It started so innocently, at the end of a Game 4 blowout win against Utah in the conference semifinals. Clippers star Kawhi Leonard pulled up with what looked like a minor injury during a drive to the basket in the fourth quarter, after posting 31 points in the game. Once the final buzzer sounded and Leonard was seated for a postgame interview on TNT, he calmed any fears about the injury, saying, “I’ll be good.”
We know now that Leonard won’t, in fact, be good. He had torn his ACL, an injury which required surgery that could—possibly but not definitely—keep him out for all of next season.
“He had major surgery,” Clippers GM Lawrence Frank told reporters last month. “He tore his ACL. So it’s going to require a great deal of time and more support.”
Whether Leonard can suit up at any point next season is the remaining question now that he has settled the other major uncertainty around his immediate future: His free agency, which came into effect when he opted out of the final year of his deal two weeks ago.
This week, Leonard inked a major second contract with the Clippers, for four years and $176 million, and now it is fair to wonder whether he can chip in on the Clippers’ title chance in 2021-22. The Clippers reached the Western Conference finals this year even without Leonard, and took the Suns to six games in a tightly contested series.
If they’d had Leonard against Phoenix, even if he was not 100%, things could have been much different.
Clippers Can Keep Title Hopes Alive Until Leonard Returns
That’s the outside hope for the Clippers, that they can play well enough next year even without Leonard to finish near the top of the West and survive, say, the first round of the playoffs. Typically, an ACL surgery requires nine-to-12 months for recovery, which would put Leonard back on the court in late March at the earliest.
It is unrealistic to expect him back that quickly. But a 10-month recovery could have him back in the first round of the playoffs. An 11-month recovery would have him back sometime around the conference semifinals.
That could be useful. The West will have its share of contenders again, with the Suns returning almost entirely intact, the Lakers having revamped with big-name firepower and the Nuggets figuring to be healthy with Jamal Murray returning.
The Clippers should be good enough to stay among that group. Star Paul George is back. The team re-signed point guard Reggie Jackson, who starred in the playoffs with 17.8 points per game, as well as versatile big man Nicolas Batum. Also returning is third-year guard Terance Mann, who shone in the playoffs at various times, including a 39-point performance against the Jazz in the second-round clincher. The Clippers added defensive wing Justise Winslow, too.
If Jackson can keep up his scoring, Mann continues to develop and George stays healthy, the Clippers should remain a 50-win team. That should keep them among the West’s Top 4.
Playing Within the Next Year Could Put Leonard at Risk
Leonard, then, could be ready to join a team already rolling into the playoffs. But that requires a relatively speedy recovery, and one that is increasingly rare around the NBA. Increasingly, medical advice shows that players returning from a major knee surgery like an ACL are not actually fully recovered until two years after the injury.
Dr. Tim Hewett, a consultant who spent the bulk of his career studying the biomechanics of the knee for the Mayo Clinic and as the director of Ohio State’s Sports Health and Performance Institute, told Heavy.com that most athletes are not 100% until 18-24 months after the injury.
“It’s not just psychological,” Hewitt told me. “It is physical, too. Your graft is still mush. You are grafting a piece of tendon onto the ACL in that surgery. It takes 18-24 months for a grafted ligament to re-ligamentize, to mature to the point where it is something close to a baseline of where it was before. If you are playing before that, you’re playing on a ligament that’s not done healing.”
That’s the issue for the Clippers. They’ve made a four-year investment in Leonard and getting him back for the playoffs could be a big boon. But it could put him at risk for re-injury. It’s a longshot, then, that we will see Leonard pitching in for the Clippers next spring.