PLAYA VISTA, Calif. – Kawhi Leonard showed his conviction and honesty when explaining his decision to re-sign with the Los Angeles Clippers this offseason on a four-year, $176.2 million deal.
“I'm here to be a Clipper,” Leonard said at the team’s media day on Monday. “I'm not going to another team unless something drastic happens, but I'm here for the long run.”
Leonard also demonstrated his guarded and secretive nature regarding his off-season surgery on a torn ACL in his right knee, and if it will sideline him for the entire 2021-22 season.
“Just day-to-day,” Leonard said. “Just working with the staff day-to-day. When that available date comes, we'll be ready for it, and it'll be out in the public.”
For now, though, Leonard did not shed much detail about his injury that happened on June 14 toward the end of the Clippers’ Game 4 win of their second-round playoff series against the Utah Jazz.
Considering that most NBA players have missed entire seasons after injuring their ACL, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue conceded that “we've got to coach the season like we don't have him.” But the Clippers did not completely rule Leonard out this season, other than admitting he won’t play in training camp or in the season opener against Golden State
“I hope he comes back October 21st, but the reality is he's not going to be ready then,” Lue said. “We don't want to force him or put any pressure on him. 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. We don't want to force him to come back too early. We want to make sure he's 100 percent when he does come back.”
That partly explains why Leonard re-signed with the Clippers in the first place.
Not only did Leonard reward the Clippers for both deferring to him on his recovery and how they stay guarded about his injuries. Leonard described the Clippers as “a good situation” and maintained he “felt comfortable with the guys on the team” after appearing in the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history a year after squandering a 3-1 second-round series lead to Denver.
The Clippers internally expected Leonard to re-sign. But those around the NBA anticipated Leonard would sign a one-year deal after declining his $36 million player option.
“I wanted to play,” Leonard said. “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. One thing, I wanted to secure some money, and I wanted to be able to come back if I was able to this year. If I would have took the one-and-one, I probably would have not played just to be cautious and opted out and took a five-year.”
Even so, the Clippers expect Leonard to remain cautious with his injury. He has always done so.
Leonard missed all but nine games in his final season with the San Antonio Spurs (2017-18) after tearing his right quadriceps. Leonard took the so-called “load management” route during his first and lone season with the Toronto Raptors that ended with an NBA title and Finals MVP. Leonard did the same thing to less degree during his first two seasons with the Clippers.
So even if Leonard said he plans to watch film and become engaged with the team behind the scenes, Lue predicted that Leonard will likely spend most of his time in L.A. to rehab to minimize logistical complications.
Nonetheless, the Clippers sounded more inspired on what they could do without Leonard than with him.
“We were pretty close to something special without him, so we know we're good,” Clippers forward Nicolas Batum said. “We can do some good stuff without him. We can be way better with him. So we have to be great until he's coming back.”
The Clippers still have Paul George, whom the team projects to carry the team seamlessly after rectifying his playoff bubble shortcomings with more consistency last season in his play and leadership. The Clippers retained key plays (Reggie Jackson, Nicolas Batum, Ibaka). They acquired dependable role players (Eric Bledsoe, Justise Winslow). They still other key rotation players from last year’s roster, including a bruising frontcourt defender (Marcus Morris Sr.) and an emerging young player (Terance Mann). They also drafted two promising young players (Keon Johnson, Jason Preston).
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Clippers' Kawhi Leonard won't rule out return this season after ACL tear