Kawhi Leonard smiled Monday as he said it, his answer accompanied by his signature laugh that tends to go social media viral every few years.
The All-Star wing has not played in an NBA game since June 2021, but as the playoffs approached last spring, footage of his increasingly public workouts built anticipation for a potential return of the two-time NBA Finals most valuable player earlier than expected. The point became moot when the Clippers lost in the play-in round in mid-April. But had the Clippers made the playoffs, would he have suited up?
“I mean, it's all woulda, coulda, shoulda, right?” Leonard said Monday at the team’s practice facility. “But yeah, if they would have made it to the Finals last year, you would have seen me playing.”
For last season’s constantly depleted roster, a Finals run would have counted as highly unexpected. But this season, the fourth of Leonard’s partnership with Paul George, embarking on the franchise’s first Finals run is part of the stated expectation with both forwards healthy — and the prospect of seeing Leonard finally playing again is why.
Leonard said he plans to participate fully when training camp opens Tuesday in Las Vegas.
“Hopefully we can take another step. That's all I can hope for really,” Leonard said. “This is our fourth year [with the Clippers], so hopefully, like I said, we can have a shot at the semifinals or the Finals and try to make something happen.”
Coach Tyronn Lue said he didn’t know how often Leonard would be available to play in the preseason. The first of four exhibition games is Friday night in Seattle.
“We've got to be smart about the situation, about the process,” Lue said. “We know he feels great, which is great news and great to hear. But we've got to listen to Kawhi's body, be able to listen to the medical staff and make sure we're doing the right thing for Kawhi.”
Leonard watched last season as the Clippers produced what he called five “amazing” comeback victories after trailing by at least 20 points. He also saw too many mistakes out of timeouts for his liking.
What the Clippers saw from Leonard during his recovery was “how bad he wanted to get back out there and wanting to play and being around the fellas,” forward Marcus Morris Sr. said. They saw a player who lifted weights constantly, with Leonard saying he “definitely got a lot stronger” after photos of his bulked-up legs spread on social media.
“Kawhi is always going to be the hardest worker. He likes to lead by example, but his voice he's using more,” point guard Reggie Jackson said. “I know people got to see a little more even when he was in Toronto and since his time being here, but he's become, interestingly enough, a vocal leader for us.
“He implements himself when need be, says the right things at the right times.”
The moment the Clippers learned of the severity of Leonard’s partially torn anterior cruciate ligament during the second round of the 2021 playoffs, the team shifted its focus to ensure that a healthy Leonard would one day return to a superior team ready to compete for a championship not only in 2023 but beyond, said Lawrence Frank, the team’s president of basketball operations.
That meant treating last season as a “gap year” to give younger players more minutes than they might otherwise earn on a healthy title contender. An elbow injury that cost George more than half the season increased the amount of available playing time, and there were notable improvements from guards Luke Kennard and Terance Mann as well as wing Amir Coffey.
“A lot of our young guys I think grew so much when Kawhi went down, to where now if we're faced with obstacles, he's pretty confident in the group, and I think the group is confident in each other,” George said.
The Clippers' plan, which included the free-agent signing of John Wall, the offseason return of Nicolas Batum and a contract extension for Robert Covington, has yielded a roster that Jackson calls the deepest of his NBA career — an assertion that he says includes Oklahoma City Thunder rosters that counted three eventual league MVPs. The Clippers' surplus of veteran wings in particular means they have a credible rotation of up to 12 players who deserve minutes — facing that minutes crunch, Lue said he had begun addressing the topic of “sacrifice” with players Sunday.
The depth at wing allows Lue the versatility to play any number of ways, with Covington, Morris, Batum and Mann skilled and lengthy enough to shift roles depending on a lineup’s need.
“I think that’s what you need right now in the NBA,” Leonard said.
But what the Clippers need most is the two-time NBA defensive player of the year and five-time All-Star to be available alongside George for the playoffs. That duo stood Monday morning against a white backdrop with backs together while posing for photos, their work together with the Clippers hardly done, their latest season just begun.
“Excited for him to get a chance to do what he loves to do and get back on the court,” George said. “Obviously after that, it's the excitement of getting to play with the best two-way player in the game.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.