When it comes to the Kawhi Leonard experience, the only certainty is, well, uncertainty. The five-time All-Star forward should arrive at his team’s facilities with a handy questionnaire.
How is Kawhi feeling today? Will he play both ends of the back-to-back set? Will he want to stay here beyond this season? How many water bottles can he hold in his hands?
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The biggest question for the Clippers coming into the 2022-23 season was whether Leonard could regain his status as one of the most dominant two-way forces in the NBA.
At the start of the new campaign, he showed signs of rust, an unsurprising development considering he was coming off a significant knee injury. Through his first 16 games, Leonard averaged 17.3 points in 28.9 minutes, shooting 47.7 percent from the field and 27.4 percent from 3-point range.
But as The Sporting News’ Gilbert McGregor noted in mid-December, the numbers didn’t tell the full story. Leonard was focused on the process on rather than the immediate results, and there were promising glimpses of the two-time Finals MVP for those watching closely.
“Even the slow start that he had, it was like, ‘All right, we’re good,'” Clippers forward Paul George told JJ Redick on “The Old Man and The Three” podcast. “He’s getting good looks. He’s getting good shots. He’s gonna turn this game around at some point, and we’re gonna be in the game because of his shot-making ability and his playmaking and his overall presence on the floor.”
Now, there is no doubt. The “Fun Guy” is back to his old Raptors form.
Since the calendar flipped to 2023, Leonard’s stats are up across the board and in line with what he produced during his championship run in Toronto. He has been ridiculously efficient, flirting with 50/40/90 shooting splits.
|Oct. 20-Dec. 31 (16 games)||17.3||6.1||3.9||0.9||28.9||47.7||27.4||78.1|
|Jan. 1-March 7 (23 games)||27.4||6.3||3.9||1.7||36.2||52.2||48.7||91.6|
|Overall (39 games)||23.3||6.2||3.9||1.4||33.2||50.7||41.3||87.4|
In a thrilling double-overtime loss to the Kings on Feb. 24, Leonard torched every challenger. He scored 21 of his season-high 44 points in the third quarter and didn’t miss a shot the entire period.
Spot-up triples, off movement, off the dribble, in isolation, facing a double-team — Leonard was absolutely surgical, slicing and dicing Sacramento’s defense from every angle.
Leonard has also flashed his elite defense. He may never be able to reach his monstrous Defensive Player of the Year peak again, but he is still capable of single-handedly blowing up possessions.
He had a season-high five steals in a win over the Bulls on Jan. 31, including a classic Kawhi grab-and-go…
As well as the game-sealing theft in the final seconds.
“He just has a knack and an ability to stay in a play. It’s impressive,” George told Redick. “It is super impressive because he’s great, phenomenal defensively, but there are times where somebody might beat him. But then he has this crazy ability — it’s like his arms get longer. His fingers stretch further. He has a way to get back in the play that’s super impressive.
“He just has this grip on the floor where he gets anywhere and closes anything off. It’s crazy. It’s crazy to watch.”
Most importantly, Leonard continues to directly impact his team’s performance. Los Angeles has a top-five offense and defense when he is on the floor, and it holds a record of 24-15 with him compared to 10-18 without him.
Of course, that’s the entire issue, isn’t it? The Raptors were able to employ a strategy that kept Leonard rolling through the 2019 NBA Playoffs when his minutes increased. It’s unclear if the Clippers will succeed in the same fashion.
So, while the original question has been answered, others remain. That’s just part of living through the Kawhi Leonard experience.