The Los Angeles Clippers announced Tuesday afternoon that superstar forward Kawhi Leonard underwent successful surgery to repair a partially torn ACL in his right knee.
As expected, there is no timetable for his return.
Leonard, who had the surgery 29 days after suffering the injury in Game 4 of the Clippers’ second-round series versus the Utah Jazz, will spend his summer rehabbing for next season. He has the opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent in August if he chooses to opt out of the final year of his contract, in which he’s scheduled to earn $36 million.
While most insiders and executives anticipate Leonard to remain in Los Angeles for a variety of reasons, location and family proximity are chief among them, it certainly brings up an interesting question of whether or not he’ll want a short or long-term deal this offseason.
The return timetable for this type of injury is something that varies from player to player. Partial ACL tears are relatively rare, but there have been a few examples recently. As Jeff Stotts from InStreetClothes.com mentions, both Thomas Bryant and Spencer Dinwiddie had to miss a length period of time for Grade 2 ACL tears:
Dinwiddie suffered a partial tear in his right ACL on Dec. 27 of this past season, just five days after the Brooklyn Nets’ opener. On June 22, he was fully cleared for basketball activities. That’s 178 days of rehab and recovery.
From the NBA’s projected start date of Oct. 19, a similar rehab would bring Leonard and the Clippers to roughly mid-April. The 2022 playoffs are expected to revert back to the traditional calendar of April to June.
But, every player is different. Every knee injury is different. Every person’s body and training regimens are different.
So, until there is more information or updates released on Leonard’s status, it shouldn’t be assumed that he will follow the same timeline.
If there is one thing we know about Leonard, it’s that he and his individual camp will rightfully be cautious when it comes to major injuries. At age 30, in the prime of his career, it would make all the sense in the world to play this safely. Although he is expected to make a full recovery, any type of ACL tear isn’t something to take lightly.
Considering it could be approaching playoff action when he’s cleared for a return, there is a major difference between easing your way back onto the court and launching yourself directly into the most intense and physical atmosphere in the sport.
From that standpoint, it wouldn’t be wise to expedite the process just to return for a potential playoff run – on any team he’s suiting up for.
Leonard’s history with lower body injuries isn’t great. He had to sit multiple games this season due to foot soreness and a lower leg contusion. Back in the 2019-20 campaign (his first with the Clippers), he dealt with a bone bruise in his left knee that sidelined him for a handful of games. Going back to his Toronto stint, he played through knee tendinitis in the Eastern Conference Finals versus Milwaukee and throughout the Raptors’ championship victory over Golden State.
Obviously, if you look even further in the rearview to his San Antonio days, there was also the quadriceps tendinopathy that kept Leonard out of action for all but nine games during the 2017-18 season.
Because of everything that is piling up for him, it should be obvious that both he and the Clippers (if he re-signs) will refuse to jeopardize his long-term health for one season’s worth of availability.
Until the severity of the injury he suffered is clear and we know more about a possible return date, the safest bet is that he should miss a large portion, if not all, of next season.
This is gut-punch for the Clippers, but it’s even more devastating for Leonard individually. He was just coming off the most efficient season of his career, along with the best playmaking and pick-and-roll dominance he’s ever shown.
During the postseason, he was only able to appear in 11 of the Clippers’ 19 games. In those 11 games, his production was off the charts. He averaged 30.4 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and 2.1 steals on one of the most impressive shooting splits you’ll see, albeit a small sample.
He shot 76.7% at the rim on 60 attempts, 49.0% in the floater range, 65.9% on mid-range jumpers, and 39.3% on his 5.5 three-point attempts per game. When he earned trips to the foul line, he converted at a 88.0% clip.
It can be argued Leonard was at his absolute apex offensively, even greater than the 2017 playoff run in San Antonio and 2019 title-winning season in Toronto.
Leonard will have a variety of options if he elects to become a free agent.
The maximum dollars he can get is from re-signing with the Clippers on a four-year, $175 million deal. Los Angeles can’t offer him a fifth year because he will only be an “early Bird” free agent. Or, he can choose to go with a shorter contract to keep his options alive for the summer of 2022. If he goes that route and wants to remain with the Clippers, he can take a one-year deal this August and then cash in for a five-year, $246 million contract the following offseason.
Leonard always keeps his intentions a secret until the moment arrives, so every possible scenario could be on the table.
Free agency will kick off on Aug. 2 at 6 p.m. ET.