Los Angeles Clippers governor Steve Ballmer said it's unclear whether superstar forward Kawhi Leonard will play at all during the 2021-22 NBA season after undergoing surgery on his right knee in July to repair a partially torn ACL.
Ballmer told Mark Medina of USA Today he believes the Clippers will be a "very, very, very, very good team" whenever Leonard returns, but he couldn't answer whether that will happen during the upcoming campaign.
"Nobody knows at this stage," Ballmer said Friday. "Nobody knows. It's possible. For sure, it's possible. But it will depend on what the doctors say and what Kawhi says."
Leonard suffered the injury in Game 4 of L.A.'s second-round playoff series against the Utah Jazz. The team managed to advance without him but was ultimately eliminated by the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Finals.
Ballmer noted to Medina, "If we had been healthy this year, who knows what might happen?" Nevertheless, he said capturing the franchise's first title remains at the forefront of his mind.
"I want to win a championship," he said. "I think we'll be able to compete for a championship."
A run to the 2022 title is likely dependent on Leonard returning to the lineup and getting back to somewhere close to full strength in time for the postseason.
The two-time NBA Finals MVP averaged 24.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.6 steals across 52 regular-season appearances for the Clippers last season, his second with the team after previous stints with the San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors, winning one championship with each organization.
Leonard also led L.A. in scoring in eight of its 11 postseason contests before the knee injury.
Simply put, no team can replace the type of two-way production he provides, even a squad with as much depth as the Clippers.
Los Angeles should be able to keep pace during the regular season with Marcus Morris Sr., Justise Winslow and Nicolas Batum among the players splitting time to fill the void at the 3, but star power tends to reign supreme in the playoffs. That's when Leonard will become essential.
The Clippers also want to make sure the 30-year-old L.A. native is healthy for the long haul as he's under contract through at least 2023-24 with a player option for 2024-25 as part of a four-year, $176.3 million deal. In turn, it's not a championship-or-bust season, especially with fellow star Paul George's contract running the same length.
So it's not a situation where Leonard has to feel like he's got to rush back to help the Clips chase a title this year. The championship window should be open for a while longer.
A more firm timetable for when he could return probably won't arrive until a couple months into the season.