Name: Kawhi Leonard
Years in the NBA: 9
Key Stats: Leonard averaged 27.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 4.9 assists in 32.4 minutes per game during the regular season. He played in 57 of LA’s 72 games. During the playoffs, Leonard averaged 28.2 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 5.5 assists in 39.3 minutes per game.
Future contract status: Leonard signed a three-year deal in the summer of 2019 with a player option for the third year, so he can become an unrestricted free agent after this season if he opts out.
Leonard came into this season with a claim to being the best player in the world, having just led the Toronto Raptors to their first title in franchise history. It took him a little while to ramp on the defensive end as he recovered from a lower leg injury, but offensively, Leonard looked the part immediately. He outdueled LeBron James on opening night to beat the Lakers without Paul George and set career highs in points and assists while shooting 37.8% from 3-point range on the highest volume of his career. The Clippers gave him the keys to the offense, and he took control en route to a second-team all-NBA season.
The first-year Clipper sat out one game of every back-to-back during the season, but only missed consecutive games once. Those came during November, right as George was returning to the lineup, and in hindsight, that portended the two stars’ inability to get on the same page during their first year as teammates.
Leonard started taking on the key defensive responsibilities later in the year and proved yet again that he was a devastating force on that end of the floor. His defensive rebounding numbers were also the highest of his career, and he helped lead the team to a top-five defensive rating.
During the playoffs, Leonard was outstanding in the first round, but the burden of being the team’s best offensive and defensive player grew too heavy against the Nuggets. He was excellent for most of the first six games but then laid an egg in Game 7 as the Clippers season came to an end.
Seriously, Leonard was an efficient scorer from everywhere on the floor. He was the primary playmaker in the starting lineup and was the team’s third-leading rebounder. He was also the fulcrum on defense. If the Clippers were in a scoring lull and needed a quick burst, Leonard was the go-to guy. If an opposing player was starting to heat up, the Clippers would give Leonard the matchup or just switch up the scheme so Leonard could wreak havoc in help defense.
Leonard’s frame and ability to get to his spots make him a tough cover for even the best defenders in the league. He often does his damage quietly to the point where you look at the scoreboard and are surprised by how many stats he has accumulated, but then he also lights a fire under the team with his hammer dunks. Leonard’s improved passing made him even more dangerous because he could still keep the offense humming when the defense was giving him extra attention.
The Clippers had high expectations of Leonard when he joined the team, and he delivered. His mere presence on the floor makes the Clippers not only a threat to win every night but also a real championship contender.
Leonard can initiate offense and effectively create for himself and others, but he isn’t a point guard. His natural instinct is to score, even if he is also capable of making the right play. The Clippers made him the lead ball handler in the starting unit, and they didn’t really have a point guard other than Lou Williams on the roster for much of the season, and that was an unfair role for Leonard. During the regular season, Leonard was mostly able to handle that responsibility, but it was harder during the high-stress games of the playoffs. This isn’t so much a weakness as a flaw in roster construction, but the Clippers shouldn’t expect Leonard to be a de facto point guard going forward, at least not for long stretches.
The Clippers also had a lack of leadership this season, and some of that blame falls on Leonard as the team’s best player. At the two previous stops in his career, Leonard fit into established cultures in San Antonio and Toronto. He could lead the team on the court without having to the be the emotional leader; that role was reserved for players like Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, or Kyle Lowry.
The Clippers seemingly expected Leonard to create a culture in Los Angeles, and that’s not his style. He leads by example, not vocally. Ty Lue said that the Clippers would have more of a leadership by committee approach so that the onus didn’t fall completely on Leonard on George, but it’s something to keep in mind if there are more murmurs of locker room dysfunction next season.
Future with the Clippers:
Kawhi Leonard is the Clippers’ future. The Clippers will do everything in their power to keep him around, something they already demonstrated that by mortgaging their entire future for Paul George. Leonard can choose to leave in free agency, but it is the Clippers’ primary goal this year to convince him to stay.
Leonard was fantastic throughout the regular season and the majority of the playoffs, but the earlier-than-expected postseason loss prevents him from getting an outright A.