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What does an early return for Kawhi Leonard mean for LA?

Kawhi Leonard has spend the last few months rehabbing his right knee following ACL surgery. The LA Clippers star currently has no timetable to return, but a report from Farbod Esnaashari of Sports Illustrated claims that Leonard is currently ahead of schedule in his recovery.

If Kawhi Leonard is indeed ahead of schedule, that would give the Clippers some interesting options to pursue the rest of the season.

Leonard spoke very candidly on Media Day, surprising fans and media members with details of his free agency decision.

“Because I wanted to play,” Leonard told members of the media when asked why he signed a four-year deal. “I mean, the best situation for me to me was to do a one and one and then opt out and sign a long-term five-year deal. But there’s a lot of concerns that that brings up for you guys and your job and it creates storylines that I’m going to leave the team.

One thing, I wanted to secure some money, and I wanted to be able to come back if I was able to this year. If I would have took the one and one, I probably would have not played just to be cautious and opted out and took a five-year.”

As he noted, Leonard could’ve signed a two-year deal with a player option for the second season. He would then opt out of that and sign a five-year, supermax deal worth $235 million. He didn’t do that, instead electing for the four-year, $173 million deal, securing his financial future and allowing himself to focus on his rehab and return.

The two-time Finals MVP is hoping to make a return at some point this season. Not only did he say it, but both President of Basketball Operations Lawrence Frank and Chairman Steve Ballmer said they weren’t ruling Leonard out. Instead, all three pointed to his rehab and return as a day-by-day approach.

A return for Leonard would depend on a number of things, however.

Does he feel ready for a return? While doctors can medically clear a player, only Kawhi will truly know if he’s good enough to play. Heck, when he initially suffered the injury, Leonard told reporters, ‘I’m good, next question,’ and flew to Utah for Game 5 against the Jazz.

Do the Clippers’ doctors as well as Leonard’s own doctors feel comfortable with him returning? Regardless of how Kawhi feels, the team doctors and Leonard’s personal doctors will decide whether to medically clear him. After dealing with a number of lower body injuries earlier his career, playing it safe just might be the way to go.

Are the Clippers competitive enough for him to return? Even without Kawhi, the Clippers are expected to be competitive this season. It’s tough to predict where they fall in the Western Conference standings, but most expectations are that they’ll be a lower-tier playoff team. If or when Leonard feels comfortable to return, would it even be worth it for him to risk returning? If the Clippers are firmly in the playoff hunt, then absolutely. If not, then it could be best to just give Leonard the year off.

Either way, a return for Leonard is a long ways away with a lot still to be determined. It’s good to know, however, that Leonard’s recovery from one of the toughest injuries in sports is going well so far.

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