During a media day appearance, injured superstar Kawhi Leonard said the possibility of returning this season played a role in his decision to sign a long-term contract extension with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Leonard signed a four-year, $176.3 million extension with the Clippers in unrestricted free agency last month. The five-time All-Star was two months removed from suffering a partially torn right ACL in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Utah Jazz. He underwent surgery on his knee in July.
The most lucrative route Leonard could have taken was to re-sign with the Clippers on a so-called one-and-one deal — a two-year, $82 million contract with an option for the 2022-23 season. He then could have opted out of that contract next summer and re-signed on a five-year, $235 million maximum contract with the Clippers. However, Leonard considered returning this season too risky without long-term security.
"I wanted to play. 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, and it creates storylines that I'm going to leave the team," Leonard said on Monday. "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."
Exactly when Leonard could return this season, if at all, is anybody's guess.
"We don’t even breach that," Clips team president Lawrence Frank told reporters on Friday. "I think at this point, it’s just no one knows when you’re dealing with a recovery from an ACL, the time frame. We’re not even, just to save you guys throughout the year — no one knows. You just attack it day by day. He has a detailed plan with a great group, and we’ll just let his body and the doctors tell us when it’s the right time."
Leonard reiterated the same "day-to-day" mantra on Monday.
"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," said Leonard, who added that "not really feeling like I was injured" is a challenge.
At least Clippers coach Tyronn Lue conceded Leonard will not be available for some time, if at all.
"I hope he comes back Oct. 21, but the reality is he's not going to be ready then," Lue said on Monday. "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. We don't want to force him to come back too early. We want to make sure he's 100% when he does come back."
Leonard suffered the injury during a collision with Utah's Joe Ingles midway through the fourth quarter of Game 4 in their second-round series. He limped through the next 50 seconds of the game before exiting the game with 4:35 remaining in an eventual Clippers victory. When asked about his knee afterward, Leonard told the TNT broadcast, "I'll be good," and the team kept the severity of the injury similarly quiet.
Led by Paul George, the Clippers won Games 5 and 6 against the top-seeded Jazz without Leonard, and then took the Phoenix Suns to six games in the Western Conference finals. Conventional wisdom would suggest the Clippers are not a serious championship contender without Leonard this year, but Lue said the team cannot operate under that assumption, especially if there is a chance Leonard returns this season.
"Expectation doesn't change for us," Lue said to start his second season at the helm. "We understand that we've got to continue to keep building, continue to keep getting better. We understand that. But our expectations don't change. You still come out and try to compete to win a championship. In losing a guy like Kawhi, I know things seem like it's not possible, but anything's possible. Our guys have shown that."
Regardless of Leonard's recovery timeline, the Clips can take solace in his long-term commitment to them.
"I'm here," said Leonard, who cited his proximity to family as a big reason for re-signing. "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."
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