Ahead of the season, Paul George selflessly said, “Kawhi is the No. 1. And I am totally fine with that. I think I try to complement him with being able to take the load off of him.”
And for most of the early season, he was wrong.
Kawhi Leonard, to many’s dislike, missed more games than anticipated and, even in the games that he did play, looked abysmal. In his first five games, the former two-time Finals MVP averaged just 10 points on 42 percent shooting.
Let’s also not forget the fact that it took him a span of two months to play those five games.
Cut him some slack, though — ‘The Klaw’ was under a stringent minutes restriction and fresh off an injury that took away his entire last season.
But once a superstar, always a superstar — or so people expect you to be. And as much as it didn’t look to be the case for Leonard early in the season, he has started to look like his past superstar self in the new year.
He’s cashing in on mid-range shots, grabbing boards over opponents’ heads, and even catching bodies near the rim. In 2023, he’s averaging 23 points on nearly 62 percent true shooting, 6.8 rebounds and 3.5 rebounds.
Now, that is a big turnaround from his first five games of the season. A turnaround big enough to re-earn himself the first option title, especially when considering Geroge has missed the past four games with a hamstring injury.
But Leonard’s recent resurgence hasn’t necessarily meant that all the fans’ worries and anxiety were cured. If anything, it was darkly contrasted — perhaps even overshadowed — by the team’s recent struggles.
The Clippers have lost seven of their last eight games and still have a handful of tough opponents hunting for and preying on the worn-out team. As the seventh seed, they are just one game ahead of the 10th-seeded Phoenix Suns and two games ahead of the 13th-seeded Los Angeles Lakers.
How well they manage to ward off their opponents and survive their tragic slump could be the difference between becoming a higher seed in the Playoffs or missing it entirely.
Sure, there are many things to blame — the team’s constant shortcomings in the second quarter, the absence of the likes of George and Reggie Jackson, and Tyronn Lue’s small ball not working as well as it did in the 2021 Playoff runs.
But one way, I believe, that the Clippers can climb out of this abyss is through Leonard. If he starts putting up numbers the way he did in the two series prior to his injury, his excellence alone can be what changes a struggling, mediocre team into a contender. Perhaps the way he did in Toronto in 2019.
Strategies, lineups, injuries — there are many answers to the team’s recent slump. But one solve-it-all cure could already be in Kawhi’s hands.
As always, the better Leonard plays, the scarier the Clippers look.