Stats (as of March 10): 26.6 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 4.9 APG, 0.5 BPG, 1.5 SPG, 51.1 FG%, 38.7 3PT%, 87.3 FT%, 61.9 TS%
As we approach the All-Star break, it’s worth examining the LA Clippers’ central players and their performance halfway through the regular season—and no one is more central than one Kawhi Leonard.
Despite being an offensive juggernaut and the Clippers’ go-to option, defense is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Leonard. And rightly so; The Claw has been a flawless perimeter defender when engaged throughout his career. His length, enormous hands and excellent mobility make him a nightmare for opposing offensive players. When he’s off the ball, he reads passing lanes as well as anyone in the league (he ranks ninth in the league in steals). And unlike smaller guards with his level of defensive vision, Leonard has the size to cover more ground without overcommitting.
Leonard has looked engaged for the most part this season, though the numbers are a bit less cut and dry. The Clippers post a 109.9 offensive rating with Leonard on the floor, which would rank 11th in the league, three spots higher than the Clippers as a whole. While this defensive rating would be the lowest of Leonard’s career, it’s hard to fault him given how bad defenses have been this year throughout the league. NBA teams seem to have mastered offensive efficiency, given the record number of three-point attempts and the general level of skill that the average player carries nowadays.
What might be a bit alarming is the fact that the Clippers are slightly worse defensively with Leonard on the floor in terms of opponent effective field goal percentage. It’s a small margin, but it is a bit strange given that he’s clearly the Clippers’ best defensive player. This can probably just be chalked up to Leonard playing the majority of his minutes against opposing starting lineups, which are inherently much more efficient offensively.
Going purely by the eye test, Leonard looks as terrifying as ever. There are still very few (if any) players in the NBA that a head coach would choose to guard the opposing team’s best player on a given possession to win a game. It’s safe to say he still has the ability to flip a switch when he needs to and smother whoever is in front of him.
If Leonard does ever look disinterested defensively, it’s because he is expending his energy on the other end of the floor. While Paul George has been one of the most efficient scorers in the league this season, Leonard is still the Clippers’ sun offensively. However, it is worth noting that his usage rate is the lowest it’s been in five years. Obviously, it’s great to have your best player touching the ball as much as possible, but this stat shows that Leonard can defer to his teammates and not worry that the team will collapse offensively (LA ranks third in the league overall). Defenses have had some success at denying Leonard the ball, but he’s done a great job this season at finding open teammates when opponents send multiple defenders at him (he’s averaging a career-high 4.9 assists this year).
Leonard is a few percentage points away from hitting the coveted 50/40/90 club this season. He’s been hitting threes off of pick-and-roll and in transition, but he does the majority of his damage in the midrange. Leonard has become a true master of elbow jumpers, triple threat decision-making and flat-out overpowering opponents on the block. His free throw attempts are a bit down compared to his last two seasons, but he’s made up for it by upping his two-point efficiency (55.8%, his highest since becoming a true offensive engine).
It might be blasphemous to say, but defense should no longer be the first thing that comes to a fan’s mind when they think of Leonard. He’s a scoring monster, and there isn’t really another player like him in the league on the offensive end; Kevin Durant might be more skilled and polished, but he doesn’t have Leonard’s brute strength. He’ll once again be a nightmare for opposing defenses come playoff time. If he has lost even a slight step defensively since his peak days in San Antonio, he’s more than made up for it on the other end of the floor.
It should also be noted that Leonard has had his fair share of injuries so far this season—as is to be expected at this point in his career. Leonard is simply no longer an 82-game player. While he has started playing back-to-backs, he's missed time due to a leg contusion, back spasms, and (this is less concerning) health and safety protocols. "The best ability is availability" is an overused proverb, but it is an essential truth of sports. Here's hoping Leonard will be healthy when it matters most.
Halfway Point Grade: A-