PLAYA VISTA, Calif. — Technically, the LA Clippers did not offer any assurances that Kawhi Leonard would return by opening night next season after missing the entire 2021-22 campaign while rehabbing a surgically repaired ACL in his right knee.
“I’m not going to get into timetables in the middle of April,” Lawrence Frank, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations, said on Wednesday.
Philosophically, though, the Clippers remained bullish that Leonard will experience a 2022-23 season filled with both success and clean health.
“I just trust the process of seeing him work every day and how hard he works,” Frank said. “Regardless, if he’s like this right off the bat or it takes a little bit of time, I have great faith that he’ll be back and better than ever.”
The Clippers never ruled out Leonard’s potential availability for the 2021-22 season. But they remained mindful that it often takes players about 12 to 15 months to return from an ACL injury. Should Leonard return by opening night in late October, he would have spent 16 ½ months rehabbing his right knee after having surgery.
Frank stressed that “everyone is different” in how they return from an ACL injury, noting “they can come back and be 100%. In some cases, be better than ever.”
In the Clippers’ case, they expressed optimism Leonard could become one of those success stories. Although he deferred questions about Leonard’s rehab progress to the team’s medical staff, Frank described Leonard as a “maniacal worker” that “puts a ton of time, effort and focus into his daily rehab.”
“We’re encouraged by the progress that he’s making,” Frank said. “The fact that he’s been able to stay so ultra-locked into his rehab just speaks so much of the discipline you see when he’s on the court. You see that carried over into his rehab. That’s a challenge. That’s not easy.”
Neither was it for the Clippers.
They missed the NBA playoffs for the first time in four years after losing two Play-In games against the Minnesota Timberwolves and the New Orleans Pelicans. The Clippers mostly attributed their season-long inconsistency to their players missing a combined 387 games due to injuries and COVID-19, most notably to Leonard and Paul George. After missing 51 games during the season, George also missed the Clippers’ Play-In game against New Orleans after testing positive for COVID-19.
The Clippers’ early exit hardly matched their expectations to make what Frank described as “a deep playoff push.” But the Clippers became encouraged by the team’s resiliency, its veteran leadership and young player development. With the Clippers anticipating a healthy Leonard and George next season, they expect to become a championship contender.
Through those successes and struggles, the Clippers credited Leonard for having an active role behind the scenes. Beyond sitting on the team bench during games later in the season, Frank said that Leonard often shared observations with teammates on the bench and via text, sat in on coaches meetings and talked with Frank.
“He’s got a great, great brain and great, great mind for the game,” Frank said. “So you just control what you can control. He can’t be out there physically. But look at what our guys see when they come in. He’s here early and then he’s still here late. Then they see what he does and his process all the time. That matters. The best players in my experience always unite and inspire by what they do, not by what they said. It’s your actions.”
Still, George and Leonard have struggled to stay healthy consistently ever since the two joined the Clippers in the 2019 offseason. Leonard missed significant chunks of time in 2019-20 (15 games) and 2020-21 (20) to treat various ailments before suffering his season-ending knee injury in Game 4 of the Clippers’ second-round series against the Utah Jazz. So did George in 2019-20 (24) and 2020-21 (18) before his elbow injury this season.
Nonetheless, Frank maintained optimism that “we’ve gotten the injuries out of the way.” He noted the “flukiness” attributed both to how Leonard and George suffered their latest injuries. After Jazz forward Joe Ingles fouled Leonard while driving to the basket, Leonard landed upright awkwardly before clutching his right knee. George injured his right elbow on Dec. 6 after Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic accidentally fell on it.
“You examine everything,” Frank said. “But I really do have good faith that we’re going to get great health, not just for those guys, but for our team.”
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