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Kawhi Leonard return: Can he recover from surgery in time to help Clippers next season?

Kawhi Leonard arrived at his courtside seat inside a Las Vegas gym Monday to watch the Clippers’ Summer League team sporting matching shorts and shirts bearing his initials and jersey number. And they didn’t appear to be the Clippers star’s only new, personalized accessory.

Nearly one month since Leonard underwent surgery to repair what the team said was a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament, a scar a few inches long appeared to run up his right knee.

Lawrence Frank, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations, described Leonard’s procedure last month as major surgery begetting a recovery “that’s going to require a great deal of time.” Just how much time is the as yet unanswerable question looming over the Clippers’ upcoming season.

After re-signing free agents Reggie Jackson and Nicolas Batum to two-year contracts, signing Leonard to a four-year deal worth $176 million on Thursday and learning center Serge Ibaka would opt into the final season of his contract, the Clippers bring back the 10 players who had the most minutes in last season’s playoffs, 88% of their postseason minutes overall, in an effort to run back the roster that advanced to the Western Conference finals.

Leonard, of course, is expected to miss a significant amount of next season, possibly all of it. But if he can return healthy, he would represent a missing piece capable of returning the Clippers back to bona-fide contender status.

The NBA’s 2022 postseason will begin in mid-April, nine months after Leonard’s surgery, and continue into June. That is within the typical recovery window of nine months to one year often cited by orthopedic surgeons and athletic trainers, a recommendation based on data showing that those recovering from ACL injuries are slightly less likely to be reinjured if they return to play after nine months, said an athletic trainer for an NBA team who requested anonymity to candidly discuss the subject.

“In Kawhi’s case it will be a little less than a year, which is very doable,” said Alan Beyer, the executive medical director at Orange County’s Hoag Orthopedic Institute, where he is also an orthopedic surgeon. “No two players are alike, so some would take seven or eight months to come back. With the caliber of these players, I would not rush. But I certainly would give him the full nine to 10 months at least before I’d expect to see him back.”

Based on that postsurgery timetable, “it’s not unreasonable” to think that an NBA player such as Leonard, with access to top-of-the-line care, could return and play next season, the NBA athletic trainer said.

While timelines speak to generalities, individual recoveries hinge on variables specific to each athlete. Caveats abound. It is not known whether Leonard underwent a standard, full ACL reconstruction that has the most data behind its efficacy, or some other, far less common partial repair. Other variables include his response to surgery, the level of atrophy seen in his quad or thigh and whether the injury involved multiple ligaments. The first answers about his progress might not be seen for months, and not only because of Leonard’s well-known desire for privacy: Clues will be revealed gradually by a battery of tests that measure, among other things, his stability and force exerted while jumping and landing.

A healthy Leonard can pull off physical feats that invite few comparisons on the court, but a different kind of comparison will follow him into the training room next season as he continues his recovery: Could he be the next Spencer Dinwiddie?

Dinwiddie also suffered a partially torn ACL last season, in late December, and underwent surgery in early January. During his introduction as a Washington Wizard this week, the guard from Woodland Hills Taft High said he was cleared to play just before June’s conference finals, a recovery of slightly more than six months.

“I anticipated a ramp-up before the Finals if my former team, Brooklyn, was fortunate enough to make it that far,” Dinwiddie told reporters. “Obviously, the season ended. With that being said, I continued my workout schedule. What I didn’t advance to was five-on-five, playing and things like that because we were waiting to sign the contract, obviously just out of abundance of caution. Just in terms of medically, I’m cleared.”

Dinwiddie‘s recovery offers precedent, but not a prediction for Leonard. Dinwiddie, for one, believed his recovery was aided because he had already been through a recovery from a full tear seven years before. This is Leonard’s first ACL injury.

Seven months “is on the early side, but it’s not unheard of,” the athletic trainer said. “I don’t think if somebody looked really good at that point and if there’s an increased risk and they’re willing to assume it, but they are meeting all the requirements, it’s definitely not out of the ballpark that someone can come back this early.

“It’s also no one’s fault if he comes back after 10 months or 11 months or 12 months. Sometimes people just respond differently to the surgery and you see it all the time.”

That cautionary sentiment was shared by the agent of a player who had gone through an ACL recovery.

“No one ever says, ‘I came back too late from my ACL recovery,’” said the agent, who spoke about the matter under condition of anonymity.

Before leaving Las Vegas’ Cox Pavilion on Monday, Leonard stood along a baseline without crutches and talked with George and their coach, Tyronn Lue. At one point, Leonard reportedly began dribbling around. The first glimpse of a 2022 comeback? Wait and see.

“You can fool mother nature, but you can’t fool father time,” Beyer said. “Healing just takes a certain amount of time to occur.”



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