The LA Clippers recently announced that superstar forward Kawhi Leonard underwent successful surgery to repair a partially torn right ACL sustained in Game 4 of the Western Conference Semifinals.
Leonard, who was averaging 30.4 points per game up to that point in the playoffs, missed each of LA's final eight playoff games while rehabbing with hopes of returning to action during a potential Finals run. The news of Leonard's surgery confirms the team's initial reported fears that he had suffered an ACL injury.
As the 30-year-old Leonard enters an offseason in which he could opt out of the final year of his contract to become an unrestricted free agent, the developments of his recent surgery and the ensuing recovery period add a layer of uncertainty to what his future may hold.
For more information surrounding the nature of a partially torn ACL and Leonard's potential timeline to return to action, we reached out to our medical expert, Dr. Michael S. George of the KSF Orthopaedic Center in Houston, Texas, who provided insight on what the two-time Finals MVP is facing.
What is the ACL and how does it tear?
"The ACL, or anterior cruciate ligament, is the ligament in the center of the knee that stabilizes rotation in the knee. The ACL is comprised of two bundles of tissue and so it can tear partially involving the portion of one of the bundles, or completely involving the entire ligament.
"If enough of the ACL is torn to cause knee instability, then surgery is necessary to stabilize the knee."
Is a partial tear treated differently than a complete tear?
"Most partial tears in athletes are significant enough to need surgery.
"Regardless of whether it is a partial or complete tear, surgery involves reconstructing the ACL, usually with a soft tissue graft from another part of the knee, such as the patellar tendon, hamstring or quadriceps tendon."
Historically, how have players recovered from ACL tears?
"ACL tears are common in NBA players. A study by Harris and colleagues in the journal Sports Health examined 58 NBA players who tore their ACL (and found) 86 percent of players returned to play in the NBA after surgery. In the study, over the next several years, injured players experienced a similar decline in performance as non-injured players.
"Guards struggled the most with returning to play while centers return more easily."
What will Leonard's rehab process entail?
"After surgery, extensive rehab is necessary with a gradual increase in activity from walking to running, and then finally cutting and pivoting activities at four to six months. This rehab will extend into the beginning of next season with a return to NBA competition likely in January or February if he has a typical recovery schedule."
Can Leonard return to peak form following surgery and rehab?
"Once he's fully recovered, he would be expected to return to his full activity level, although history shows that there may be a gradual decline in games played and in-game performance.
"That being said, Leonard has displayed his extraordinary resilience before, as he recovered from a severe quadriceps injury and then went on to win the NBA championship with the Toronto Raptors. And so he certainly could do it again and regain his All-Star form after this setback as well."
Leonard, who underwent surgery on July 13, has until Aug. 1 to make a decision to opt in or out of the final season of his contract.
As outlined by NBA.com's Scott Rafferty, Leonard has a few options that give him a different range of financial flexibility should he choose to remain with the Clippers organization.
With Leonard still competing at an MVP-calibre level this past season, one could cite the free agency of Brooklyn Nets superstar Kevin Durant in 2019, as the two-time Finals MVP inked a four-year maximum contract weeks after surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon. The injury ultimately held him out of his first year under his new contract, even after being cleared medically.
After missing the entirety of the 2019-20 season, Durant returned to an MVP level during the 2020-21 campaign, though it's worth noting that various ailments and time spent in the league's health and safety protocols limited Durant to 35 regular season contests
With that in mind, is there a possibility that Leonard misses the entirety of the 2021-22 campaign? As outlined by Dr. George, Leonard's recovery timeline should put him in a position to return to action midway through the season, but it will be interesting to see if his injury history has any impact on when he returns, as well as what his contract situation will be.
Stick with NBA.com for more updates surrounding Leonard's injury and his impending free agency.
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