"He didn't re-injure it or anything. But you know he was having pain, not right after games but maybe the next day," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said Wednesday. "... The pain wasn't dissipating; it wasn't going in the right direction, it was going the other way."
Popovich quickly dismissed the idea that Leonard could be out for the remainder of the season due to the tendinopathy in his right quadriceps. Popovich described the Spurs' decision to sit Leonard as "conservative."
"You've got to be confident in your body to go out there and play at the level that he's expected to play," the coach said. "... We didn't feel he was ready; his confidence level wasn't there, so we just decided to give it some more time."
The Spurs initially announced during training camp that Leonard would miss the preseason because of the quadriceps issue, but the recovery process lingered into December, with Popovich admitting in November that the forward was "coming along more slowly" in rehabilitation than the club had hoped.
The two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year has appeared in just nine games this season, as the Spurs have restricted his playing time to ensure a full recovery from the condition that causes pain and weakness in the knee.
Despite playing just 23.3 minutes per game, the 26-year-old Leonard was averaging 16.2 points.
Popovich acknowledged, though, that having Leonard in and out of the lineup has impacted San Antonio's ability to establish a rhythm.
"It's a horrible situation. It's bad," the coach said. "When the players look right and left, they don't know who's going to be there from night to night. And it's tough to get a rhythm and get a flow to the game for sure. ... To play with the big boys, you've got to have all of your guys. So we got to get them ready if we think we're going to have anything to do with the end of the season.
"We've got to get them back and get in that rhythm."
Spurs big man LaMarcus Aldridge echoed Popovich's thoughts about the importance of health, saying both he and Leonard need to be at their best for San Antonio to thrive.
"For us to go where we want to go, we both have to play well," Aldridge told ESPN. "Golden State is a prime example, Houston with James Harden and Chris Paul. It's not impossible to coexist. I feel like I'm playing more confident, I'm playing better this year, where it's not going to be an issue. When he's back 100 percent, he's going to be who he was and I'm going to be who I am. I feel like that's going to make us better down the stretch."
Leonard also missed time this season with what Popovich said is a partial tear in his left shoulder.
A two-time NBA All-Star, Leonard averaged career highs in points (25.5) and assists (3.5) last season, while also averaging 1.8 steals.
When Leonard debuted this season against the Dallas Mavericks on Dec. 12, he hadn't suited up to play for San Antonio since Game 1 of last season's Western Conference finals, as he missed the rest of that series with a sprained ankle.
As part of the recovery from quadriceps tendinopathy, Leonard had been working through a rehabilitation process comprising several steps, including individual work and 2-on-2 and 3-on-3 drills, before receiving clearance to practice fully with the team. Leonard had been working out with Parker, who was recovering from a ruptured quadriceps tendon, as well as with former Spurs players Matt Bonner and Tim Duncan.
It's unknown whether the Spurs plan to re-enter Leonard into a similar protocol for recovery. Popovich said Wednesday that Leonard "will be lifting and working his fanny off to get that strength back in his leg."
Throughout Leonard's recovery, the club was reluctant to offer a timeline for his return, as there's a level of unpredictability involved with rehabilitation from quadriceps tendinopathy, according to a source.
With Leonard out of action, fourth-year veteran Kyle Anderson moved into the starting lineup and took advantage of the extra minutes, forcing Popovich to admit Anderson needs to be on the floor more -- even when Leonard is back in the rotation.
Anderson returned to the starting lineup on Wednesday, but he tallied just two points, two assists and a rebound in the victory.
The club also will likely lean more on Aldridge in Leonard's absence.
The 11-year veteran said Wednesday that his mindset wouldn't change with Leonard out.
"It's tough, but we've got to keep pushing," Aldridge said after scoring a game-high 34 points in Wednesday's win. "... [I'll] just keep doing what I've been doing. Keep having guys play well, keep trying to make my teammates better and just try to keep rolling."
Aldridge has averaged 34.1 minutes and 18.0 field goal attempts since the beginning of December, and it's highly unlikely the Spurs will limit the power forward's minutes moving forward. Aldridge told ESPN that during a heart-to-heart sit-down discussion with Popovich over the summer, he actually asked the coach for more minutes this season.
"I think I've always been able to do it. I don't want to sound arrogant. I think that's who I've been," Aldridge said. "I think having the talk with Pop helped it happen. Having the talk, and telling him I play better when I'm playing more minutes, and maybe we can try to find different ways for finding rest.
"I struggle with playing low minutes and trying to keep a rhythm. I've just never been able to do it. When I was really rolling in Portland, I was top five in minutes every season. So that's kind of who I've become. So, I think Pop understood that, and he's letting me play more minutes. We've all kind of enjoyed how I've come along playing more minutes. I'm staying in great shape. I'm feeling good. My rhythm is better. Being out there more, this is just me."