The Los Angeles Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard saw his first game action in over a year on Monday night in a preseason game against the Portland Trail Blazers. Leonard scored 11 points, grabbed four rebounds in 16 minutes of action and was grateful to be back after a lengthy injury rehab. But ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith wasn’t here for the happy reunion talk. Smith said when it comes to missing games there is nobody better than Leonard.
“When we talk about a cat that is an absolute professional at missing games, Kawhi [Leonard], nobody beats him,” said Smith. “Can we see you play, please?”
"When we talk about a cat that is an absolute professional at missing games, Kawhi [Leonard], nobody beats him. … Can we see you play please?"
— First Take (@FirstTake) October 4, 2022
Smith is doing his hyperbolic thing and went as far as comparing Leonard to Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving, who is also prone to missing games. Of course the major difference between the two is Leonard plays when he is healthy and available, he doesn’t take random PTO in the middle of season like Irving.
A healthy Leonard is a devastating two-way All-NBA monster capable of averaging 30 points a game and locking up the best offensive player on the opposing side. But it’s been 476 days in between action for Leonard and his long-term health is a question.
“The body feels good,” Leonard said. “Obviously, I am not going to be playing 35 minutes, 38 minutes to start, so it is going to be a little shaky early, probably. But like I said, it is a journey, it’s a process, and that is what I am about.”
The Clippers are +700 to win the NBA title this season, tied with the Brooklyn Nets for the fourth-best odds. Obviously, Leonard being healthy and returning to form is critical. Monday night’s game was a step in the right direction.
“It was great,” Leonard said of playing again for the first time since tearing his right ACL in Game 4 of the Clippers’ second-round playoff series against the Utah Jazz on June 14, 2021. “Just being able to put all that hard work that I did throughout the, 14, 16 months, just able to put it to test and playing against NBA talent, it was good. Just being out there with the guys and talking, I missed it. It was a great experience for me.”
Managing this injury will be key for the Clippers. Don’t expect Leonard to play back-to-backs. He needs to be feeling strong in April. Expect him to play 60 games or so and for the Clippers to “load manage” him appropriately. He shouldn’t average more than 32 minutes a night in the regular season.
Smith can rail all he wants about Leonard showing up to work and collecting checks while not playing. That’s how the game goes. If Smith is unable to show up on the set of “First Take” because of illness he still gets paid too.
It’s unfortunate when stars miss games, and fans want to see the biggest names in the sport play. But an 82-game season with the ground players have to cover in today’s game is too much. If the league wants to ensure more players are healthy, they can always shorten the season.
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