UPDATE: As expected, Kawhi Leonard has decided to re-sign with the Clippers and negotiations are underway, per Chris Haynes.
Los Angeles Clippers All-Star Kawhi Leonard is expected to decline his $36 million player option to become an unrestricted free agent next week, Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reported Sunday evening.
Los Angeles Clippers star Kawhi Leonard is expected to decline his $36 million player option to become an unrestricted free agent, league sources tell @YahooSports.— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) August 1, 2021
No need to panic Clippers fans, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Leonard is expected to negotiate a new deal with the Clips. So Kawhi isn’t going anywhere it seems. He could miss most of the 2021-22 regular season recovering from a torn ACL suffered in the 2021 NBA playoffs.
The Clippers appeared to be on course to head to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history, but Leonard’s injury put a snag in those plans. Instead, the Clippers ended up losing to the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Finals in six games. The team now enters a season in which it will be without its best player and will have to lean heavily on Paul George.
The supporting cast for PG-13 will likely be made up of Ivica Zubac, Marcus Morris, Rajon Rondo, Patrick Beverley and Luke Kennard. Is that enough to stay afloat before a potential Kawhi return? We’ll have to wait and see. The Clippers won’t have cap space to make too many moves in free agency. It will be critical for Terence Mann to take another step in his development and become a solid starter/rotation player. The Clippers also picked up two guards in the draft: Tennessee’s Keon Johnson and Ohio’s Jason Preston.
As for Leonard’s return, the Clippers haven’t given us a specific timeline. It’s very likely the team doesn’t risk anything with Kawhi coming back on a new deal, holding him out most of the regular season in hopes for a return in the postseason. If the Clippers struggle and are outside the playoff picture, things could change. It doesn’t necessarily hurt the Clippers title window. As long as PG-13 and Leonard are committed long-term, the team will have chances to contend.
George is under contract through at least 2023-24. So the Clippers could punt this season, go after a championship in 2022-23 before considering what to do with Leonard and George heading into their final years, which will likely both be player options.
As for betting odds, the Clippers are 18/1 to win it all in 2021-22. They’re way too volatile a bet at this point. We don’t know if/when Leonard will be back. If he isn’t back, there’s no real way the Clips can compete for a title pending another superstar exodus via injury in the 2022 postseason. So right now, it’s probably best to wait until the season starts, see if the Clips line drops down while potentially maintaining a path to the playoffs. If Kawhi can return in time for the postseason, the Clippers would have a decent shot at winning if he looks himself.