In the summer of 2019, the LA Clippers were catapulted to elite status when two-way stalwarts Kawhi Leonard and Paul George agreed to join the team. It was a great moment in the team's history. They were no longer known as "the other team in Los Angeles."
However, fast forward to 2022, it seems that the Clippers are back to their lousy ways. They lost Kawhi Leonard to a partial ACL tear in the playoffs. They expected Paul George to keep them above water until The Claw returns. But PG, too, went down with an elbow UCL strain. As of writing, the Clippers sport a 23-25 record for ninth in the competitive Western Conference.
Kawhi and PG back by February or March?
There's a good amount of basketball left in the 2021-22 NBA season. This optimism is boosted by the fact that according to Clippers forward Nicolas Batum, George and Leonard may be back on the court by February or March.
"We hope that after the All-Star break or early March they will come back. Before leaving for the trip Tuesday morning, I went to do my covid test and went to the gym, and I saw Kawhi sweating, working out. He’s trying to come back, I don’t know if it will be this year, I am hoping so but I don’t know. If we get them in the next six weeks (a whole month before the playoffs)... We have a base of players around them who have a good level," Batum said, per Sports Illustrated.
This bodes well for Leonard and George. Finally, they can lace their sneakers up after a long time, play the sport they love, and help their team win. However, from a team perspective, getting their stars back with the playoffs just around the corner may be a tad bit too late.
Is it worth it?
With George as the lone star in the season's first quarter, the Clippers squeezed out a subpar 13-12 record. There were even whispers that George could be one of the sleeper MVP candidates this year. But alas, PG could not carry the Clippers squad, who had just undergone significant tweaks in the summer. There were too many new and inexperienced players the team had to incorporate.
The fact that Leonard is already sweating it out on the court is definitely a good sign. But then again, let us remember how cautious Leonard is when dealing with an injury. We all know about his penchant for load management — a strategy the Clippers staff fully embraced.
Apart from this, let us recall that Leonard's fallout with the San Antonio Spurs is due to tension between him and the medical staff. Team doctors deemed Leonard was fit to play. But Kawhi himself felt something was still wrong with his right quad. And as we all know, this disconnect with the medical staff triggered Leonard to force his way out of San Antonio for good.
Looking at the Western Conference reveals that some teams have risen from the ashes and may have subsequently taken the Clippers' spot. The Memphis Grizzlies led by Ja Morant are now sitting in third place — a major improvement from their eighth-place finish last year. The Los Angeles Lakers and the Minnesota Timberwolves are the more malleable squads but still have the potential to make the playoffs, provided they remain injury-free and make some key tweaks before the trade deadline.
With how the season is turning out, the Clippers should be pleased if they finish between the 8th and 10th spot to battle it out in a play-in tourney. Let's say the stars align perfectly, and George and Leonard return healthy. Will their presence be enough to guide the team to another postseason?
One guy hopes the answer is "no" - Oklahoma City's GM Sam Presti. He has their unprotected 1st round pick courtesy of the Paul George trade. The fact the Clippers don't have any control or protections on their pick makes a playoff push more likely.
In the end, it will all depend on Kawhi's and PG's health. As much as a playoff appearance would be great, they won't risk the long-term health of their franchise cornerstones.