Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard undergoes surgery to repair partially torn ACL

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard passes the ball while under pressure from Utah Jazz guard Miye Oni.
Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, right, passes the ball while under pressure from Utah Jazz guard Miye Oni during a playoff game on June 12. Leonard suffered his injury during the series and was sidelined for the rest of the Clippers’ playoff run.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

One NBA team’s offseason plan will come to fruition next month when Kawhi Leonard commits to its franchise. And then, its wait will begin.

Because after the all-NBA forward underwent surgery Tuesday to repair what the Clippers described as a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, the date for his return is murky and not considered to be short.

The team officially said there is no timetable for the return of Leonard, who turned 30 last month. Training camp is scheduled to begin in late September.


The procedure took place in Los Angeles, nearly one month to the day after Leonard was hurt in Game 4 of the Clippers’ second-round series against Utah, and less than three weeks before Leonard must inform the team whether he intends to pick up the player option for the final year of his contract, which is worth $36 million next season. If he does, Leonard could later sign a long-term extension worth up to $181 million over four years.

Clippers guard Patrick Beverley will serve a one-game suspension next season for shoving Suns guard Chris Paul in Game 6 of the Western Conference final.

July 3, 2021

He also could decline the option and become an unrestricted free agent. As such, he could re-sign with the team for a new deal that, at maximum, could last four years and be worth more than $176 million.

“Obviously, if I’m healthy, the best decision is to decline the player option,” Leonard said in December. “But that doesn’t mean I’m leaving or staying.”

The announcement Tuesday “does leave numerous question marks” about the nature of Leonard’s surgery and his return to the court, said T.O. Souryal, a former two-term president of the NBA’s association of team physicians and the Dallas Mavericks’ team doctor for 22 years.

Souryal, now an orthopedic surgeon at and medical director of Texas Sports Medicine and Orthopaedic Group in Dallas, said he had seen a “true partial ACL tear less than a handful of times.”


“Think of the ACL, which is the main stabilizer of the knee, as a rope, because it is made up of fibers made up very much like a rope is,” Souryal said. “In my experience of well over 5,000 ACL injuries, it’s either torn or it’s not. Very rarely are a few fibers torn and the remainder is intact. Extremely rare.

“The big question then becomes what does one do orthopedically with the remaining ACL? Are there enough fibers left that the knee is stable, or is it perhaps a ticking time bomb and you wonder when the remaining fibers will go? On the rare occasion that there is a partial ACL tear, the treatment is typically an ACL reconstruction.”

Both Souryal and Alan Beyer, the executive medical director at Orange County’s Hoag Orthopedic Institute, called a full reconstruction, in which the damaged ACL is replaced with a tendon from usually the patella, quadriceps or hamstring, the “gold standard” of ACL repair and easily the most common route. A return time is typically between nine and 12 months, though some athletes have returned sooner.

Beyer, who also is an orthopedic surgeon, said that newer possibilities for repairing partially torn ACLs had emerged in recent years, such as inserting a type of bridge with the hope the torn tendon could be stabilized and regrow. But he added that any such operations have little data supporting their outcomes, making it difficult to project their efficacy on an elite athlete.

“You don’t do this operation to get him back quicker, you do this operation because you think it’s going to be less long-term morbidity, in that you’re not sacrificing another one of his tissues to function as an ACL,” said Beyer, who, like Souryal, had not consulted with either the Clippers or Leonard about the surgery.

“We don’t have a large number of long-term success stories that we can say ah-ha, this works, when this is the presenting picture. It is a little bit of a risk that it’s not going to work as well as if you’d just bitten the bullet and done a conventional ACL reconstruction.”

Clippers stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George grew as teammates and leaders under coach Tyronn Lue, which could bode well in keeping the pair together.

July 3, 2021

The injury leaves the Clippers facing questions about their direction. If Leonard remains next month and misses a sizable chunk of next season, there is little incentive to lose enough to acquire a high draft pick. The Clippers do not outright control any of their first-round picks between next year and 2026.

Adding another star to compensate for Leonard’s absence would not necessarily be easy either, based on their lack of financial flexibility.

Less than two hours before Leonard’s injury, his seismic dunk against the Jazz added a fresh highlight that confirmed he was enjoying one of the most statistically dominant postseasons of his accolade-filled career: 30.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists while shooting 57% during the postseason, including 39% on three-pointers.

His injury robbed the Clippers of seeing the full potential of their duo with fellow all-NBA teammate Paul George, coming after each scored at least 30 points in consecutive games.