PLAYA VISTA, Calif. — Kawhi Leonard said part of the reason why he signed a four-year max contract to remain with the LA Clippers instead of opting for a shorter deal that could lead to a more lucrative contract is that he hopes to return and play this season.
Leonard would not give a timetable for his recovery from surgery on July 13 to repair a partially torn right ACL that kept him out of the Clippers’ final eight playoff games. He is expected to miss significant time. But the team’s star revealed that a possible return this season factored into his decision to sign his four-year, $176.3 million contract in August.
“Because I wanted to play,” Leonard explained of his decision at the team’s media day on Monday. “I mean, the best situation for 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 [after one year].
“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 [this season] just to be cautious and opted out and took a five-year.”
The Clippers have steered clear of setting any timetable for when Leonard can return to play. Lawrence Frank, president of basketball operations, said last week that “we don’t even breach that” when asked if he anticipates Leonard being able to play this season.
“It’s just, no one knows when you’re dealing with a recovery from an ACL [injury], the time frame,” Frank said.
Leonard said on Monday that “it’s very challenging” taking the rehab day-by-day, especially because he’s injured “and not really feeling like I was injured.” Leonard suffered the injury during Game 4 of the second round of the playoffs against Utah after he was fouled on a drive. Leonard initially thought he was OK but the team kept him out of the final minutes of that game. He even traveled with the team to Utah before returning to Los Angeles prior to Game 5 once he found out he was out. The team initially called the injury a sprained right knee.
“I hope he comes back October 21st [for the opener],” Clippers head coach Ty Lue said when asked if he allows himself to think Leonard might be back for the playoffs. “But the reality is he’s not going to be ready then. 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’s injury factored into his free-agency decision this offseason. He could have signed a four-year, $187 million extension had he opted into the $36 million he was set to earn in the 2021-22 season. But he declined that option for free agency.
As a free agent, Leonard could have signed a two-year, $82 million deal with a player option in 2022-23 and become a free agent again in 2022, which would have made him eligible to sign a five-year, $235 million max contract with the Clippers, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks. But Leonard hopes to return this season, so he went with the five-year deal.
Staying with the Clippers was never in doubt for Leonard. Now the question is when he can return to play again.
“Just day-to-day,” Leonard said. “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.”
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