PLAYA VISTA — To hear Serge Ibaka tell it Monday at Clippers’ media day, there was never really any doubt that his pal Kawhi Leonard would re-sign with the Clippers after opting out of his previous deal this summer: “I already know.”
On Aug. 12, Leonard signed a four-year, $176.3 million contract with a player option to return to the team, which remains in pursuit of its first championship after reaching the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history last June.
On Monday at the Clippers’ training facility, the team’s star forward spoke publicly for the first time about his decision to re-sign and how the torn right anterior cruciate ligament that he suffered in the second round of the playoffs factored into that deal, which differed from some more expected routes.
Other possibilities could have included a two-year, $80.6 million deal with a second-year player option or a five-year deal with the Clippers worth about $235 million next summer.
“I wanted to play,” said Leonard, who had surgery on his knee on July 13. “I mean, 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 (in the media) 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.”
Added Leonard, a five-time All-Star and two-time NBA Finals MVP: “I’m here. I’m here to be a Clipper. I’m not going to another team unless something drastic happens, but I’m here for the long run.”
The Moreno Valley native said he’s been happy with his experience in his first two seasons with the organization.
“I mean, I made my decision based on at first, obviously, family, being closer to my family, being in the state of California,” said Leonard, who sent shockwaves through the NBA by choosing to sign with the Clippers in 2019 after winning a title with Toronto.
“Once I got here, I learned who works here, who was in the front office, and just kind of building chemistry with the staff and people in the front office,” Leonard said. “A big part of it was just winning; know what I mean? They want to win, I want to win, and I’m home. I’m comfortable with the guys on my team, and I just felt like it was a good situation still.”
Despite Leonard’s desire to return to action, the Clippers have made it clear they’re not putting a timetable on their best player’s return.
“I hope he comes back Oct. 21, but the reality is he’s not going to be ready then,” Coach Tyronn 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.”
Leonard also avoided offering an estimated time of return, but he made it clear that he’s doing whatever he can do to come back.
“Just trying to get healthy is what’s next, the same stuff you usually do for a specific injury,” he said. “Work on it, lift weights, make sure you don’t compensate, and you’re strong and stable. Just keep following that path; that’s all I can do. Just take it one day at a time.
“… Just working with the staff day-to-day, and then when that available date comes, we’ll be ready for it, and it’ll be out in the public.
“It’s very challenging,” he added. “Since being injured and not really feeling like I was injured. That’s the challenge of it, just seeing how quickly I can get better and how much stronger I can get than what I was when I’m healthy. That’s where I pretty much turn my mindset to. Now just watching games as a coach, being in the coaches’ meetings and trying to make myself as relevant as possible.”
The Clippers tip off training camp Tuesday at San Diego State, where Leonard played his college basketball.
More to come on this story.
Home is where the heart is.
— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) August 12, 2021