Under-the-radar superstar injury for a West contender could rock the NBA playoffs

Apr 4, 2024; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue
Apr 4, 2024; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue / Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Much of the buzz in the NBA’s western conference has been about the top three teams and the race for the number one seed. The Nuggets, Thunder, and Timberwolves have each taken turns holding the lead, and they’ve each had to balance winning with managing injuries.

The Nuggets had to hold the fort without Jamal Murray, but he was finally able to return on Saturday. The Wolves have been missing Karl-Anthony Towns for over a month, but word is he should be back before the end of the regular season. And the Thunder have been without Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jalen Williams recently, but SGA will return on Tuesday night.

Clippers injury scare

But the team lurking in fourth place, the Los Angeles Clippers, have shockingly been one of the healthiest teams in the league this season. That surge has largely been led by Kawhi Leonard, who has put together an All-NBA caliber season and played in 68 games, his most since the 2016-17 season.

Once the poster child for load management, Leonard has been a relative ironman this season. That’s why it didn’t garner major national attention when Kawhi was ruled out for last Tuesday night’s game with knee soreness.

Extra concern for Kawhi Leonard

Unfortunately, as healthy as he’s been all season, it’s impossible to ignore the past and the long laundry list of injuries for Leonard. We’ve seen this movie before and it has started innocently enough in the past, just like this.

Now Kawhi has missed four games in a row and he’s slated to miss another game on Tuesday night. Sure, there’s a chance the team is just being cautious and finally getting Leonard some extra rest ahead of the playoffs. But given the history, there is also a chance this is much more.

Healthy Clippers a threat to the Nuggets

With a healthy Kawhi, we’ve seen just how dangerous the Clippers can be as they went on a dominant 25-5 run earlier this season. They cemented their status as legitimate contenders and looked like they could pose the largest threat to Denver of any team in the West.

But without Leonard at full strength, this team doesn’t stand a chance. As good as Paul George has been, he can’t be the number one option on a championship team. James Harden has thrived this season as the third guy, but he’s proven he can’t be relied on as a one or two in the playoffs. Keep a close eye on this Kawhi injury over the next few days; his status will go a long way in determining the outcome of the Western Conference.