The Clippers had what may have been the best version of Kawhi Leonard last season, but when will they see him again?
Welcome to our annual Clippers season in review series. Every day until the end of July, we’ll be taking a look back at the players who ended the season with the Clippers (apologies to Malik Fitts and Mfiondu Kabengele). Today, we continue with Kawhi Leonard.
Name: Kawhi Leonard
Years in the NBA: 10
Key stats: Leonard put up 24.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 5.2 assists in 34.1 minutes per game, the highest minutes average of his career, during the regular season. He shot 55.7 percent on twos, 39.8 percent on threes, and 88.5 percent on free throws.
In the playoffs, Leonard averaged 30.4 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 4.4 assists in 39.3 minutes per game. His shooting percentages were 64.5/39.3/88.0.
Future contract status: You may have heard, Leonard can be an unrestricted free agent this summer! Leonard has a player option on the final season of his three-year contract and has until Sunday to decide whether he will opt in or opt out.
Kawhi Leonard was an absolute wrecking ball during the regular season. He started the season on a strong note against the Lakers and Nuggets, was briefly interrupted a facial injury (long live masked Kawhi!), and then continued his rampage through the first month of the season, a reminder of what he was still capable of despite a less-than-stellar 2020 postseason.
That was the story of Leonard’s 2020-21 season — he played at the level of a top-five player, earning first-team all-NBA honors, despite repeated injury interruptions that could have sapped his momentum. Among the nicks Leonard suffered, in addition to the mouth laceration, were missing two games with health and safety protocols, another three due to a left leg contusion, one for back spasms, and then an extended stretch of nine games with a right foot injury.
Like the rest of the Clippers, Leonard’s season would ultimately be judged by the success of his postseason, and he came to play. He was a monster in the first round against Dallas, dominating on the offensive end to start before taking the Luka Dončić matchup down the stretch and putting together one of the more impressive two-way performances in recent playoff history in Games 6 and 7.
Kawhi Leonard finishes the series averaging 32.1 points on …
Just unreal. Most efficient high-usage player in the playoffs right now. pic.twitter.com/XcyeGr2pDN
— Shane Young (@YoungNBA) June 6, 2021
He continued that excellence against Utah and was poised for an all-time great postseason when a knee injury ended his playoffs prematurely. We later learned that Leonard had suffered a partially torn right ACL, and his recovery timeline is indefinite.
Although he got his start in the league as a defensive stopper, Leonard’s offensive production has become the better part of his game. He was incredible as a scorer and creator in his 10th year in the league. The Clippers were 10.2 points per 100 possessions better on offense with Leonard playing.
It’s near impossible to stop Leonard when he gets to his spots. He can rise up for jumpers from the midrange, making 47 percent of his shots from the least analytically-friendly area of the court. Leonard is an elite shooter from every area of the floor, and posted the highest true shooting percentage of his career (62.2). He can’t be moved in the post, and he’s almost equally likely to create for his teammates as he is to score when he’s backing his way to the basket. Leonard post-ups resulted in 1.12 points per possession during the regular season.
The growth in Leonard’s playmaking continues to impress. Ty Lue said at the start of the year that the Clippers needed their best players to be able to create for their teammates, and that was a point of emphasis for both Leonard and George. Leonard averaged a career-high 5.2 assists per game, and more importantly, shattered his career-best assist-to-turnover ratio. He had never averaged more than two assists per turnover and got all the way to 2.56 in 2020-21.
Most of Leonard’s work as a ball handler came in the pick-and-roll, where he was simply outstanding. He finished a quarter of his possessions in the screen and roll, scoring 1.11 points per possession, good for the 93rd percentile in the league. He’s gotten even better at manipulating opponents with his skip passing, and combined with the Clippers’ shooting ability at every position, was able to easily get defenses in rotation.
The real strength of Leonard’s game remains his ability to raise his level in the postseason. The Clippers ran into an absolute buzzsaw in Dončić in the first round but were able to power through because of their own ace in Leonard who can control the game on both sides of the floor. The longer the playoffs wore on, the better Leonard got, which has been a theme throughout his career.
It seems strange to say in a season when Leonard made second-team all-defense, but his individual defense isn’t what it used to be, especially during the regular season. He didn’t move as well laterally in isolation and could get blown by, especially by smaller guards. It’s why the Clippers used Nic Batum as their primary perimeter defender so often, though saving Leonard for the playoffs probably wasn’t such a bad idea.
The Clippers were still 2.3 points per 100 possessions better on defense when Leonard played, and he proved that he could unleash another gear in the playoffs, but it is something to monitor going forward.
Alas, the main issue with Leonard at this point is his availability. The Clippers didn’t have to load manage Leonard in his second season in Los Angeles, but he still missed 20 regular-season games and then was lost for the final eight games of the postseason. It’s easy to wonder what the Clippers would have been capable of in the conference finals and maybe beyond with a healthy Leonard.
Future with the Clippers:
That’s the million-dollar question. First off, we don’t even know when Leonard will play again. His partially-torn ACL has wildly varied timelines that could leave him out for the full season or put him on track to return before the playoffs. In recent years, athletes with torn ACLs haven’t been completely healthy for two years after the injury, though it’s unclear how that applies to Leonard, since he didn’t suffer a full tear.
Then, there’s the question of Leonard’s next contract. He is expected to re-sign with the Clippers, but there will always be some uncertainty until Leonard’s name is on the dotted line. If he returns to Los Angeles, ideally, Leonard signs a longer deal with the Clippers this time around to give the team some certainty in its long-term planning.