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Kawhi Leonard's Torn ACL Changes the Landscape of the Western Conference

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJuly 14, 2021

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 14: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the LA Clippers looks on during Round 2, Game 4 of 2021 NBA Playoffs on June 14, 2021 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2021 NBAE (Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images)
Adam Pantozzi/Getty Images

Following weeks of near-silence regarding the status of Kawhi Leonard's right knee, including when his Los Angeles Clippers were still playing, we've finally learned the extent of the injury he suffered against the Utah Jazz in mid-June.

In a press release shared Tuesday, the Clippers wrote: "Kawhi Leonard underwent successful surgery today to repair a partial tear of his right anterior cruciate ligament. There is no timetable for his return."

The last sentence isn't unusual for injuries of this magnitude. Given the varied outcomes of a torn ACL throughout sports, it wouldn't really make sense for the organization to give one. But we can certainly glean some clues by looking at timelines for other stars who went through this surgery.

In December 2014, Jabari Parker's rookie year was cut short by a torn ACL. He returned to game action in November 2015. In 2017, Zach LaVine suffered a torn ACL in February. He next played in an NBA game in January 2018. Kristaps Porzingis sat out the entirety of 2018-19 after tearing his ACL in February 2018. And Klay Thompson missed all of the 2019-20 season with the injury in question.

Eric Pincus @EricPincus

Based on history, 6 months would be optimistic, 9 months reasonable, 12 months practical https://t.co/iNNMOSu44b

For Kawhi, whose history with injuries and load management has been analyzed to death, the more cautious timeline feels like the most likely. And with the NBA going back to its old October-through-June schedule for the 2021-22 campaign, there's a very real possibility that Leonard will miss all of next season.

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One would think that this makes Leonard picking up his $36 million player option a near certainty (though there's little use in trying to predict how his offseasons will go anymore). As such, we'll operate under the assumption that he'll be a Clipper for at least one more year.

And with that salary on the books, L.A. will be over the cap. Barring trades, the team figures to look a lot like it did during the Western Conference Finals against the Phoenix Suns

Behind Paul George, the Clippers were pluckier than expected without Kawhi in the playoffs. They won Games 5 and 6 against the top-seeded Jazz and stretched the next series to six, but a broader sample suggests some trouble.

During their two seasons together in L.A., the Clippers are...

  • plus-11.3 points per 100 possessions with Kawhi and PG on the floor;
  • plus-9.0 points per 100 possessions with Kawhi on and PG off;
  • plus-4.2 points per 100 possessions with Kawhi off and PG on; and
  • minus-2.0 points per 100 possessions when both were off.

Those numbers are from the regular and postseason combined, and don't look so bad when you hone in on the PG-on-Kawhi-off mark. But not so bad isn't a description for a title contender, and an increase in minutes without both stars likely knocks them off that tier.

Just two years after news of the Clippers acquiring both George and Leonard rocked the NBA, their era in L.A. might be effectively over.

Next season, the Jazz, Suns and Los Angeles Lakers all figure to be back in the mix. Jamal Murray could be out till the playoffs with his own torn ACL, but the Denver Nuggets are bringing back the reigning MVP in Nikola Jokic and a rising star in Michael Porter Jr. Luka Doncic could have the Dallas Mavericks on the brink of contention for as long as he's there. And the return of Klay to Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors could give them a shot at reopening their title window.

In short, the West figures to be as brutal as ever, with the exception of, well, the Clippers.

George is a great player and worthy multitime All-Star. He's had a positive net rating swing (the difference in a team's net points per 100 possessions when a given player is on or off the floor) in every season of his career. In 2018-19, he finished third in MVP voting.

But even that year, he played alongside Russell Westbrook, who averaged a triple-double, had a positive net rating swing of his own and finished 15th in the league in box plus/minus (BPM is "a basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player's contribution to the team when that player is on the court," according to Basketball Reference).

George is a great first scoring option, even without Kawhi (he's averaged 29.6 points per 75 possessions with a 60.3 true shooting percentage with Kawhi off the floor over the last two seasons), but he's not the kind of one-man engine players like LeBron James, Jokic, Doncic and Curry are.

If he's the only star on a squad that includes Marcus Morris Sr., Patrick Beverley, Luke Kennard, Serge Ibaka, Rajon Rondo and Ivica Zubac, it's hard to imagine the Clippers climbing over all the aforementioned Western Conference teams on the way to the mountaintop.

Does that mean L.A. should blow it up and start over? Not necessarily, but it has outgoing first-round picks or pick swaps in each and every draft from 2022 through 2026. And with George being 31 and Leonard being 30, the timeline to win a title with those two might've been pretty short without a torn ACL mucking things up.

"You probably start to feel like your old self a year-and-a-half after the injury," former NBA player Speedy Claxton told HoopsRumors in 2018. "It's a long, grueling rehab process and you don’t know if you're ever going to be the same."

In 12-18 months, that window could be closed entirely, especially if Leonard isn't quite where he was prior to the injury.

L.A. probably wouldn't recoup all those losses by trading George or other veterans on the roster, but it could get something.

The alternative is a gap season before Leonard comes back one year older and younger stars around the league gain more experience in their own pursuits for a title.

Bailing on this experiment just two years after it started somehow feels like an overreaction. Clinging to it somehow feels like desperation.

Really, there are no good options here.

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