Even as he continued to be a presence for the Clippers throughout the team’s run through the NBA’s Western Conference finals, there seemed to be something not quite right about the way the team was handling the knee injury to star forward Kawhi Leonard. The possibility of a return was never ruled out, but it sure seemed that the Clippers were proceeding as though Leonard would not be back for the duration of the playoffs.
Indeed, he was not going to make it back, and we now know why: Leonard suffered a partially torn ACL, and the team announced his surgery to repair the ligament on Tuesday. The team also said there is “no timetable” on Leonard’s return.
Leonard originally suffered the injury on June 14, in the fourth quarter of the Clippers’ Game 4 win over Utah in the conference semifinals. At the time, he was putting together an other-worldly performance in the playoffs, averaging 30.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists in 11 games, shooting 57.3% from the field and 39.3% from the 3-point line.
He shrugged off the injury after the game, telling ESPN, “I’ll be good.”
Clippers Kept Reality of Leonard Injury Hidden
Just before the Clippers’ first game after the Leonard injury, coach Ty Lue indicated that there was a chance that Leonard would play again in the postseason. It’s likely, though, that Lue and the team were bluffing at some point about Leonard, knowing he would need surgery on the knee.
While Sixers star Joel Embiid played through a meniscus tear during Philadelphia’s playoff run, that is much less risky than playing on an ACL tear. The team would have known Leonard was not returning as soon as the tear in the ligament was detected.
Still, the injury was kept close to the vest.
“Just know he has a right knee sprain,” Lue said on June 16. “Being optimistic about the situation. But our team, we understand that it’s part of the game. You lose your best player like that, it’s tough that it happened, but all season long we have been having next man up mentality, we know it’s the playoffs, but we’re ready, the guys are geared up and we understand the task at hand.”
To the Clippers’ credit, they did respond well, pushing the Suns to six games in the West finals. The Clippers probably should have won Game 2 of that series, which the team lost on a shocking buzzer-beating dunk on an inbound play from Jae Crowder to DeAndre Ayton. That game would have drastically changed the landscape of the series.
Kawhi Leonard Still Expected to Hit Free Agency This Summer
The big question now is how the injury will affect Leonard and the Clippers going forward. Leonard is unlikely to play at all next season as he recovers from the injury. While it is possible he might need only six or so months to rehab, clearing him for a return around January, Leonard was known in San Antonio for being deliberate with his injury rehab.
That was a source of friction between Leonard and the Spurs that ultimately led to his trade to Toronto.
It is not expected that the injury will have an impact on Leonard’s upcoming free agency, however. He has a player option for next season, and though the injury might appear severe enough to force him to reconsider opting out, recent history shows that star players with major injuries still get paid.
Leonard can opt out and sign a contract worth about $176 million over four years with the Clippers. He could, also, opt in for $36 million next season, and sign an extension worth about $185 million over four years after that, ostensibly keeping him in L.A. for five years. It’s unlikely, but Leonard could also opt in next season, then re-sign with the Clippers on a five-year megadeal worth about $220 million in the summer of 2022.
The knee injury probably won’t interfere too severely with those options.
Klay Thompson of the Warriors signed a five-year, $190 million contract in 2019 three weeks after tearing his ACL in that year’s NBA Finals. Kevin Durant, who tore his Achilles tendon in those same Finals, was also given a max deal (four years, $164 million) three weeks after his injury.
Leonard, of course, is on the same level as those players and thus, even with the injury and with the likelihood of missing a full season, will get his enormous paycheck nonetheless.