What if Kawhi Leonard isn’t the same?

Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports
Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports /

The moment the 2022-23 NBA season is officially underway, it’ll be as though the prior two seasons simply never happened. The heartache associated with losing in the 2020 Conference Finals will be swept under the rug and the disastrous 2021-22 season will be a thing of the past.

Fans will also quickly forget how Kawhi Leonard limped off the court during the 2021 postseason as well. Initially believed to be an innocuous injury, LA Clippers fans held their breath as a shroud of mystery circled his true injury status. Although they clung onto a fading hope that Leonard would return to play if they had simply gotten past the Phoenix Suns, once they were unceremoniously booted from their first Conference Finals appearance, his ailments were finally revealed, a torn ACL.

The normal gasps and shaking heads that once accompanied an ACL tear diagnosis had become antiquated thinking over the years. While ACL injuries derailed the careers of Bernard King, Ron Harper, Tim Hardaway, and a long list of other notable players, medical advancements have made those once debilitating injuries much easier to bounce back from.

Still, before Clippers supporters begin salivating over a tenacious Kawhi Leonard, hounding wing players on the defensive side of the ball while dropping countless buckets on offense, what if Leonard’s ACL tear shifts him down the NBA totem pole.

Prior to hitting the mend, Leonard was considered amongst the game’s best. With twin Defensive Player of the Year Awards sitting on his mantle to go along with two NBA titles, two NBA Finals MVP awards, and a handful of All-Star selections, Leonard’s lofty placement was undeniable.

Regardless of the expectation of Leonard and his recovery process, there’s always a possibility that a once great player is reduced to a mere good one. If, by chance, Leonard is no longer capable of giving the Clippers roughly 30 points a night on nearly 50% from the field while playing lockdown defense, they’ll have to hand the keys to the car to Paul George. But will that be enough?

Is Paul George, a diminished Kawhi Leonard, and a stout bench enough?

George, a sweet-shooting two-guard with limitless range and one-of-a-kind defensive chops, has always been the bridesmaid but never the bride. During his earlier years, George was the focal point behind an Indiana Pacers squad that banged their heads unsuccessfully against a LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Miami Heat wall.

Since eventually making his way out of town, George has played second fiddle at various stops. In Oklahoma, despite conceding that Russell Westbrook was the head of the snake, George finished third in the MVP voting during the 2018-19 season, after averaging 28 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists, and 2.2 steals a night.

Continuing his role as Robin, George has slotted perfectly next to Leonard since joining the Clippers in 2019, averaging 22.4 points per game in two seasons playing alongside his soft-spoken star teammate.

Ultimately, while George has shown to be comfortable in his secondary role, he has displayed the ability to push the Clippers to new heights as the lead man. During the 2021 NBA Western Conference Finals, George stepped confidently onto the court as the Clippers’ lone star and proceeded to average 28.7 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 5.5 assists before losing to the Suns in six games.

George only kept his momentum going this past season. Leonard cheered from his courtside seat as George would go on to average 24.3 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 5.7 assists without the assistance of Leonard.

The next few months will be critical for Clippers fans. Leonard, as he has been throughout the regular season, has continued his offseason grind. By all accounts, he should be on his way to an explosive 2022-23 season, where he’ll place LA firmly at the front of the line in terms of title favorites.

A turn for the worse, however, isn’t out of the question. If Leonard’s ACL injury has robbed him of his athletic gifts, Clippers’ fans shouldn’t be fearful of their now murky future. George is a superstar player in this league. And while he isn’t the cream of the crop, with the help of what could be a somewhat diminished Leonard, a stellar bench, finishing with the second highest points per game total last season, and an ever-evolving head coach in Ty Lue, the Clippers should be just fine.

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