The 30-year-old Leonard, who led Los Angeles to a first-round series victory over the Dallas Mavericks, missed the Clippers’ next eight games as they progressed to the Western Conference finals. He finished with postseason averages of 30.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists.
The timing of this injury couldn’t be worse for both player and team: Leonard is set to be the biggest name on this summer’s free agency market, while the Clippers just completed the most successful season in franchise history after investing heavily to build a contender around Leonard and Paul George.
What comes next for Leonard and the Clippers might very well represent the NBA’s biggest offseason question. Leonard has a $36 million player option for next season, which he could pick up while recovering from his injury. Leonard is also eligible to sign a four-year contract worth roughly $175 million this summer or a five-year contract worth nearly $250 million if he waits to re-sign to a long-term deal until 2022.
ACL recovery times vary but typically range from six to 12 months. Throughout his career, Leonard has battled various lower leg injuries: An ankle sprain sidelined him for much of the 2017 Western Conference finals, and a quadriceps injury limited him to just nine games during the 2017-18 season.
Because of nagging injuries, Leonard missed an average of about 33 games over the past four seasons and became associated with “load management,” the practice of limiting a player’s appearances and minutes to protect his long-term health. If Leonard were to be sidelined for more than nine months as part of a deliberate ACL recovery plan, he would miss the entire 2021-22 regular season.
There is a clear precedent for a player of his caliber opting out while injured to secure greater financial security. In 2019, Kevin Durant opted out of his contract with the Golden State Warriors and signed a four-year, $164 million contract with the Brooklyn Nets shortly after he tore his Achilles’ in the NBA Finals. Durant then missed the first season of that contract as part of an 18-month recovery.
If Leonard followed Durant’s approach and sat out next season entirely, he would still be only 31 years old at the start of the 2022-23 season. Durant was 32 when he returned to the court this season.
That would be a long and agonizing wait for the Clippers, who might not have any better alternatives after executing a blockbuster trade for George in 2019 and then re-signing him to a four-year extension worth $190 million this past December. This was a team that leveraged its future to win at all costs, and there are no easy pivots.
Indeed, the Clippers would be staring at an identity crisis if Leonard, whose Southern California roots played a big role in his 2019 move to Los Angeles, opted out and signed elsewhere this summer. The Clippers would be left with limited cap flexibility because of George’s extension and sizable contracts for veterans such as Marcus Morris Sr., Patrick Beverley and Luke Kennard.
While a Leonard-less Clippers team led by George could land in the West’s playoff mix next year, it would be a long way from reaching owner Steve Ballmer’s championship goals. The Clippers beat the Jazz and pushed the Phoenix Suns to six games in the West finals in Leonard’s absence, but sustaining that level of success for an entire season would prove far more difficult. During the 2020-21 regular season, the Clippers went 36-16 with Leonard but just 11-9 without him.
The Clippers’ options are further crimped by the cache of draft picks they sent to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the George deal. Remarkably, the Clippers owe their first-round picks in 2022, 2024 and 2026 and pick swaps in 2023 and 2025 to the Thunder — making it impossible for the Clippers to tank for 2022 draft positioning and making it difficult to pursue a multiyear rebuild. With an injured Leonard or without him, they are stuck for the time being.
Conventional wisdom dictates that Ballmer and company grit their teeth, re-sign Leonard at all costs and preach patience during what could be an up-and-down campaign. In the meantime, the Clippers’ front office could focus on acquiring players capable of supporting Leonard and George once they are back together on the court.
Durant proved to be worth the wait for the Nets, but Leonard’s extensive injury history makes this a much more complicated situation. The Clippers went all in on Leonard two years ago, only to see the stakes and risks increase considerably.