Will Kawhi Leonard return to Clippers next season

NBA Rumors | Will Kawhi Leonard return to Clippers next season?

The Los Angeles Clippers reached the Western Conference Finals this year for the first time in franchise history, but their season ended with Kawhi Leonard out injured again in a 130-103 home blowout loss to the Phoenix Suns in Game 6 of the West Finals on Wednesday night. Will Leonard be back with L.A. next season? The NBA odds favor it.

2021 NBA Rumors | Kawhi Leonard team destination predictions

Would the Clippers have beaten the Suns if Leonard was available during the series? We’ll never know, but fellow superstar Paul George believes so. Leonard suffered an undisclosed knee injury during Game 4 of the second round vs. Utah. In 11 playoff games for the Clippers, Leonard averaged 30.4 points on 57.3 percent shooting, 7.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and 2.1 steals per game.

“We’d be going on,” George said if Leonard would have played vs. Phoenix. “Talk about one of the best players in the league being out, yet we were inches away from getting to the next round. So, definitely it’s a ‘what if’ on this. Fact of the matter is we didn’t do enough to win, and that’s the reason we’re going home.”

Leonard has a player option for next season that he’s expected to decline so he can sign a richer, long-term deal. His option is worth $36 million for next season, but he’s eligible for a new max contract starting at $39.3 million. Once in unrestricted free agency, Leonard can receive a four-year, $176.2 million max contract from the Clippers. In December, Leonard was asked about his player option in 2021-22.

“Obviously, if I’m healthy, the best decision is to decline the player option,” Leonard said. “But that doesn’t mean I’m leaving or staying. I’m focused on the season, like I said. We’ll talk about that when the time is right.”

Leonard can also go the short-term route by declining his $36 million option and signing a two-year, $80.6 million contract with a player option for the second year. Leonard would then decline the option in 2022 and sign the largest contract in NBA history: $235 million over five years. The Clippers are entering the 2021-22 season $20.4 million below the luxury tax but will immediately get above it just by re-signing Leonard.

That’s the big question looming over this team. If he re-signs, the Clippers will be among the favorites to win the 2022 NBA title. George already is locked up long term, singing a $190 extension in December. George had a player option for the 2021-22 season that was with the four-year extension, which includes a new player option for the 2024-25 season.

Back in 2019, the Clippers traded a haul to Oklahoma City to land George, which served as a catalyst for Leonard to commit to a free-agent deal with the Clippers and create a tandem expected to compete for NBA championships.

The Mavericks, Heat and Knicks are prepared to make a run at Leonard. Dallas could be enticing because of Luka Doncic’s presence and the front office’s ability to create maximum cap space or work out a sign-and-trade. During Leonard’s years with Nike, he also developed a good relationship with Nico Harrison, the Mavs’ new general manager.

There also have been rumors that Leonard is unhappy with the Clippers’ medical staff because he felt that they, early on, misdiagnosed and underplayed the extent of this knee injury.

Elsewhere on the roster, Serge Ibaka has a $9.7 million player option for next season. Reggie Jackson and Nic Batum will both be unrestricted free agents. Ibaka had back surgery on June 11, so he probably takes the player option to be safe.

As for Batum, the most the Clips can offer him is a 120 percent raise off his 2021-22 minimum salary at $3.2 million. He will very likely receive offers from other teams for least at the $5.9 million taxpayer mid-level exception. The Clippers might have to offer Batum their entire taxpayer MLE to keep him.

Jackson blew up in these playoffs and will be expensive to re-sign. Jackson teared up in his postgame press conference and said he told his teammates “Thank you for saving me” after the Game 6 loss. Jackson was basically heading nowhere in the NBA after his time with Detroit but was reborn after the Pistons cut him and Jackson signed with L.A.

Since Leonard last played a game, Jackson ranked second to George on the team in minutes, points, and assists, and led in plus-minus. Jackson had nine games this postseason with 20-plus points — versus just seven in the entire regular season. He became the first player in NBA history with so many 20-point games in the playoffs after so few 20-point games in the same regular season.

The Clippers own the no. 25 pick in the 2021 draft, and they don’t have another first-rounder until 2027.

Expert Pick

Leonard, Jackson and Ibaka are back next season, Batum is not

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