After putting together an inspiring postseason performance without Kawhi Leonard, the Clippers will likely be without him for significantly longer than they had hoped. On Tuesday, it was reported that Kawhi had undergone surgery to repair his partially torn ACL, which comes with an estimated recovery time of 9-12 months. While it is unconfirmed and unclear exactly how long Kawhi will be out for, it is a safe bet that he will miss a significant portion of the 2021-22 NBA season.
As previously mentioned, the Clippers played their final eight postseason games in 2021 without Kawhi Leonard. In that time span, they managed to reach their first Conference Finals in franchise history, while also silencing many of the narratives that had previously plagued both the team and individual players.
During the 2021 playoffs, the Clippers had a +5.8 NTRG when Kawhi Leonard was off the floor. In comparison, the Phoenix Suns are just +1.7 when Devin Booker is off the floor, and the Milwaukee Bucks are -3.2 when Giannis Antetokounmpo is off the floor. The two teams in the NBA Finals have faired much worse with their star player off the floor than the Clippers did when Kawhi was not playing this postseason.
The reason the Clippers' are able to thrive in the non-Kawhi minutes is a combination of depth, and a unique ability to step up when it matters most. This reality starts with Paul George. In the eight games after Kawhi Leonard went down in the playoffs, PG averaged 29.6 PPG, 11.0 RPG, and 5.6 APG, while posting a +36 plus/minus rating. Paul George's ability to step up in Kawhi's absence, and play to the level of a tier-1 superstar, should be the primary reason why the Clippers will remain solid next season.
After PG, the Clippers' roster is filled with a smattering of savvy veterans and hungry young players. Guys like Marcus Morris, Nicolas Batum, and Patrick Beverley have all proved the ability to excel at whatever assignment coach Ty Lue hands them. The Clippers' young core of Terance Mann, Luke Kennard, and Ivica Zubac also showed numerous flashes of their potential throughout the 2021 playoffs. If the Clippers are able to retain Reggie Jackson, that will add yet another established scorer who has also proven the ability to step up when needed most. With an increased role for all of the aforementioned players, the Clippers will be distributing Kawhi Leonard's responsibilities into very capable hands.
While Kawhi Leonard's injury will require increased roles, and subsequently increased production from numerous different players on the Clippers' roster, many statistics affirm the idea that this may not be as disastrous as it appears.
Paul George's numbers after Kawhi Leonard went down in the postseason speak for themselves, but let us a look at some other Clippers would could be an increased role away from a breakout season. The first of these, 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 it a career-high for Terance, but it punched the Clippers' ticket to their first Conference Finals in franchise history. While some attributed T-Mann's performance entirely to Utah's unwillingness to guard him, the stats show that Mann thrived all season long when he played significant minutes.
In the 15 games that T-Mann played at least 30 minutes last season, the 2nd year player averaged 13.4 PPG, 5.8 RPG, and 2.8 APG, while shooting 51.3% from the field and 45.9% from deep. With Mann being the likeliest candidate to replace Kawhi Leonard in the starting lineup next season, it would not be unrealistic to expect averages similar to these, and perhaps even see T-Mann in the Most Improved Player discussion.
Another young Clipper who showed signs last season of what he could be with an increased role, was Luke Kennard. Amongst all players who took at least 200 threes last season, Luke Kennard's 44.6% from deep was the 6th best mark in the entire NBA. Some of Luke's best performances of the season included a 28-point game on 6/7 from deep in a win against Memphis, and the historic 20-point game on 100% shooting in the thrilling comeback vs. Atlanta. When Luke was called upon in the playoffs, he did exactly what was asked of him, knocking down 48% of his shots from the field and 41% of his attempts from deep. The idea that Luke had a bad season was always false, and an increased role in the first year of his big extension could be exactly what unlocks his full potential.
The final few potential X-Factors to look at for the Clippers are Serge Ibaka and Marcus Morris. Ibaka obviously missed significant time in both the regular season and playoffs, but his return next season could provide a significant boost to the Clippers if he is able to regain his pre-injury form.
For Marcus Morris, he might be the biggest X-Factor for the Clippers while Kawhi Leonard is out. Throughout the playoffs, he proved that he either lights it up or struggles mightily; however, in the regular season, he was historically efficient. In 57 games for the Clippers last season, Marcus Morris averaged 13.4 PPG on 47.3% from deep. Mook's 47.3% clip from long range during the regular season was good for 2nd best in the entire NBA, trailing only Brooklyn's Joe Harris for the league's top spot. Amongst all qualifying shooters in NBA history, Marcus Morris became just the 9th player ever to shoot at least 250 threes in a season while making at least 47% of them. After Paul George, Marcus Morris is likely going to be the Clippers' primary scoring option, and he is a much better one than he is given credit for.
While the Clippers' title hopes will be contingent on Kawhi Leonard's ability to be ready by the 2022 postseason, his regular season responsibilities will be distributed amongst a smattering of guys who have proven they are ready for this moment. For that reason, do not shovel dirt on the Clippers just yet.