The Clippers are sitting at 37-39 but possess a sizable four-game lead over the New Orleans Pelicans for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. Barring any drastic developments, LA appears to be headed toward the play-in round, where it’ll be forced to survive and advance to make the actual postseason.
Considering the Clippers have navigated through the entire season without their best player, being close to .500 is no small accomplishment. But a single victory might be the determining factor in whether Leonard saves the day or packs it up until the fall.
The Clippers have received very little from Paul George and nothing from Kawhi Leonard
When Kawhi and PG take the court together, LA has the makings of a title contender. Unfortunately for Clippers fans, it’s been a while since both superstars were healthy.
Leonard’s absence is a little more cut and dry. The five-time All-Star suffered a partial ACL tear during last year’s second-round series against the Utah Jazz. The injury knocked him out of the playoffs as LA advanced to its first Western Conference Finals in franchise history.
Knowing Kawhi would miss the bulk of the season, the Clippers needed everything they could squeeze out of the 31-year-old George. But the seven-time All-Star has only given them 27 games thanks to a torn UCL in his right elbow. Tuesday was PG’s first game back since Dec. 22 and only his third game since Dec. 6.
Factoring in Norman Powell, who played three games before fracturing a bone in his foot, the Clippers haven’t been close to full strength in 2021-22. Yet entering Thursday, LA is only two games under .500 with six to play and a near-lock to have two chances — at worst — to punch its ticket into the playoffs.
Kawhi could return after the play-in round
There have been some mixed messages regarding Leonard’s return to action. At first, it seemed like the 30-year-old would return at some point during the second half. But then it looked like he would spend the entire season on the shelf.
Now, optimism has once again taken center stage.
According to ESPN‘s Ohm Youngmisuk, there is still hope for Kawhi to make his season debut. It just might not come during the regular season.
“By all accounts, Leonard has been working hard and looks to be in good shape, but the Clippers will be extra cautious with their franchise star. If they make it out of the play-in tournament, however, and Paul George and Norman Powell also return, Leonard would just need clearance from the medical staff to play again. And that door has been left open.”Ohm Youngmisuk
There are a couple of noteworthy points there. First, the fact Leonard is training hard and LA hasn’t ruled him out yet is a sign both sides want this to happen. Second, it looks as if Kawhi might be waiting for the Clippers to make it through the play-in round before receiving his official go-ahead from the medical staff.
So if the Clippers, who now have George and will likely have Powell, can knock off the Minnesota Timberwolves in a couple of weeks, they could be entering the postseason with one of the game’s best two-way stars back in their lineup.
Kawhi Leonard would make the Clippers an intriguing title pick
No playoff team will add a player of Kawhi’s caliber just before the tournament. So everything we know about the 2021-22 Clippers must be thrown out of the window if the Klaw returns to the starting lineup for any seven-game series.
Assuming he’s playing close to his superstar abilities, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year will further improve a defense that ranks eighth in the NBA. But he and George will also be able to overhaul LA’s 26th-ranked offense. Suddenly, LA would go from fringe playoff team to potential powerhouse in a matter of days.
As things stand, the Clippers would face the T-Wolves in a battle for the seventh seed. Assuming they win, they’d get the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round, a younger team lacking the experience LA boasts with Kawhi and PG. If they fall to Minnesota, they’d then have to survive a winner-take-all game before heading to a WCF rematch with the Phoenix Suns.
LA would be underdogs in both series, but a healthy Leonard would make it much closer than you think. Keep in mind, the Clippers didn’t have their star in last year’s six-game loss to Phoenix, so he could very well make all of the difference this time around.
Whether the Clippers are able to go from the play-in round to the NBA Finals is up for debate. But there’s no denying that a Kawhi return would make LA the ultimate wild card in what’s sure to be an unpredictable postseason.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.