As the Los Angeles Clippers begin yet another quest for their first NBA title, they’ll be doing so without Kawhi Leonard. The five-time All-NBA selection is recovering from a partially torn ACL suffered in LA’s second-round series against the Utah Jazz.
There is no firm date for when Leonard will return to the court. But as history tells us, expect The Claw to take things very slowly when it comes to his rehabilitation.
When is Kawhi Leonard coming back?
The 30-year-old Leonard suffered the ACL injury in Game 4 against Utah on June 14. However, he didn’t undergo surgery until the following month, leaving his timeline a bit more complicated.
Dr. Michael S. George of the KSF Orthopaedic Center in Houston, Texas discussed what Leonard’s rehab process would look like shortly after the two-time Finals MVP underwent surgery.
“After surgery, extensive rehab is necessary with a gradual increase in activity from walking to running, and then finally cutting and pivoting activities at four to six months,” George said. “This rehab will extend into the beginning of next season with a return to NBA competition likely in January or February if he has a typical recovery schedule.”
A return sometime in February would be six months after the surgery. By that point, Leonard will have missed anywhere from 53 to 63 games out of a possible 82.
Leonard will likely take his time to recover
Kawhi has had his fair share of ailments over his 11-year career, having played in no more than 74 games in any season. With his injury history, don’t expect Leonard to rush back to the court the first day he feels better.
The most famous example stems from Leonard’s final season with the San Antonio Spurs. The 6-foot-7 forward missed all but nine games due to sore quadriceps. Granted, his displeasure with the Spurs had something to do with it, but the injury was one that kept him out for a perplexing amount of time.
With injuries to his quad, hand, ankle, shoulder, knee, and foot over the years, Leonard has had to sit for plenty of games. It has resulted in the star becoming one of the faces of load management, an NBA team’s answer to keeping their best players fresh and injury-free.
Leonard’s two-season tenure with the Clippers has been defined by load management. With no long-term injuries until the ACL tear, Kawhi has missed 16 games and 20 games in LA. He will rarely play in both games of a back-to-back and will sit out a game or two if he’s not 100%.
Whether it’s his choice or not, Leonard is going to be a guy who always has to be concerned with his health. Now, as he is set to make $39.3 million this season and $176 million from the Clippers overall, he will exercise caution. Even if it means sitting out longer than the four-to-six-month timetable his recovery typically requires.
The Los Angeles Clippers can still compete without Kawhi
When Leonard signed with the Clippers in July 2019, it changed the fortunes of the franchise. Now, without its best player for several months at least, LA will aim to contend in a difficult Western Conference.
The first step toward doing so will be Paul George. PG-13 has averaged 22.5 points across two seasons in Los Angeles, but averaged 29.6 points in the eight playoff games Leonard missed. Now the unquestioned top option, George will need to be better than ever until his All-Star counterpart returns.
Aside from PG, Reggie Jackson hopes to continue his enhanced production from the last postseason. In 19 playoff games, the 31-year-old point guard averaged 17.8 points on 48.4% shooting. LA also reacquired Eric Bledsoe and brought back Marcus Morris and Ivica Zubac to fill out the lineup.
LA hopes its core will be enough to at least put them in playoff contention by the time Kawhi would return. But in order to take the next step and finally add a championship banner of their own at Staples Center, the Clippers will need a fully healthy Kawhi Leonard on the court, not on the bench.