him down.
The team's medical staff had actually cleared Leonard to return prior to his Dec. 12 season debut at Dallas, according to sources, who said the forward bears the burden of determining when he's prepared to play again.
"Well, we only have X number of games left in the season, and he's still not ready to go," Popovich said. "If by some chance he is, it's gonna be pretty late into the season; and it's going to be a pretty tough decision -- how late to bring somebody back. So that's why I'm just trying to be honest and logical. I'll be surprised if he gets back this year."
The 15th overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft, Leonard has developed into one of the most dominant players in the league, becoming a two-time first-team All-NBA player, a two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year and the 2014 NBA Finals MVP in the Spurs' championship victory over the Miami Heat.
Despite Leonard's absence and limited minutes in the nine games he has played, the Spurs are 35-24 and sit in the No. 3 spot in the Western Conference.
Multiple players expressed optimism regarding Leonard's potential return, including veteran forward Rudy Gay, who will return from heel bursitis on Friday, when the Spurs hit the road to face the Denver Nuggets.
"I think that's just for you guys," Gay said of Popovich's announcement. "You guys want answers. He gave you an answer. We support Kawhi, but we can't sit around waiting for anybody. We're a team. People have stepped up. LaMarcus [Aldridge] has stepped up. Kyle [Anderson] has stepped up. Davis [Bertans] has stepped up. People are definitely trying to fill the role as best they could.
"If [Leonard] comes back, obviously he's one of the best players in the league. We'll welcome him with open arms. But we have a job to do. We have to do that with or without them. We're going to have to prepare to make a run with or without him. I think we'll be happy if he comes back. But we still have to go out there and compete every night. We still feel like we're a superior team."
The Spurs initially disclosed Leonard's injury on Sept. 30, announcing that he would miss the entire preseason because of right quadriceps tendinopathy. Popovich said at the time Leonard would "probably miss the beginning of the preseason or a good deal of preseason," and the coach indicated the quadriceps issue first developed sometime in the 2016-17 season.
Leonard made his season debut on Dec. 12. He later missed three games with the shoulder injury, then returned to the lineup on Jan. 13 against Denver, scoring 19 points in 28 minutes. Days later, the Spurs made public a decision to shut down Leonard indefinitely, sending him back to San Antonio from a team trip through the Northeast.
"We'll see. I want to be positive," said veteran point guard Tony Parker, who returned in November from a ruptured quadriceps tendon suffered during last season's Western Conference semifinals. "I had the same injury. I came back. So I want to stay positive that he'll be back. I know he's working hard. I'm just going to think positive."
Popovich had said that Leonard "didn't reinjure" the quad and insisted that the organization was erring on the side of caution with its franchise player.
"Well, we've got to move on," Popovich said. "The team has to realize that this is who we are, this is who we have, this is [who is] gonna 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."