The question will loom over everything the Clippers do this NBA season, no matter how high or low they get as the year progresses. As we look forward to what this team might achieve, we will always be tacking on the addendum: depending on whether Kawhi Leonard plays.
The Clippers could return to the Western Conference finals, if Kawhi Leonard plays. The Clippers will be contenders, if Kawhi Leonard plays. The Clippers could win the first-ever championship in franchise history if—you guessed it—Kawhi Leonard plays.
But according to one of the most prominent backers of the Clips, Fox Sports gum-flapper Skip Bayless, Clippers fans can put that add-on to rest, because, he claims, he’s been told that Leonard will not be returning this year.
“I was informed, a little breaking news, that Kawhi will not be back this year,” Bayless said last week on the show he co-hosts, Undisputed. “There was supposed to be a real good shot but it was more the Clippers’ choice, they just said, let’s shut it down for the rest of the year. So you don’t have to worry about the Clippers.”
Logic Might Dictate That Leonard Won’t Have Time to Return
Bayless’ assertion can be viewed through two different lenses, and depending which you choose, you’ll either see that he makes good sense or that he could be way off base.
Start with the good-sense angle. Leonard suffered a partially torn ACL on June 14, near the end of Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals against Utah. Typically, rehab from a torn ACL can take about a year, with nine months being the short end of the recovery timetable.
Sitting 12 months would, obviously put Leonard out for the year. But even sitting out nine months would make things difficult. That would get Leonard ready to return by mid-March and because he would need some time to ramp up, he probably would not play until early April—leaving just two weeks of prep before the playoffs were to start.
Even if Leonard could be ready in nine months—and he very likely can’t—that might not be enough time to have him be effective when he does take the court again, mostly in the playoffs. If nine months only barely works, then 10 months, or a return at the start of the postseason, is definitely out of reach.
There just won’t be time for a Leonard return this season, and no one wants to rush Leonard back and risk further injury.
But Can Veteran Clippers Waste a Season?
Ah but there is a flip side to the logic. The Clippers are not really in a position to be wasting any seasons with their current core, which is built around Leonard and star wing Paul George. Leonard is 30, which is not all that old, but certainly puts him in the back part of his career prime years. George is older—he turns 32 in May.
The Clippers have a solid mix of veterans and youth on the current roster, and with only three new rotation players—Eric Bledsoe, Justise Winslow and Isaiah Hartenstein—have an advantage over most teams because of their continuity. This is a good team, and it is a good team right now. The Clippers need to do all they can to take advantage of that.
That’s where nudging Leonard to return makes a good deal of sense. With Leonard, even at a percentage of his usual effectiveness, the Clippers could be great. Without him they can be merely good. Maybe Bayless is right and the decision to hold him out has already been made.
In training camp, Ty Lue made it clear the Clippers would not rush him. “We don’t want to force him or put any pressure on him,” Lue said. We want to make sure he’s rehabbing and doing everything he can to get back as soon as possible. If that’s next season, it’s next season.”
But the team as it stands is a fun group, one that could be elite. That depends, though, on whether Kawhi Leonard can play.