The LA Clippers will be without All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard for the majority of the 2021-22 NBA season as he works toward the recovery of a partially torn ACL suffered during the 2021 NBA Playoffs.
Leonard went down in Game 4 of the Western Conference Semifinals back in June, de-railing what was another dominating postseason run. Averaging 30.4 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.1 steals per game while shooting 57.3 percent from the field and 39.3 percent from 3, there wasn’t much hope that the Clippers could continue on without their superstar.
With their series against the top-seeded Utah Jazz tied at two games apiece, the responsibility fell on All-Star forward Paul George, among others, to keep their title hopes alive.
The Clippers advanced to their first-ever Conference Finals in franchise history but ultimately fell to the Phoenix Suns in six games.
As a new season begins, the Clippers are still dealing with the same two-time Finals MVP-sized void in their lineup.
Which players are most affected by Leonard’s absence and who will have to step up to keep LA toward the top of the Western Conference until he returns?
Five Clippers players most affected by Kawhi Leonard’s injury
Hello, Captain Obvious. This one goes without saying, but George is the main guy that needs to step up.
He did just that during the remainder of the Clippers’ playoff run without Leonard, elevating his game to another level. We saw a flashback to his Indiana Pacers days, where he led his team to consecutive Conference Finals appearances at the age of 22 and 23, going toe-to-toe with LeBron James and the loaded Miami Heat.
Channeling that version of himself, George put together an extremely impressive stretch of games to keep the Clippers going once Leonard went down.
|Before Kawhi’s injury||11||24.9||18.0||44.4||36.1||8.6||5.2||0.7|
|After Kawhi’s injury||8||29.6||22.0||43.8||30.4||11.0||5.6||1.4|
George went off for 37 points, 16 rebounds and five assists to help his team win a massive Game 5 and take a 3-2 series lead over the Jazz. The next game, he helped spark a huge comeback win in Game 6 to advance to the Conference Finals.
George didn’t cool off there, recording three double-doubles in six games against the Suns, scoring more than 20 points in each contest. He had a near-triple-double of 27 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists to give the Clippers their first win of the series in Game 3, then extended their season when facing elimination, dropping a playoff career-high 41 points to go with 13 rebounds, six assists and three steals in a Game 5 win.
LA would come up short but one thing became clear if it wasn’t already, George is capable of being the guy.
The Clippers will need George to maintain that superstar level of play, holding down the fort in LA until his All-Star teammate can return to action.
Jackson was another key component of the Clippers playoff push, stepping up as the team’s starting floor general after coming off the bench in the first two games of the postseason.
Once given the consistent playing time and opportunity, Jackson began to show out and prove his value as a starter. But like George, he was able to take his game up a notch once Leonard got hurt, becoming a reliable No. 2 scoring option – something not many, if any, people would have seen coming.
|Before Kawhi injury||15.2||2.7||2.6||0.5||48.3||44.2||89.5|
|After Kawhi injury||23.0||4.6||3.4||2.0||53.7||38.1||84.6|
Jackson’s playoff performance earned him a nice two-year, $22 million contract with the Clippers this past offseason, placing some belief in the veteran guard to replicate his postseason magic.
While it seems like a lot to ask Jackson to produce similar averages, that is exactly what will be needed if the Clippers are going to remain competitive in a grueling Western Conference.
Which version of Jackson will we see this season?
Mann broke out during the 2021 Playoffs, and who knows how much of an opportunity he would have received if not for Leonard’s injury. Mann averaged just 13.5 minutes through the first 11 games of the postseason but once Leonard went down, his playing time rose significantly, averaging 28.6 minutes per game.
He delivered the signature performance of his young career in Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals, erasing a 25-point deficit by way of a career-high 39 points to pull off a comeback win over the Jazz to end the series. Mann caught fire from 3-point range, knocking down seven of his 10 3-point attempts, giving LA the jolt it needed to pull out a victory.
His efforts earned him a two-year, $22 million contract extension this past offseason as the Clippers committed to his development as a 25-year-old with plenty of upside.
He may not be in the projected Opening Night starting lineup, but don’t be surprised to see Mann make more than a handful of starts this year whenever a void is needed to be filled. His length, energy and versatility on the defensive end will be required to replace the defensive prowess of Leonard. He’s also a capable scorer as a cutter and spot-up shooter, making life easier for players like George and Jackson.
Mann should be on your radar when you watch the Clippers this season.
Winslow cracks this list as a new addition to the Clippers who should assume some responsibilities as a defensive specialist.
As just mentioned with Mann, the Clippers will miss Leonard on the defensive end just as much as the offensive end, and that’s where a player like Winslow comes in. At 6-foot-6 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, Winslow has the size, length and quickness to take on numerous different matchups, whether it be guards or forwards.
The former No. 10 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft once showed a ton of promise when he began his career with the Miami Heat before injuries took a toll on the young forward. He was sought out by the Memphis Grizzlies in a trade with the Heat back in 2020 but suffered a season-ending hip injury shortly thereafter. The ailment kept him sidelined for over a year, only appearing in 21 games with the Grizzlies before they elected not to re-sign him this offseason.
The Clippers scooped Winslow up on a two-year, $8 million deal, landing the 25-year-old on the cheap with the opportunity to get his career back on the right trajectory.
The consistency of his playing time is to be seen, but Winslow should have a chance to prove himself on a thin Clippers roster.
It was only one offseason ago where Ibaka to the Clippers was seen as a marquee signing.
Ibaka signed a two-year, $19 million deal to bring championship swagger to a team desperately hunting for its first title but injuries plagued his first season in Los Angeles. Ibaka suffered a season-ending back injury which limited him to only 41 games last year, missing the entire postseason.
That same back injury is lingering into the 2021-22 season, as Ibaka is expected to miss the first game of the season at a minimum. The latest update is that Ibaka has resumed 5-on-5 activity at practice, meaning a return could be on the horizon, but the Clippers will likely play it safe with a 32-year-old dealing with back problems.
Ibaka was stellar when healthy during his last season with the Toronto Raptors in 2019-20, averaging 15.4 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. His return would play a huge role in adding depth to the Clippers’ roster, also providing another rim protector and secondary scoring option.