Following the news last week that superstar forward Kawhi Leonard underwent knee surgery to repair a partially torn right ACL, it’s generally held that the Clippers‘ chances of advancing far in the playoffs, let alone winning a title next season, have taken a hit.
But there are some who actually believe the opposite.
On Friday, in the latest episode of the On The Ball podcast, veteran NBA insider and Fox Sports analyst Ric Bucher suggested that not only are the Clippers still well-positioned to win their first-ever championship (something Bucher believes they would have done this past season if Leonard and Ivica Zubac hadn’t been injured) but that Leonard’s absence may actually be a net-positive for their chances in the season to come.
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Injury Helps Fend Off Suitors
Bucher’s reasoning focuses on a few points. First, and perhaps most logically, he deduces that Leonard’s injury will all but ensure he stays with the Clippers.
The five-time All-NBA forward has a $36 million player option for the upcoming season, and before news of the surgery, it was widely believed the L.A. native would opt-out and then turnaround and re-sign with the Clippers for a boatload of cash. And even now, though Leonard is not expected back for at least nine months, that expectation still dominates the consensus.
What has changed, however, at least in Bucher’s view, is the appetite of some teams like Dallas and Miami who, less than a week ago, were expected to doggedly pursue Leonard despite the likelihood of his staying in SoCal.
“The silver lining to the knee injury is that it further reduces any chances of another other team looking to pry him away from the Clippers,” said Bucher. “I have no reason to believe Kawhi has any interest in leaving in the first place, but this almost precludes him from having a legitimate option with a team looking to upgrade its title chances.”
A Change in Chemistry
While Bucher describes Leonard’s extensive rehab time and his prior injury history (notably his mysterious quad injury with the Spurs in 2017-18) as a “major deterrent” for other teams, he believes this Clippers roster is uniquely situated to overcome such factors. In large part, Bucher asserts, because of a positive change in atmosphere and team chemistry from Kawhi’s first season in Los Angeles.
“There was something off about the vibe,” Bucher said about that first year. “I attribute it to Kawhi, whose silent, seemingly unblinking visage in front of his locker, has always created a weird sort of vibe.” On prior teams, Bucher noted, Leonard’s awkward stoicism had usually been counterbalanced by the jovial personalities of certain teammates. But not with the Clippers bubble team, who Bucher said “was too busy trying to show how hard and tough and gangster they were.”
A few months later, though, things had changed. A disgruntled Montrezl Harrell had, shockingly, moved across the hall to the Lakers, replaced by Serge Ibaka and Nicolas Batum, two exceedingly likable veterans, and the team had replaced head coach Doc Rivers with serially laid-back Ty Lue.
Moreover, Bucher observed that Leonard and Paul George “obviously had been humbled” by the team’s jaw-dropping collapse to the Nuggets in the 2020 playoffs, further adding to a less contentious atmosphere in the locker room and eventually to a squad that made chemistry a defining characteristic of their success this past season.
“The hallmark of this Clippers team, and one of the biggest reasons I believe their best days are still ahead of them, is the chemistry they demonstrated this season,” said Bucher. And it’s a big reason he feels they won’t fall out of the hunt before Leonard’s return, assuming, that is, the Clippers re-sign Batum and Reggie Jackson (who Bucher believes will not have nearly the kind of robust free agency market that some anticipate).
Kawhi returning in late February early March gives him roughly two months to get up to speed for the playoffs. They were capable of winning on any given night if they were forced to play with only one of their two main stars. And watching them in the playoffs close out the Jazz and take the Suns to six games, all without Kawhi, is only further proof that the current roster is good enough to keep them out of any play-in scenarios to make the playoffs next season. It does require, of course, re-signing Jackson and Nicolas Batum, both of whom were instrumental in both the postseason success without Kawhi and their improved chemistry.
A Better Fit?
Bucher only expects that chemistry to further evolve while Kawhi is on the mend. And once back, he doesn’t anticipate Leonard’s injury materially affecting his ability to thrive in the mid-range game — Leonard’s top attribute, in Bucher’s opinion.
“I don’t expect that any agility or explosiveness that he’s loses while he learns to trust his right knee again will affect that part of his game,” said Bucher. “His strength and ability to play angles is what makes him so effective in that mid-range. Possibly he won’t be quite the same defender, but Paul George demonstrated he’s more than capable of playing the defensive stopper role on the perimeter.”
In fact, Bucher suggests that Leonard missing most of the season could force him to play a more passive role, something more suited to his comfort level which would thereby make the Clippers a more effective team.
“The evolution of the team without Kawhi this coming season actually could be a positive,” said Bucher. “They were not at their best when he dominated the ball and tried to live up to the billing as the guy who would lift the Clippers to their first championship. He’s better as a talented part of the collective. And now, under the current circumstances, he won’t have a choice.”