The Clippers’ long-term prognosis is promising: They re-signed Kawhi Leonard to a four-year, $176.3 million contract this offseason, securing the star’s services alongside Paul George’s through at least the anticipated opening of the Intuit Dome in Inglewood in 2024.
“When you have a transcendent talent like Kawhi, one of the best players in the world, that was priority No. 1,” Lawrence Frank, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations said during a virtual chat with reporters on Friday.
“The fact that he’s not only decided to remain a Clipper but that he’s firmly planted his flag in the ground, I think it’s great. It’s validation of a lot of different things – the organization that Steve and the group has built where a talent like Kawhi wants to be a Clipper for a long time.”
The team’s more immediate prognosis? That’s murkier.
The Clippers will strive to continue to be competitive, but they’ll have to do it without their most transcendent talent for a period of, well, “no one knows,” as Frank put it.
Leonard underwent surgery on July 13 to repair a partial tear of his right anterior cruciate ligament and the Clippers would rather avoid setting a timetable for when the five-time All-Star and two-time NBA Finals MVP from Moreno Valley might return.
“Oh, we don’t even breach that,” Frank said. “At this point, it’s just no one knows when you’re dealing with a recovery from an ACL (injury), the timeframe.”
“Even just to save you guys throughout the year,” Frank told reporters logged into the Zoom video conference, “(the answer is) is no one knows. You just attack it day by day. He has a very detailed plan with a great group, and we’ll just let his body and the doctors tell us when it’s the right time.”
Medical experts said his rehab will take at least six months and more likely nine months to a year, which means it’s possible though far from a certainty that Leonard returns for the start of the NBA playoffs, which are scheduled to begin in mid-April.
While accounting for the unknowable nature of the situation, Frank acknowledged that Leonard is working hard to get back after the ill-timed injury knocked him out of the best postseason run in the franchise’s 51-year history.
Late in Game 4 of the Clippers’ second-round series against the top-seeded Utah Jazz, Leonard planted awkwardly and bumped into Joe Ingles on a drive to the basket. He missed the rest of the playoffs – including the Clippers’ next two victories over Utah and all six of their games against the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference finals – with what was then described as a right knee sprain.
Frank said now that the best thing Leonard can do for the Clippers is to focus on his rehab.
“He’s always looking for different ways he can expedite his recovery, but it’s gonna take time,” Frank said. “Having been in these experiences, especially as a coach with someone who has an injury like this, you make their focus their recovery and that’s first and foremost.”
Here’s the exact moment where Kawhi Leonard injured his knee.
The Clippers star stayed on for a minute after Joe Ingles’ intentional foul before leaving the game for good.
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) June 16, 2021
ADDITIONAL INJURY UPDATES
Leonard wasn’t the only Clipper who underwent surgery in recent months; his pal Serge Ibaka had a back operation on June 10 after back tightness (which he attributed to a pinched nerve) cost him 30 regular-season games and limited the veteran center at the start of the playoffs.
Frank said Ibaka’s “maniacal work ethic” is driving his recovery and that Ibaka will begin training camp next week doing non-contact work and building from there.
“Serge is one of those guys that you got to tell him ‘You’re working a little bit too hard,’” Frank said. “So he’s made terrific progress … we’ll just assess kind of his progress and where he’s going once we introduce contact at a certain point, we’ll be in a small group probably one-on-one focus and then build up to that, see how he responds to it. So we’ll just take it in phases.”
The injury bug also bit rookie Jason Preston on Thursday, Frank said.
“Unfortunately, yesterday in a group workout, he hurt his right foot,” Frank said of the 33rd overall pick with the Cinderella story that inspired his new employer. “It could be a little bit of a setback for Jason. We’ll have more information, probably within the next couple of days, to really determine the severity of it, but he’s made great progress (on the court) up to yesterday.”
VACCINATION STATUS UNTOLD
With the exception of Leonard, Ibaka and Preston, the Clippers head to training camp at San Diego State healthy – though Frank declined to share whether they’ve all received COVID-19 vaccines.
The NBA players union has not required players to get the vaccine, but the league will have protocols in place to allow more freedoms for those who are vaccinated. Furthermore, everyone associated with teams – including players – will be subject to local vaccine mandates in New York and San Francisco, the latter of which is where the Clippers open the regular season against the Golden State Warriors on Oct. 21.
“Personally, I’m a huge advocate of the vaccinations,” Frank said. “I believe in the science and believe in the evidence as a personal viewpoint. But in regards to speaking on behalf of players or staff, I’m not comfortable sharing that type of information other than personally, what my beliefs are, and what we spread and what we educate everyone in the organization. But ultimately, that’s not my news to share.”
PLANS FOR COFFEY?
Frank said the Clippers planned to sign third-year wing Amir Coffey to a two-way deal Friday ahead of training camp and then to evaluate him at training camp, where the team will have a 15th and final roster spot available.
“It’s exciting because when you have an open roster spot, what it lends to is great competition,” Frank said. “You have Amir, who will be signing a two-way today, but he will be competing for that open roster spot. You have Isaiah Hartenstein and Harry Giles and Moses (Wright) competing for a third center spot, so to speak. And depending on the length of Preston’s injury, that may open another potential opportunity.
“So there is great competition … you look at the whole month leading up to the day that you have to make the decision and you factor in a lot of different areas; you look at team needs, you look at where you want to go going forward. Obviously their performance, you want guys to be able to perform at their highest to be able to put a great deal of pressure on us to make really hard decisions.”
Coming soon, #ClipperNation.
— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) September 20, 2021