PLAYA VISTA, Calif. — The LA Clippers’ revealed their preseason optimism as soon as their lead executive addressed the biggest variable that will determine the team’s championship fortunes.
The topic? Nothing other than Clippers star Kawhi Leonard and his health after missing the entire 2021-22 season to rehab his surgically repaired ACL in his right knee.
“He feels great,” said Lawrence Frank, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations, said on Thursday at the team’s practice facility. “His plan is he wants to participate in everything.”
Despite their optimism about Leonard’s talent, work habits and recovery, the Clippers have other plans. Frank said that the Clippers’ medical staff has cleared Leonard to compete in five-on-five drills during training camp after participating this offseason in what Frank described as “a lot of controlled basketball.” Yet, Frank suggested the Clippers will limit him in certain parts of training camp and the 2022-23 regular season.
“We’re going to be cautious,” Frank said. “It’s going to be a step-by-step approach.”
The Clippers open training camp on Tuesday in Las Vegas and begin their preseason on Sept. 30 with an exhibition game against Maccabi Ra’anana at Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena. How much Leonard will play in those practices or in the preseason remain unknown and Frank wasn’t yet ready to say what Leonard’s workload will look like then or in the regular season (when the Clippers have 15 sets of back-to-back games).
“We’re not going to get into predictions on what he will do or won’t do, other than I know he wants to do everything,” Frank said. “Then we’ll figure out, ‘Is that best for his body?’ One day it could be. The next day we’ll have to reassess, but we’ll rely on the feedback we get from Kawhi and the medical team.”
The reason for the Clippers’ cautiousness stems from Leonard’s health potentially being the No. 1 variable in determining whether the Clippers make a deep playoff (or potential NBA Finals) run after missing the playoffs last season. Leonard missed the entire 2021-22 regular season as well as the Clippers’ two Play-In Tournament games after suffering his knee injury in Game 4 of the Clippers’ 2021 Western Conference semifinals series with the Utah Jazz. From that Game 4 loss to the end of 2021-22, the Clippers missed a combined 387 games due to injuries and COVID-19. After missing 51 games last season (mostly to a right elbow injury), Clippers swingman Paul George missed the Play-In game vs. New Orleans after testing positive for COVID-19.
Since then, Frank described George’s right elbow as “100% healthy” and praised him for having an “extremely purposeful, driven and productive offseason” with his training habits, recruiting John Wall as a free agent and organizing informal team workouts. Frank became just as encouraged with Leonard for his “all purposeful work” that often entailed five-hour workouts filled with strength training, on-court drills and film study that began at 7 a.m.
“The same mentality he had in his preparation when he was healthy, he applied it to his rehab,” Frank said. “Kawhi has a thirst for knowledge and wants to learn everything there is about the injury, about the rehab and the best ways to do it. You see the day-to-day approach. That is what winning is all about. It’s not the loud, sexy stuff. Many times, it is the everyday embracing of the monotony and daily grind with what it takes to get back healthier than ever and better than ever.”
Despite their optimism about Leonard’s return, the Clippers plan to stay patient with the final stages of his recovery. Even before his season-ending injury, Leonard missed 15 games in 2019-20 and 20 in 2020-21 to treat various ailments and ensure proper recovery. Should he play by opening night on Oct. 20 vs. the rival Los Angeles Lakers (10 ET, TNT), Leonard’s recovery timetable (16 1/2 months) will be longer than it takes most players to return from an ACL injury (12-15 months). Yet, the Clippers are mindful of how soft-tissue injuries can cause a player’s body to overcompensate if not handled with care.
“There’s constant communication with seeing where he’s at,” Frank said. “The toughest thing is when a guy really, really wants to go ahead and try to do everything. You just assess it and just have those conversations. What everyone can agree on is, ‘What is the goal? So, what’s the best way to get there?’ If it’s close, you exercise some caution when you’re coming back from a serious injury like this.”
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