Clippers 5 storylines: Return of Kawhi Leonard is No. 1

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard sits on the bench.
Clippers All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard is three months into rehabilitating from knee surgery with no timeline for his return.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Here are five storylines to watch as the Clippers open the season on Thursday:

When, or will, Kawhi Leonard play this season?

The All-NBA forward wants to play. He said as much in September when he revealed that his hope to play this season, following the recovery from a partially torn ACL in his right knee, led him in part to sign a long-term contract with the Clippers.

Surgeons and trainers experienced in such recoveries contend that though quicker recoveries are not uncommon, players typically are ready to return anywhere from nine months to one year, a timetable whose early end following a July surgery would fall right as the postseason begins. That’s a demanding transition to get acclimated for playoff basketball, even for someone of Leonard’s caliber. Of course, any such discussion comes with a caveat as big as Leonard’s pair of Finals MVP trophies: His injury history suggests he will operate on his timeline alone.

The season could break for the Clippers in such a way that suiting up isn’t deemed worth the try. But if by early spring the Clippers are carrying momentum into the postseason, a return by Leonard would present a fascinating wrinkle for potential playoff opponents to account for and could force a reexamination of who the West’s contenders really are.


How strong can this defense be?

In his defensive prime, Leonard covered more earth than water, and his smothering effort against Luka Doncic in the postseason proved that 10 years into his career he could still shut down one of the game’s most gifted players. Clippers lineups featuring Leonard allowed 110.9 points per 100 possessions last season, a defensive rating equivalent to a top-six defense, according to Cleaning the Glass. But lineups without Leonard allowed 113.1 points, essentially matching last season’s league average. The eventual return of injured center Serge Ibaka will help, but the offseason trade of Patrick Beverley removed the team’s loudest defensive communicator. Coach Tyronn Lue described the team as quiet by nature. Can they bring the noise?

Paul George will be focal point of the team with fellow All-Star Kawhi Leonard sidelined. He’s ready for the challenge with a new belief and attitude.

Can Mr. June’s success last all season?

Reggie Jackson’s transformation from reclamation project to redemption story took just seven months. The Clippers wouldn’t be paying the starting guard $22 million over the next two seasons if they didn’t believe he could deliver an encore.

Now comes the work of ensuring that the success that earned him the nickname “Mr. June” lasts all season. He went from the sixth-leading scorer during the regular season to the team’s third-best scorer in the postseason behind 41% three-point shooting. Considering he was able to maintain his scoring surge in the postseason even when defenses began focusing on him after Leonard’s injury, Jackson will certainly find opportunities in the regular season, where defense is rarely played at playoff intensity. But it was no accident that his best season in years occurred during his healthiest in some time, too; keeping Jackson healthy is vital.

Reggie Jackson and Nicolas Batum thrived in the face of doubts. Can Eric Bledsoe and Justise Winslow do the same?

Jackson wasn’t alone in outplaying expectations last season. Feeling empowered and accepted coming off a career-worst season in Charlotte, Batum thrived and became the picture of dependability. This season, the team’s Prove-It Club has two new members: Eric Bledsoe and Justise Winslow.

Bledsoe looked like a shadow of his younger self at times last season, all while Milwaukee, which dealt him to New Orleans, won the NBA championship. Lawrence Frank, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations, has said Bledsoe has much to prove at 31, and it isn’t only on the offensive end, where Lue’s drive-and-kick offense hinges greatly on Bledsoe’s ability to get to the rim. The Clippers also need him to resemble his former All-Defensive form to account for the absence of Beverley, who was part of the trade package exchanged for Bledsoe.

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The Clippers didn’t buy high on Winslow, signing him to only a portion of the team’s mid-level exception in free agency. If the risk is somewhat muted, the reward could be significant should Winslow’s versatility to play both point guard and center off the bench unlock the up-tempo, switching potential of Lue’s smaller lineups. But he’ll have to stay on the floor first. Hip-replacement surgery and an injured back have sidelined him the last two seasons for all but 37 games.

Can Serge Ibaka be the type of player the Clippers expected when they signed him in 2019?

The 32-year-old Ibaka isn’t the only over-30 Clipper whose health will be watched closely. Leonard, George and Marcus Morris — who sat out all four preseason games this month — battled injuries last season. A back injury like Ibaka sustained last season requires extra caution and sparks questions whether it will allow him to reach his potential again. Four months after surgery Ibaka has been cleared to resume full-contact drills. He was a prized signing in 2019 because his best version provides a bigger defensive presence at the rim while allowing the offense to nonetheless play with a small-ball sensibility because his shooting can still accommodate a five-out offense. It’s no accident that of the six Clippers lineups with at least 100 possessions last season, Ibaka was part of the best.

A look at the Clippers’ 2021-22 season schedule by month and the team’s roster.