clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Kawhi Leonard Is Back—and the NBA Should Be Petrified

One of the most devastating two-way forces in NBA history is looking like his old self once again. That could spell trouble for the rest of the league.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Several of this season’s championship contenders have assumed the best and worst characteristics found in their franchise players. The Nuggets are selfless, polished, and aesthetically breathtaking, though questions remain about their defense. The Grizzlies toe the line between brash and insecure. The Bucks are bullies that win ugly with willful rigidity. The Celtics are elite on both ends, uplifted by their positional versatility and offensive explosiveness.

And then there are the divisive 32-28 Clippers: inscrutable, bored, and extremely frightening to anyone who’s paid close attention over the past month or so. As an organization that’s set to pay a nine-figure luxury tax bill, Los Angeles has a clear ambition. The Clippers want to win it all, at any cost. But their ability to realize those dreams has been more of a loaded issue, thanks to how they manage the demanding standards imposed by an 82-game season.

The Clippers are deep, packed with experience, outside shooting, and two-way competence. Everything falls apart without Kawhi Leonard. To some, this is inauspicious. For others, it’s a godsend. As someone who made five of the previous seven All-NBA teams, Leonard entered this season as the most overqualified X factor in history. After missing all of the 2021-22 season with a torn ACL, Leonard’s return to the floor this season was accompanied by a tight minutes restriction. He surprisingly didn’t check into either of his first two games until midway through the second quarter and then promptly missed 12 straight games with stiffness in that surgically repaired right knee.

The Clippers proceeded to handle their most important player with severe caution. In a mid-November home stand against the Pistons, Spurs, and Jazz, Leonard finally returned to the starting lineup. He scored 25 total points but sprained his ankle, leading to another six-game absence.

Fast-forward a couple of months, and Leonard has quietly reestablished himself as one of the best players in the world. Since a collective Clippers dud against the Denver Nuggets on January 5, he has smacked of someone who deserves All-NBA consideration. Here are his averages over that 16-game stretch: 28.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 1.9 steals. His shooting splits: 52.9/49.4/91.8, with a reassuring 6.1 free throw attempts.

It’d be disrespectful to call Leonard’s play revelatory. He’s one of the greatest two-way forces in NBA history. It’s better to see it as a reminder of what he’s capable of and to look at how it impacts a conference that should be petrified right about now.

The Clippers are 22-11 when Kawhi plays—boasting the NBA’s best offense and fourth-best defense with him on the court—and 10-17 when he does not. Several catchall advanced stats love what they have seen from him this year. Leonard ranks seventh in estimated plus-minus, seventh in DARKO (a forward-projecting metric), fifth in FiveThirtyEight’s overall RAPTOR, 18th in BBall Index’s LEBRON, and 29th in ESPN’s real plus-minus.

“He’s back to his normal self. I think the minutes is back to where he’s comfortable on the floor,” Paul George said. “No restrictions on him. So I think, you know, his flow, his timing, I think his touch, I think everything kind of just came back to normal for him, and he’s looking like the Kawhi when we first got here, pre-injury. He looks back to that level, and some.”

Marcus Morris is a bit more direct when asked what similarities he sees between Leonard now versus a few years ago. “You’ve been watching, right? You can answer that question yourself. Shit, you already know,” he said, cracking a smile. “He’s back playing and being himself. I think it’s more just about the movement. I don’t think he ever wasn’t himself. I think he’s just getting comfortable with the actual movement. I’m very confident in our team, what we can do. I’m just happy when everybody’s healthy.”

That last part can never be taken for granted with the Clippers. Taking the massive leap from five pedestrian games before Thanksgiving to this extended period of dominance should be seen as a very big deal. Eighteen months after tearing his ACL, Leonard is, in many ways, operating at or near the peak of his powers; the last time we saw those on display, he was the best player in the entire 2021 postseason.

For those who forgot what those 11 games from the 2021 playoffs yielded: 30.4 points on 67.9 true shooting (lol) and a playoff-high player efficiency rating of 30.6. He was RoboJordan in Game 6 of the first round against Luka Doncic and the Mavericks. Facing elimination on the road, Leonard finished with 45 points on 18-for-25 shooting while sticking to Doncic for four quarters, executing a game plan that abandoned L.A.’s normal switch-everything scheme. JJ Redick, who was on Dallas’s bench at the time, called it “one of the greatest individual games I’ve ever witnessed.”

It’s impossible to know whether those Clippers would’ve won it all had Kawhi never gotten hurt, but they were as versatile, deep, and star-studded as any of the remaining candidates, including the eventual champion, the Bucks.

Leonard isn’t appearing in back-to-backs and has yet to compete in six straight games, but over the past month, he has averaged 2.67 miles per game, which is more than he’s logged in any regular season. His top speed from any night this year is 16.9 miles per hour, reached against the Lakers on January 24, a number he’s bested in only three regular-season games since 2020.

Still only 31 years old, Kawhi looks like Kawhi. During the Clippers’ recent 10-day road trip, I had a chance to ask Leonard how he feels about this season and where he is at now versus before the knee injury.

“I’m still getting used to the schedule, just the grind … just being out all last year. Now, we’re playing every other day,” Leonard said. “It’s kind of like you’ve got rookie legs again, per se. ... I wouldn’t judge [my body] about how I used to feel. It’s just about how I’m feeling now. [I] can’t compare myself to two years ago. So it’s about what I have to do today to get my body ready for the game.”

Norman Powell, one of Leonard’s closest friends on the team, regularly asks him how he’s feeling. From those conversations, Powell remembers Leonard telling him how important it’s been to lose some of the weight he put on during his rehab and recovery process. “You’re trying to build muscle around where the injury was to make sure it’s strong and protected, and maybe do what you wouldn’t do,” Powell said. “So by doing all that lifting, he put on a lot of weight. So getting that down to where he’s able to move better, get more explosive. I think he’s done that.”

Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue agrees: “Early on, it was different because he got to his spots, but he didn’t really have a lot of lift. But now he gets to his spots quicker with a lot more pop, getting to the basket for some dunks and finishing around the basket. … He looks really good to me.”

Relative to his former self, he’s plenty aggressive too. Since December 31, Leonard has driven the ball 12.2 times per game, according to Second Spectrum. (The most he’s ever averaged in a season was 13.8 in Toronto.) His blow-by percentage in that stretch (23.08) is the highest it’s been since 2016, and the overall 1.23 points per direct drive Leonard has produced are a career best.

Watch these plays, and he’ll occasionally attack the rim. But for Kawhi, forays to the hoop often peter out into difficult pull-up jumpers that surprise you when they don’t drop. Crowd him on the perimeter, and you’re just rolling a red carpet out toward where he actually wants to go:

Any player’s assertiveness in the paint is relevant in a conversation about their physical confidence. But Leonard’s bread and butter is and will always be in the midrange. Very few players can still be highly efficient with a diet that’s oversaturated by contested long 2s. Kawhi is one of them, mostly because he’s entirely impervious to whatever his defender wants to do. Contests are more futile than bothersome:

Ho-hum. Here are two of the best defenders at their respective positions doing pretty much everything in their powers to make this shot as grueling as it could possibly be. Kawhi responds with a yawn:

Leonard’s quantified shooter impact is 8.74, which ranks eighth out of 112 players who’ve taken at least 500 shots this season. (Six out of the seven in front of him are All-Stars.) In other words, his effective field goal percentage is 8.74 percent higher than what the average player would have with those same shots.

The eye test may be even more encouraging than Leonard’s numbers. He looks decisive, sharp, and swift. The methodic, unhurried rhythm that once catapulted him into MVP debates is present yet again, along with his trademark awareness and calm when staring at a double- or triple-team. The jab steps, feints, and shoulder fakes enhance his precise footwork and deceptive strength. There’s also those improvisational “big plays” that special people yank out of thin air. When scripted sets veer toward a blooper, this dude shines:

Whether generating 1.2 points per direct pick-and-roll—which is higher than any season since he left the Spurs in 2018—curling off a wide pin-down, or bulldozing through a one-on-one matchup, Leonard is able to dictate actions and single-handedly shape an efficient offense. His effective field goal percentage as a screener ranks in the 97th percentile among all players who’ve set at least 100 ball screens this year.

Oh, by the way, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year is still a hell-raising horror movie come to life. There aren’t five players you’d rather have on that side of the ball for one play, game, or entire playoff series. For most, dribbling the ball with Leonard nearby is self-sabotage:

And what can’t be overlooked is how menacing he is off the ball, which is one reason Lue decided to move Terance Mann into the starting lineup in early January. “It allows PG and Kawhi to kind of play free safety on the backside,” Lue said. Those units also let Leonard rack up deflections and steals while protecting the rim and impacting the boards. “That shot goes up; he’s one of our best rebounders, and it allows him to be in the right spots,” Lue said.

He can also trap the box, slide across the paint, and be an absolute eclipse at the rim. It doesn’t matter who’s trying to score: Confrontations with Leonard in the paint don’t typically end well for the ball handler.

His closeouts are still a headache. Even for some of the fastest players alive, turning the corner on Leonard is far from easy:

Despite Leonard’s vintage play over the past several weeks, skepticism abounds from those who don’t think a two-month playoff run is possible without some health-related hiccups, which is understandable. The organization still tracks every move Leonard makes, and the first sign of lower-body pain could be a cataclysmic setback if it occurs in the middle of a seven-game series, with no opportunity to rest. In the meantime, chemistry, consistency, and load management are real issues worth investigating.

Leonard’s teammates and coaches might feel like he’s the same guy whom the Clippers moved heaven and earth to acquire a few years ago, but that Kawhi also had scheduled, stringent restrictions that limited his availability. Flipping the switch overnight may not be an option for a team that’s barely over .500 and trying to avoid the play-in. They’re 5-12 against teams that have a top-10 net rating; only the Pistons and Rockets have a worse point differential in those matchups. Stripped of context, the Clippers have been a humongous disappointment.

“I think everybody feels it needs to happen right away, or if it doesn’t happen in four or five games, then the team’s not right, [and] we gotta blow it up,” Powell said. “But it’s a process, and we’ve got vets here who’ve been through it and understand it, and everybody’s bought in and tied into the marathon of the season.”

The trade deadline didn’t hurt. Eric Gordon, Bones Hyland, and Mason Plumlee are a B12 shot, upgrading areas of need and enhancing strengths this roster already had. All of them fit with Leonard and make his life easier than it was before.

But even before those changes, the past few weeks drenched this team in more optimism than even Leonard’s most ardent supporters could’ve predicted. Almost every time he plays, he is a capital-S Superstar who’s able to go toe-to-toe with anybody. When he’s humming, there are no game plans that can slow him down. He’s an unguardable All-NBA candidate whose team has been excellent regardless of whether his All-Star sidekick is on the floor.

“Early on, [our rotation] was just kind of all over the place, trying to figure it out. Who can play with who, playing 10 guys. It just got hard, you know?” Lue said. “But we’ve come to a point where we finally got Kawhi and PG healthy, and [it’s] time to start winning some games.

“[We] still got a lot of work to do to understand how we want to play every single night, but I like where we’re going. ... When Kawhi and PG play, we’re a different team.”

There’s reason to believe the Clippers can go further than ever before. And Kawhi Leonard once again looking like Kawhi Leonard—inscrutable, bored, and extremely frightening—is the no. 1 reason.