In a spate of exceptionally disappointing early-morning NBA news, two playoff teams were hit with the worst type of reports when The Athletic broke that Chris Paul was entering COVID protocol and then when ESPN broke that Kawhi Leonard seriously hurt his knee against the Utah Jazz in Game 4. Both are out indefinitely. Shams Charania later reported Leonard suffered a right knee sprain.
Coming on the heels of an epic playoff performance on the other side of the bracket by the one and only Kevin Durant, this sucks. A lot.
Paul will probably play in the Western Conference Finals at some point. When? We don't know. Leonard, though... Leonard is probably done for the playoffs.
That's the worst possible news we all could receive this morning because he was locked all the way in and the Los Angeles Clippers were finally showing just how good they could be. Leonard was locking down Donovan Mitchell on one end and abusing whoever the Jazz threw at him on the other. Los Angeles, after going down 2-0 once again, won two straight handily to even up the series. Now they'll have to continue onwards without Leonard.
It's all especially frustrating because it's another knee injury for a man who misses a third of every season specifically to prevent it. But this isn't and should not be a condemnation of that strategy. It stinks for the average fan, sure, but it makes sense from a competitive standpoint and ultimately I'd bet that most neutral viewers would prefer a fully healthy superstar in the playoffs at the sacrifice of seeing him play on a Tuesday night interconference matchup at 7 p.m. on NBA TV.
This situation does, however, remind us and the Clippers that load management can only do so much. The Toronto Raptors showed what the payoffs could be when managing Leonard's knee issues correctly; he missed 22 games in the 2018-19 season but was an absolute monster come playoff time, playing over 40 minutes when the occasion called for it, and it resulted in the franchise's first-ever NBA championship. That was Leonard's magnum opus, the vision that the Clippers planned to pursue after signing him the following summer.
In the COVID-shortened 2019-20 season, Leonard was on pace to miss a similar amount of games before the season was postponed. The Clippers ultimately lost in the bubble playoffs, as we all well know, but it wasn't because Leonard was hurt. They did the same this year, with the star missing an even 20 contests entering the playoffs. And, again, it seemed like it was going to work. He was averaging 30 points a game on 57 percent shooting from the floor after Game 4 against the Jazz with his typically stingy defense-- but then one awkward fall sunk the whole ship.
It doesn't really change much for the Clippers in the future. Regardless of whether they advance to the Western Conference Finals this year, they want Leonard as a part of the organization long-term because of the heights he can reach. He has a player option after the season's end and he will probably opt out in pursuit of signing a $246 million max deal once Los Angeles earns his Bird Rights following the 2021-2022 season. From what we can tell, the only things that motivate Leonard are winning and living in California, so the likelihood he goes anywhere other than the Clippers in the next five or so years is exceedingly low.
But this is always the risk with him. Leonard will always miss a quarter of the season and perhaps more in upcoming seasons if this latest injury proves serious. But he can always dominate in the playoffs and pave the way to another inaugural championship for a woe-begotten franchise-- or he can tweak or twist that damn knee and suddenly everything goes up in flames.
That's the Kawhi Leonard experience. The Clippers are learning that now. We're all worse off for it.