Let's talk a little more about Kawhi Leonard.
Last year's Finals MVP enjoyed the most complete offensive season of his career in 2019-20. It's a simple statement and one backed up by career-highs across the board, but it's also a reality seemingly unconnected to the recognition he has earned for this production.
It's pretty simple to see why this has been the case. The Clippers as a team have gone through periods of apparent apathy with the mundanity of the regular season. Combine that with Leonard and Paul George missing games - both due to injury and precautionary load management - and you have the appearance of a team only focused on 16 wins rather than 82 games.
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That mentality certainly isn't unique to the Clippers but they, more than most, have done little to hide their priorities. This switch-flipping mentality has netted them just as many disappointing no-shows as it has dominant wins, but that trend really only holds true on a team-wide level. As an individual, Leonard has been one of the most consistent offensive forces in the league all season long.
Leonard being inactive for 12 games has created the illusion that he is coasting through the regular season or that he's still resting on the laurels of his Raptors successes. For the 51 games he's been on the court for the Clippers, that hasn't been the case at all.
As the season progressed, Leonard ramped up his availability. While he appeared in under 75 percent of LA's games before New Years, he played in 93 percent of their games during February and March. In their eight losses since January 1st, Leonard has averaged 28.7 points per game and, in that same time, he's only scored under 24 points in four total games with each coming in a Clipper win.
Where scoring consistency used to be one of Leonard's offensive weaknesses early in his career, it has now become a decisive strength. Similarly, while he still isn't someone you'd consider a point-forward, he has come a long way in learning how to be the true hub of an offense.
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He's averaging a career-high 5.0 assists per game this season after never having topped 3.5 before this year. These aren't empty-calorie assists either, Leonard is reading defenses quicker than ever and anticipating where the help is coming from to find the open man.
For much of his career, this just simply wasn't the reality of Leonard's game. There were times his choices seemed predetermined, that he knew the ball was going up before it even got in his hands. To his credit, those shots usually went in, but his feel for the game as a passer has jumped to another level this season.
This feel has come in part from his developing into a more well-rounded scorer. His 26.9 points are impressive on their own but his real development as a shooter has come from the variety of shot types and situations from which he now dominates.
|PnR Ball-Handler||432||47.4 percent||0.97||81.8|
|Off Screen||80||62.9 percent||1.29||93.1|
Leonard quickly developed into a good, then great, pick-and-roll operator in San Antonio but there's little comparison between that player and what he is now as an iso scorer and threat coming off screens. Even in his final healthy season as a Spur - in which he finished third in MVP voting - Leonard was in the 72nd percentile in isolation efficiency and just the 45th percentile coming off screens .
His offensive repertoire has never been deeper and this versatility has helped turn Leonard into one of the few offensive forces in the league capable of single-handedly carrying an offense.
While the Clippers have been incredible with Leonard and George on the court together this season, they've been almost exactly as good in the minutes Leonard has played with George on the bench. Their +11.6 net rating in the minutes with both stars is outstanding, but the almost nonexistent dip to +11.2 when George is off the floor is remarkable.
This direct correlation between Leonard's individual brilliance and his team's success is a big reason why it feels like his best is still in front of him this season. Last year we saw him slowly built into one of the greatest individual playoff runs in recent memory and this season seems to be following a similar trajectory.
It would be doing him a disservice to view his playoff greatness just through the lens of last season, however. Yes, that was his greatest achievement but beyond last year - and even his other Finals MVP in 2014 - Leonard has consistently been one of the greatest playoff performers of his generation.
In 2015-16, Leonard put up 22.5 points on 55 percent eFG% - while guarding Kevin Durant - before the Spurs fell to an insanely talented Thunder squad. A year later, before his season ended at the feet of Zaza Pachulia, Leonard averaged an even greater 27.7 points on 58.9 eFG%.
It's easy to project Leonard to having a similarly dominant playoff run this year, it's almost a relative certainty, but doing the same for the Clippers as a whole is more difficult.
The Clippers might be the deepest team in the league. They have scoring threats all over the floor but few have deep playoff experience and many have offensive value directly tied to the number of shots they take.
That necessity for balance has, in part, led Leonard's clutch usage to fall to "only" 32.8 percent this season. I say "only" because, while it is 18th in the league , it's notably lower than his totals as a Raptor of 39.7 percent in the regular season and 41.1 percent in the playoffs .
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Toronto didn't have a secondary isolation scorer on the level of George but they did have a notably higher clutch net rating of +7.2 last season than LA's +1.8 this year. While you can't draw a direct line between Leonard's usage and that dip, it represents a significant enough trend that it's reasonable to question if the Clippers will struggle from choice overload at the end of games instead of relying on Leonard to carry them.
Leonard's past heroics have undoubtedly earned him the benefit of the doubt that he'll strike the necessary balance, but whether these issues present themselves in the playoffs will be a fascinating subplot. For now, though, it's high time we give Leonard the recognition he deserves for an incredible regular season.
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