Fifteen months after Kawhi Leonard last played in an NBA game, the Clippers’ All-Star wing will enter training camp next week cleared to fully participate.
That’s reason to celebrate for the Clippers, whose championship ambitions hinge on the health of Leonard and his All-Star teammate Paul George, and yet Leonard’s looming return from an injured anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee is also reason to be careful with his workload, said Lawrence Frank, the team’s president of basketball operations. Without offering details or predictions as to Leonard’s availability during the preseason, which begins Tuesday in Las Vegas and includes two games in Seattle and two in Los Angeles, Frank said Leonard “feels great.”
“His plan is, look, he wants to participate in everything,” Frank said Thursday at the team’s practice facility. “And I think … organizationally, we’re going to be cautious. So it will be a step-by-step approach.”
The Clippers’ intention is that come June, that approach will pay off with Leonard and his teammates walking step by step onto a stage to celebrate what would be the franchise’s first championship. Perhaps the biggest factor in ambition becoming reality is health. Leonard’s progress and return is “very, very encouraging,” Frank said, as is George’s declaration that he feels completely healthy after sitting out the majority of last season because of a strained ligament in his shooting elbow.
Frank called George’s offseason “extremely productive,” and lauded George’s role in organizing player-led retreats in San Diego and Santa Barbara, including footing the bill for teammates’ stays. Speaking to season-ticket holders Thursday evening at the Forum, George said the only time he took off from training during the offseason was a brief break to get married in Italy.
“You’re going to see the best of PG this year,” George said, his statement drawing cheers from a crowd of a few hundred.
For as strong as the Clippers appear on paper, however, they will face numerous challengers.
“Potentially a third of the league is a contender,” Frank said. It’s why Clippers owner Steve Ballmer greenlighted paying a league-high $198 million in payroll to build one of the league’s deepest rosters — depth that will allow coach Tyronn Lue to play what Frank called “the long game” with several key rotational players.
With Leonard, George, guards Reggie Jackson and John Wall, and forwards Marcus Morris Sr. and Nicolas Batum all in their 30s, and each player’s past marked by injuries, the Clippers are aiming to build in rest time throughout a season that will see them play a league-high 61 games before February’s All-Star break. That strategy could delay the cohesion of some lineups but also could help alleviate some of the logjam for minutes.
“We want our guys to be able to be at their best when their best is needed, which is, you know, April, May and June,” Frank said. “So to be able to give some of those heavy load carriers [rest] where they’re not overtaxed at that time, yet there’s enough continuity that there’s rhythm there.”
The key question is how quickly Leonard recaptures his rhythm and whether that includes returning to the form that, at the time of his injury in the 2021 playoffs, had him “playing the best basketball of any player in the world,” in Frank’s opinion. Leonard was in excellent shape and operated with precision during summer workouts, according to people with knowledge of his training, and though his next five-on-five basketball will be his first since the injury, Leonard has played with an intensity and discipline during controlled practice scenarios that Frank praised as encouraging.
“He comes in at 7 a.m. and just from the time he steps into the building to the time he leaves, many times four or five hours later, it’s all purposeful work, whether it’s in the performance room, whether it’s on the court, whether it’s film study,” Frank said.
“You know, Kawhi is all about one thing, and so, you know, a lot of encouraging news. And also, again, organization, we know what the big picture is. We know what our goal is, and we will be very cautious and take a methodical approach.”
One unknown is the contribution the Clippers will receive from Wall, a former All-Star point guard who will compete with Jackson for the starting role and has looked strong in offseason workouts since signing as a free agent in July. Wall is coming off a three-year stretch filled with heel and Achilles’ tendon injuries, the death of his mother and grandmother and last season’s exile as Houston paid him not to play amid the Rockets’ rebuild. In July, Wall called that stretch “the darkest place I have ever been” and even contemplated suicide, he wrote in an essay published Thursday by the Players’ Tribune.
Amid an offseason Frank called notable for how many players stayed to train in Los Angeles, he called Wall’s attendance at the facility and performance during workouts consistent and encouraging.
“I think what he adds is that fast-paced transition game that we kind of lacked,” said George, who helped recruit Wall, a close friend, to the Clippers. “What John brings is that full-court burst, that transition game where you have to guard him for 94 feet. That just opens up a lot of opportunities for our shooters.
“He’s shooting it the best I’ve ever seen him shoot it,” George added.