Kawhi Leonard says he doesn’t use social media, and yet last August, as the free-agent superstar considered returning to the Clippers on a short-term deal, he envisioned speculation about his intentions going viral.
But outside noise wasn’t the only reason he said he agreed to a four-year contract worth $176 million to stay with the Clippers. The long-term security could be the key to his return later in the season for the injured All-Star.
Two months after undergoing surgery on his right knee to fix a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament, the 30-year-old Leonard said Monday during the team’s media day that he has no timeline for his recovery — but also indicated that he hasn’t closed the door on playing this season.
When asked why he had opted for a four-year contract, given the shorter-term options the free agent could have instead chosen, Leonard said that one factor was locking in financial stability in case “I wanted to be able to come back if I was able to this year.”
“The best situation for me to me was to do it one and one and then opt out and sign a long-term, five-year deal, but there’s a lot of concerns that that brings up for you guys and your job and it creates storylines that I’m going to leave the team,” Leonard said during his first comments about his injury since it happened in June, during the fourth game of the Clippers’ second-round playoff series against Utah.
“One thing, I wanted to secure some money, and I wanted to be able to come back if I was able to this year. I would have taken the one and one option, but I decided to be cautious and opt out for a five-year extension.
“I’m here. I’m here to be a Clipper. I’m not going to another team unless something drastic happens, but I’m here for the long run.”
Leonard could have signed a four year extension worth approximately $187 million and opted in to his $36 million player option for the 2021-22 seasons. Instead, he became an unrestricted agent. He had two options: a $82-million contract for two years and a player option for the second. In 2022, he could opt out to become eligible for a $55 million five-year deal.
Center Serge Ibaka, who had been recruited to sign with the Clippers in November 2020 in part by a text from Leonard, his teammate during a championship run with Toronto, made sure to text Leonard in the summer to ensure he’d be back. He admitted that he was confident.
“Even during the season I already know he was going to stay,” Ibaka said that his recovery from back surgery to remove a disc in June will prevent him from participating in non-contact drills when training camps open Tuesday.
Orthopedic surgeons and an NBA athletic trainer in August said that the usual recovery time line for an injury such as Leonard’s can last nine months to one year, though athletes have also returned sooner. The playoffs are scheduled to begin in April nine months after Leonard’s surgery.
In the interim, Leonard said he plans to contribute by watching film with his teammates while sitting in on some coaches’ meetings to offer his thoughts.
“I mean, it’s very challenging, since being injured and not really feeling like I was injured,” Leonard stated. “That’s the challenge of it, just seeing how quickly I can get better and how much stronger I can get than what I was when I’m healthy. That’s where I pretty much turn my mindset to.”
Without Leonard, the Clippers beat Utah in the postseason’s second round by winning two games without their leading scorer. With Leonard still out, they took Phoenix to six games in the Western Conference finals, leaning on the scoring of fellow All-Star forward Paul George, who acknowledged that with Leonard out for an undetermined amount of time he wants to “kind of just do everything on the floor.”
But the burden of scoring and defense isn’t George’s alone.
“Obviously starting the season without Kawhi, my level of play has to go up, and I think as a team, all of our level has to go up because we’re missing a big piece,” forward Marcus Morris said.
Coach Tyronn Lue expects Leonard will not travel on road trips with the team during the season’s early months to allow Leonard to continue his normal rehabilitation routine in hopes of expediting his recovery.
“We don’t want to force him or put any pressure on him,” Lue said. “We want to make sure he’s rehabbing, doing everything he can to get back as soon as possible, and if that’s next season, that’s next season.”
If Leonard’s availability will remain a season-long question mark, the Clippers’ expectations without him are clear from the season’s very start.
“We understand that we’ve got to continue to keep building, continue to keep getting better, we understand that,” Lue said. “But our expectations don’t change. You still come out and try to compete to win a championship. In losing a guy like Kawhi, I know things seem like it’s not possible, but anything’s possible. Our guys have shown that last year.”