No one ever really knows what Kawhi Leonard is thinking, but he’s now reportedly under contract with the Los Angeles Clippers for the next few seasons. The deal is reportedly worth $176.3 million over the next four years, which includes a player-option for the final season.
Let’s remember that in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals, Leonard suffered this knee injury (see below), and we didn’t learn that it was a partially torn ACL until a month later.
Leonard declined a player-option worth $36 million for the upcoming season in favor of long-term financial stability while dealing with yet another injury. We’ll get to that in a second. First, ESPN NBA Front Office Insider and former Brooklyn Nets assistant general manager Bobby Marks outlined a couple of possibilities Leonard set aside for the guaranteed money he signed for this summer amid his ACL injury.
One option Leonard could have pursued was actually opting into the $36 million dollar deal next season, then signing up for a four-year, $187 million contract next season, totaling $223 million. Of course, Leonard might’ve had to return at some point this coming season, which is still up in the air, for that scenario to play out, and players typically opt out for more money right now, and rightfully so.
Marks also suggested that Leonard could’ve signed an $82 million deal for two years, the second being a player-option, opting out of that and then signing a massive extension. The extension, per Marks, could’ve been for $235 million over five seasons beginning in 2022, taking Leonard into year 16 (2026-27), where he’d be on the other side of 35. This would’ve served as an alternative to merely opting in. Now, the Clippers are also ineligible to apply for the $9.5 million disabled-player exception to bring in reinforcements in wake of injury because Leonard was signed as a free agent.
Like the Jimmy Butler extension, and the contracts signed by Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry this summer, and many other long-term NBA deals, the Leonard agreement with the Clippers is obviously risky, but one both sides needed to take. Leonard already has the partially torn ACL, which will keep him out for at least most of the season, if not the whole thing. But leading up to this, while he’s probably a top 3-5 NBA player when healthy, injuries have been an issue for the legendary swingman since his last days with the San Antonio Spurs in 2017-18.
Leonard’s played 226 regular-season and playoff games in these last four seasons, but has missed 143, be it due to injury, load management, or whatever else. Since the beginning of the 2017-18 season, Leonard has missed 38.8 percent of games. If we disregard the entire last season with the Spurs, where he missed 73 regular-season games and an additional five playoff games, it’s much better, but still not great. But let’s do that since that situation was beyond repair. You’re then talking about 65 missed games (again: regular season and playoffs) out of a possible 282, or 23 percent. Significantly a better percentage, yet still a significant portion of games missed.
But, here’s the thing, you have to do that deal if you’re the Clippers. You have to. You signed up for the partnership to deal with any potential cloudiness that arrives with him and the importance of managing him so he continues on a long, hall-of-fame career. Why? Because had he remained healthy, we might’ve had an entirely different NBA finals conversation.
Leonard, near single-handedly (but shoutout to Reggie Jackson and Paul George, too), dug the Clippers out of an embarrassing 3-2 deficit to the Dallas Mavericks in Round 1 of last year’s playoffs. It was one of the most unique playoff series ever because the only home team to win on their floor was the Clippers in Game 7. Remember: Leonard had 45 points on 18-for-25 shooting in Game 6 while causing Luka Dončić to struggle offensively down the stretch. And, in Game 7, Leonard recorded 28 points, 10 rebounds, and handed out nine assists on 10-for-15 shooting. In the semis against the Utah Jazz, he averaged 27.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and 1.8 steals per game on 51 / 33 / 85 shooting before injuring his knee. Moreover, in these long-term win-now deals, you’re really paying for the first two years, and you’ll figure the back half later.
Wherever you have him ranked, he’s still a top 2 or 3 playoff performer in the league, one of only 12 players in NBA history to win at least two Finals MVP awards. He’s the guy you make this bet on; you just also have to hope (for now) the Paul George-led crew remains respectable until he gets back.