Before Leonard went down with a partial ACL tear late in the Clippers’ Game 4 win over the Utah Jazz, they looked like strong contenders to win the Western Conference after rallying from a 2-0 deficit in the first round vs. the Dallas Mavericks and coming back to tie the Utah Jazz 2-2 in a series they’d go on to win without their star.
After undergoing surgery to repair his ACL, Leonard will almost certainly miss at least part of the 2021-22 season and might not return at all. Can the Clippers contend for a championship if Leonard is back for the playoffs? Let’s take a look.
Although there never seemed to be much doubt Leonard would stay with the Clippers, how he structured his new contract remains an interesting question. Leonard decided to decline a $36 million player option and the possibility of extending his contract off of that, which would have guaranteed him the maximum number of years.
By opting out, Leonard was able to increase his 2021-22 salary to $39.3 million because he now has 10-plus years of experience and is eligible to make up to 35% of the cap as a maximum. Yet he still has a handful of choices he’s deciding between, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks.
Because Leonard has played just two years for the Clippers, he is not eligible to sign a full five-year contract. Instead, he could sign a two-year deal with a player option that will enable him to become an unrestricted free agent next summer, when he can sign for five years. Alternatively, Leonard could re-sign for four years, the largest possible deal this summer.
For the Clippers, which option Leonard chooses surely isn’t as important as making sure he’s happy with the organization and his deal. No matter what, the Clippers were going to pay the luxury tax this season in the name of retaining key free agents.
Clippers return core
Despite the team extending the contract of All-Star Paul George last fall, Leonard wasn’t the only key Clippers free agent this summer. Reggie Jackson and Nicolas Batum, who were second and fourth on the team in minutes during the playoffs, also became unrestricted free agents.
The Clippers’ options for retaining both players were somewhat limited because both previously were on minimum-salary contracts. Still, they found a way to bring Batum back on a two-year deal with a player option for the second season using non-Bird rights, which allow the Clippers to pay him 120% of the minimum salary for a player with his experience. If Batum declines his player option next summer, he can become a free agent again with the Clippers then having early Bird rights to pay him more money.
Jackson was in the position of the Clippers having early Bird rights after he signed with the team late in the 2019-20 season. That limited them to a maximum first-year salary of $10.4 million, so it was possible another aggressive bidder could have offered more money after Jackson’s outstanding postseason. Instead, Jackson agreed to a two-year deal at that maximum early Bird salary on Friday.
Using non-Bird rights on Batum means the Clippers still have their taxpayer midlevel exception available to add to the roster. Given there aren’t many quality free agents left on the market, the Clippers might choose to keep their midlevel to outbid teams for any players who come on the buyout market midseason. That would allow them to offer more than the Brooklyn Nets and rival Los Angeles Lakers, both of whom have already used their tax midlevel.
Projecting the 2021-22 Clippers
Assuming Jackson returns, next season’s Clippers should look a lot like last season’s team. The nine other players who saw more than 60 minutes of playoff action are now signed up for 2021-22. The Clippers will also get back center Serge Ibaka, who picked up his $9.7 million player option after being limited to 22 minutes in the postseason by injuries.
With the emergence of rising third-year wing Terance Mann, the return of Batum and the addition of Justise Winslow, the Clippers should have enough depth at forward to handle an extended absence for Kawhi. It’s unlikely the Clippers would be in the mix for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs without him, but it’s plausible they could finish in the top six and avoid having to work through the play-in tournament — particularly if Leonard’s timetable is shorter than the usual for an ACL tear and he is able to return near the All-Star break.
Age is a bit of a concern for the Clippers. At 30, Kawhi is one of the youngest members of the team’s rotation, making it crucial that Mann (25 in October) and Luke Kennard (25) continue to develop as capable rotation pieces. Adding the 25-year-old Winslow is a low-risk move that could also yield dividends. Any contributions the Clippers get from 19-year-old first-round pick Keon Johnson or their second-round picks (Jason Preston and Brandon Boston Jr., the latter also 19) would be a huge bonus.
Ultimately, the Clippers’ outlook depends entirely on Leonard’s health. We’ve seen how dangerous the Clippers can be without him in a playoff setting where coach Tyronn Lue can tailor his game plan, utilize small lineups and extend the minutes of George and the other starters. However, the Clippers ran out of gas against the Phoenix Suns without their star. If the Clippers are going to contend for the 2022 championship, they need Kawhi back and near 100 percent for the playoffs. Of course, that first required him to re-sign, and the Clippers have checked that box.