After delivering an inspiring playoff performance without Kawhi Leonard, the Clippers will likely be without him for much longer than they had hoped. On Tuesday, it was reported that Kawhi had undergone surgery to repair his partially torn ACL, with an estimated recovery time of 9 to 12 months. While it’s unconfirmed or clear how long Kawhi will be out, it’s a safe bet that he will miss a significant part of the 2021-22 NBA season.
As previously mentioned, the Clippers have played their last eight playoff games in 2021 without Kawhi Leonard. During that time, they managed to reach their first conference final in franchise history, while silencing many narratives that had previously plagued the team and individual players.
In the 2021 playoffs, the Clippers had a +5.8 NTRG when Kawhi Leonard was off the ground. In comparison, the Phoenix Suns are only +1.7 when Devin Booker is off the ground, and the Milwaukee Bucks are -3.2 when Giannis Antetokounmpo is off the ground. Both teams in the NBA Finals did a lot worse with their star player off the floor than the Clippers when Kawhi was not playing those playoffs.
The reason the Clippers are able to thrive in non-Kawhi minutes is a combination of depth and a unique ability to step up when it matters most. This reality begins with Paul George. In the eight games following Kawhi Leonard’s playoff loss, PG averaged 29.6 PPG, 11.0 RPG and 5.6 APG, while posting a +36 over / under rating. Paul George’s ability to progress in Kawhi’s absence and play at the level of a Tier 1 superstar, should be the main reason the Clippers will remain strong next season.
After PG, the Clippers’ roster is filled with a handful of savvy veterans and hungry young players. Guys like Marcus Morris, Nicolas Batum and Patrick Beverley have all proven their ability to excel at any assignment given to them by coach Ty Lue. The young Clippers’ core of Terance Mann, Luke Kennard and Ivica Zubac also showed many flashes of their potential throughout the 2021 playoffs. If the Clippers manage to retain Reggie Jackson, that will add another established goalscorer who has also proven ability to step up when needed most. With an increased role for all of the aforementioned players, the Clippers will be dividing the responsibilities of Kawhi Leonard into very capable hands.
While Kawhi Leonard’s injury will require increased roles, and subsequently an increase in the production of many different players on the Clippers roster, plenty of statistics support the idea that this may not be as dire as it is. ‘it seems.
Paul George’s numbers after Kawhi Leonard’s fall in the playoffs speak for themselves, but let’s take a look at other Clippers who could play an increased role outside of a breakout season. The first of them is Terance Mann.
T-Mann’s 39 points in Game 6 against Utah will forever be one of the most iconic performances in Clippers franchise history. Not only was this a career high for Terance, but it qualified the Clippers for their first conference final in franchise history. While some attributed T-Mann’s performance entirely to Utah’s refusal to protect him, stats show Mann thrived throughout the season when he played important minutes.
In the 15 games T-Mann played for at least 30 minutes last season, the sophomore averaged 13.4 PPG, 5.8 RPG and 2.8 APG, while shooting 51.3% in the field and 45.9% in depth. With Mann being the most likely candidate to replace Kawhi Leonard in the starting lineup next season, it wouldn’t be unrealistic to expect averages like these, and maybe even see T-Mann in the lineup. discussion of the most improved player.
Another young Clipper who showed signs last season of what he could be with an increased role was Luke Kennard. Of all the players who took at least 200 threes last season, Luke Kennard’s 44.6% deep was the 6th highest score in the entire NBA. Some of Luke’s best performances of the season included a 28-point 6/7 game in a win over Memphis, and the historic 20-point 100% shooting game in the thrilling comeback against Atlanta. When Luke was called up to the playoffs, he did exactly as he was told, knocking down 48% of his shots from the field and 41% of his attempts from depth. The idea that Luke had a bad season was always wrong, and an increased role in the first year of his big expansion could be exactly what unleashes his full potential.
The last potential X-Factors for the Clippers to consider are Serge Ibaka and Marcus Morris. Ibaka has obviously missed a lot of time in the regular season and playoffs, but his return next season could give the Clippers a significant boost if he manages to regain his pre-injury form.
For Marcus Morris, he could be the biggest X factor for the Clippers while Kawhi Leonard is out. Throughout the playoffs, he proved to be enlightening or struggling mightily; however, in the regular season he was historically effective. In 57 games for the Clippers last season, Marcus Morris averaged 13.4 PPG from 47.3% depth. Mook’s 47.3% long-distance clip in the regular season was good for the 2nd best in the entire NBA, behind Brooklyn’s Joe Harris for the league’s top spot. Of all the qualifiers in NBA history, Marcus Morris became only the 9th player to shoot at least 250 threes in a season while making at least 47% of them. After Paul George, Marcus Morris will likely be the Clippers’ main scoring option, and he’s much better than you think.
While the Clippers’ title hopes will hinge on Kawhi Leonard’s ability to be ready by the 2022 playoffs, his regular-season responsibilities will be split among a handful of guys who have proven they’re ready for this moment. For this reason, do not shovel soil on the mowers yet.