Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard returns to five-on-five play but return date not set

Kawhi Leonard points to a teammate after scoring during the Clippers' season opener against the Lakers.
Clippers All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard has played in only two games this season because of stiffness in his surgically repaired knee. On Friday he took part in a five-on-five scrimmage.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Kawhi Leonard is closer to returning to the Clippers’ rotation, coach Tyronn Lue said Friday — but closer doesn’t necessarily mean soon.

For the first time since Leonard was sidelined Oct. 25 by stiffness in his surgically repaired right knee, the All-Star wing played basketball in a five-on-five setting Friday morning before the team practiced at their Playa Vista facility, the coach said.

“He looked pretty good,” Lue said.

In many cases of other Clippers working their way back from injury, playing five on five represents one of the final hurdles before a player is cleared to return to game action. How far along it sits on Leonard’s timeline, however, is not something Lue revealed, though he hinted that a return is not imminent.

“Still have a ways to go but that was the first sign of positivity of him getting on the floor, playing five on five,” Lue said. “It’s going to take a few more opportunities to get that in and kind of reassess and see how he’s feeling after we go to medical and just kind of see if we check all the boxes.”


When Leonard, whose last game was Oct. 23, might play again isn’t the only question surrounding the former two-time NBA Finals most valuable player. Upon his return, will it initially be as a reserve, playing his limited minutes off of the bench as had been the case during his only two games this season?

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“We don’t know as of right now,” Lue said. “I’m not sure. I hope not.”

The difference of using him as starter or reserve goes deeper than just the designation. The Clippers had played Leonard off the bench to start the season in three chunks — starting with a six-minute stretch to end the first half, another to open the second half and a third stint of fourth-quarter minutes — because they wanted him to be available to finish games. In the team’s calculus, closing fourth quarters with Leonard would not be possible if he was a starter, wary of how long he would be sitting in real time between his playing stints under his current minutes limit, and the effect that could have on his knee.

“I’ve never seen that before in my life, not play the whole first quarter and then some in the second,” said forward Marcus Morris Sr. on Oct. 23. “That’s just crazy but Kawhi Leonard could do it.”

Starting Leonard, however, would allow Lue to set his rotations, allowing players to more quickly find their rhythm and grow comfortable within their assigned roles. That motivation is behind Lue’s comment that he hoped Leonard would not return as a reserve.

Leonard’s bench role wouldn’t be the only thing standing in the way of the team finally being able to play the way it wants. For now, backup point guard John Wall also remains on a minutes restriction of what he said was 24 minutes as the team tries to preserve the guard, who is healthy but has had endured a lengthy history of leg injuries.

Even with Leonard’s absence in the lineup, the Clippers are deep enough that they still currently have more credible options than slots for playing time. The current odd man out is Robert Covington, who was projected to be the team’s undersized backup center, who has played only 13 combined minutes in his two games since returning from a bout with COVID — a stretch that has coincided with the stellar play of Terance Mann and his resulting increase in minutes. Covington did not play in Wednesday’s win against the Lakers — the Clippers’ fifth win in their last six games — following a conversation with Lue.

“I let him know the rotation and like I said, he’s a pro and he wants to win and just we all gotta be in case we don’t need everybody,” Lue said.