For years now, the Los Angeles Clippers have been considered “championship contenders,” but every single year in the NBA postseason, they always wind up finding ways to lose games that they should not have and they lose early in the playoffs. This was not the case this season though, as the Clippers finally broke through and made team history.
For the first-time in their 51-year history, the Los Angeles Clippers made it to the Western Conference Finals! They ultimately fell short of reaching the NBA Finals for the first-time in team history, but this was a big accomplishment for the Clippers. They look like a team that could definitely contend for a title moving forward, but that is if this team remains healthy and can remain together.
Both of these things remain big question marks though this offseason and they both have direct connections with Kawhi. In the Western Conference Semifinals against the Utah Jazz, the Clippers came back to win the series after trailing 0-2, but they lost Kawhi Leonard in the process of doing so.
Leonard had been playing so well against the Jazz, but near the end of Game 4, Kawhi bumped into Joe Ingles on a drive and seemed to injure his right knee. He did so after planting his right leg and it appeared on replay that his right knee had buckled just a little bit, but Kawhi Leonard was able to walk off the court gingerly to the bench where he remained for the final few minutes of this game.
After the game, Kawhi downplayed the injury, saying it was nothing major and that he would be ready to go for Game 5. Leonard did not appear on the Clippers’ injury report ahead of Game 5, but about an hour before tip-off, he was ruled out indefinitely and Los Angeles would not provide any further details of how serious this injury was.
Speculation began of what could have happened to Leonard and he not only remained out for the remainder of the Clippers series against the Utah Jazz, but he missed the entire Western Conference Finals series against the Phoenix Suns. On July 14, it was announced that Kawhi Leonard had a partially torn ACL in his right knee and he underwent surgery with his timetable for return to be determined at a later date.
Being able to cover up this injury for close to a month is quite impressive on the Clippers part of things, but this is a major injury that will have huge implications for all the teams in the league. Leonard has a $36M player option for the 2021-22 season that nobody knew what he was going to do with, but this injury could potentially sway his decision.
If he is going to miss a large part of the 2021-22 season, Leonard could very well opt into his contract and pick up the player option, but healthy or not, Kawhi Leonard would still be the biggest name available in free agency should he opt out of this contract. The Knicks, Mavericks and Heat are three teams who have come up a lot in regards to Leonard and Marc Stein of the New York Times is reporting that Kawhi could very much leave Los Angeles in free agency.
No matter what Kawhi decides to do, he will almost definitely miss the start of the 2021-22 season after having knee surgery and will likely not be able to return to action until December at the earliest. If he decides to stay in Los Angeles the Clippers will definitely be thrilled, but they will have to figure out ways to win without him on the court for a long period of time.
Paul George was fantastic without Leonard on the court, averaging 29.6 points, 11.0 rebounds, 5.6 rebounds and shooting 43.8% from the floor in 8 games without him in the playoffs, but he alone cannot carry the Clippers over the course of the regular season. Bringing back Reggie Jackson, one of their standout stars of the postseason, seems like a must now for the Clippers, but Kawhi being out could force them to pursue another All-Starlike talent.
Counting Kawhi’s player option towards their payroll, the Clippers are already $37M over the salary cap for next season and are already hard capped, which could make things difficult in trying to add talent via free agency, which is why a trade seems like the only realistic option for Los Angeles to add more talent to their roster this offseason.
Marcus Morris, Patrick Beverley, Luke Kennard, Ivica Zubac and Rajon Rondo are all players who could potentially be leveraged by the Clippers this offseason, but finding teams to trade for these guys could be tough. Morris and Kennard are on long-term deals that are not too favorable league-wide and both Beverley’s and Rondo’s values do not add up to what they are being paid for next season at $14.3M and $7.5M respectively.
Ivica Zubac seems like their only real, tradable asset that teams would be interested in, but he is on a favorable contract and the Clippers need him at the center position moving forward. Serge Ibaka missed a ton of games this year due to a lingering back injury and has a player option for next season that he could potentially opt out of.
The Clippers options are extremely limited right now, which is why the only move that makes sense for them and the only move that they could potentially pull off is acquiring Kemba Walker from the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Walker was traded to the Thunder earlier this offseason in a deal that sent Al Horford and Moses Brown to Boston. Oklahoma City has been stockpiling draft assets and young talents for years now, so they could be interested in dealing Kemba to the Clippers for the right price. Los Angeles has virtually no draft assets over the years, but they do have the 25th pick in this year’s draft that they could potentially leverage in trade talks surrounding Walker.
A trade package of Pat Beverley, Luke Kennard and Ivica Zubac, plus this first-round pick puts the Clippers at enough outgoing salaries to be able to potentially acquire Kemba Walker, but the Thunder could potentially want more future value, especially since they would be taking on contracts that are not favorable to their plans.
Who knows, Kemba could very much end up starting the season with Oklahoma City, but ultimately the belief around the league is that he is not going to be there too long. The Thunder are more than willing to flip Kemba Walker for draft picks and young talents now, which is why the Clippers must act on getting a deal done.
Having Walker and George run things for the Clippers is definitely advantageous to their potential success and if Kawhi does decide to stay in Los Angeles, then this trio definitely has enough talent to potentially win the Western Conference and advance to the NBA Finals.
The Clippers need to make some kind of a move to upgrade their overall talent this offseason, regardless of whether or not Kawhi Leonard is going to stay, which is why trading for Kemba Walker seems like the most likely outcome for this organization.
With their salary cap situation right now and not having the ability to be aggressive in free agency, the only way the Clippers can better themselves is by making a big trade. Giving up Ivica Zubac definitely hurts their frontcourt depth, but with his value being as high as it is right now, they need to act quickly on getting a deal done for a third All-Star talent before it is too late.