Clippers All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard will miss tonight’s game 5 against the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City. According to a brief announcement from the team, Leonard suffered a right knee sprain and there is no timetable for his return. The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that the team fears that Leonard may have suffered an ACL injury. The injury seemingly came when Leonard was intentionally fouled by Jazz guard Joe Ingles on a fastbreak late in the Clippers’ game 4 win.
Shams’ phrasing here is a bit interesting, to say the least. First of all, I’m not sure what to make of a report that they “fear” anything 36 hours after the fact. Then there’s the wording of “ACL injury,” which is incredibly vague. Naturally, the fear at the front of every reader’s mind is a torn ACL, which is one of the most major injuries a basketball player can suffer (perhaps second to a ruptured Achilles tendon) and can require a lengthy 9-month recovery time after surgery. But for that exact reason, the word “tear” is a crucial one, and we don’t see it in this tweet. An “ACL injury” includes a wide range of outcomes, with the aforementioned nightmare scenario on one end of the spectrum and relatively mild sprains on the other. An ACL sprain would still likely cost Leonard at least the remainder of this series against the Utah Jazz, but a potential return would be possible during the Western Conference Finals or NBA Finals if the Clippers somehow advance without him. A tear, on the other hand, would cost him at least a large portion of the 2021-22 NBA season. I don’t know when we can expect to know the exact details–Ramona Shelburne of ESPN reports that the Clippers are indeed waiting on additional imaging to confirm the severity of the injury:
Leonard has a player option for $36 million next season, but even with an injury, it makes little sense for him to opt in to that year. A player of his caliber will get a maximum salary contract in free agency, even in the worst-case scenario of a torn ACL that would cost him most or all of next season. The Brooklyn Nets similarly gave Kevin Durant a four-year maximum contract (with a player option in the final season) during the 2019 off-season despite knowing that Durant would miss the entire 2019-20 NBA season with a ruptured Achilles. One would imagine that with the Clippers seemingly having the momentum in this series before Leonard’s injury, there would be a willingness from all parties to more or less keep this roster together for next season.
For now, the Clippers still have at least 2 games left in their season, and while Leonard is their best player, Ty Lue and the rest of the roster will have a chance to make the franchise’s first Western Conference Finals… and perhaps buy time for Kawhi to make his return. The team was 8-7 without Leonard last year under Doc Rivers, and 11-9 without him this season–including 2 intentionally thrown games to end the regular season.
In these playoffs, Paul George-led lineups have had success: while the Clippers have won 363 minutes where George and Leonard shared the court by 6 points, they’ve won 81 minutes of George by himself by 31. Obviously, those minutes tend to coincide with opposing stars also resting, but George has overall thrived when taking charge of games while Kawhi rests. Look how Paul George’s playoff marks per 100 possessions increase when he embraces the burden of being aggressive offensively as a solo star:
|Per 100 Possessions||Points||FGA||FG%||3PA||3PT%||Fouls Drawn|
|George w/ Leonard||27.9||20.9||43.3||8.9||31.3||6.6|
|George w/o Leonard||46.3||30.0||47.9||11.9||52.6||11.3|
George told reporters after Monday’s game 4 win, when asked about his high minutes in these playoffs, that he’d be willing to play all 48. After Durant played all 48 minutes in Brooklyn’s game 5 win over Milwaukee last night (in an all-time 49 point, 17 rebound, 10 assist performance with Kyrie Irving sidelined and James Harden playing hurt), the Clippers might need George for all 48 tonight. If not, he’ll definitely be in the 40s, and nothing short of a brilliant individual performance will be enough for a win.
In addition to George, the Clippers won’t be able to afford poor performances from their other core offensive players–that means simultaneous efficient outings for Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris. Nicolas Batum will have to be brilliant on the defensive end of the court, and some threes won’t hurt either. And there will need to be a couple of “step-up” performances across the supporting cast–Patrick Beverley could add some shot-making to his wonderful defensive performances this series, Terance Mann and Luke Kennard have a chance for a playoff break-out game as supporting scorers, Ivica Zubac’s physicality around the rim could give the Clippers a boost on both ends, Rajon Rondo may return to the series as a high-IQ defender and extra ballhandler, and even DeMarcus Cousins may have a part to play as an instigator to frustrate Rudy Gobert.
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