Kawhi And The Clippers Are Waking Up

The Los Angeles Clippers are used to lurking in the shadows. Despite Ballmer’s limitless Microsoft money, despite having two of the biggest names in the sport, despite playing in one of the biggest cities in the country, the Clippers rarely see the sun. Overshadowed by their crosstown rivals, constantly undermined by injuries, Los Angeles is easy to dismiss, a wheezing paper tiger constantly in traction.

It’s better this way. The league is focused on trendier teams, like the Pelicans, the Grizzlies, the Celtics, the Nets, and maybe even the Knicks. But while everyone is looking elsewhere, the Clippers are slowly gathering strength. Kawhi has played in 11 games this year, starting nine. Quietly, oh so quietly, the team is 8-1 when he starts — and he’s still rounding into form.

Mr. Fun Guy has looked fantastic inside the arc, even after a year-long absence. He’s shooting from the same spots with the same accuracy levels, even if it hasn’t looked as easy as in previous seasons. It’s been a different story from outside, however:

Kawhi has often been accused of being a robot, and this shot distribution chart is court-admissible evidence. It’s uncanny to see any player with such a consistent distribution, much less a guy coming off an entire missed season, and it’s encouraging he’s still able to get to the rim with regularity and finish with aplomb.

Despite his current quickness deficit, Kawhi has had no problems getting to his spots and rising for the patented midrange, either. He has always been the least-spontaneous player in the league; as soon as he gets the ball, he puts his head down and drives to a predetermined spot, ready to uncork his absurdly high release:

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Leonard has always been strong, but post-return, he’s leaning even more upon brute force, shoulder-checking guys into smithereens with shoulders the size of pumpkins. Smaller players have no chance. Here he is, bludgeoning reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart and drawing the foul:

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Leonard hasn’t quite regained his burst yet, and his first step comes and goes. Here, Blake Griffin stymies him on the isolation, absorbing the contact and forcing a bail-out pass to Paul George. I wonder if teams wouldn’t do better to put bigger, slower players on Kawhi for now:

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His quickness should return as he further heals and gains strength, which is a scary proposition for the rest of the league. That recovery process should eventually help his three-point shot, too. He’s missing more than three-quarters of his attempts from deep, and his shot looks a little flatter now than it did at his peak. But we have a significant track record of Kawhi being a sniper from distance, and I don’t think this is anything to worry about long-term.

Interestingly, defenses have still been treating Leonard like he’s prime Klaw. He’s faced a surprising number of double-teams, and strongside defenders have been aggressively overhelping. To his credit, Kawhi has not forced the issue, and he’s taking what the defense gives him. He’s never been a natural playmaker, but he’s painstakingly worked throughout his career to become a positive passer. He has utilized the threat of his midrange to continually pick defenses apart from his favored right elbow spot:

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Kawhi’s defense has been sturdy, although he’s not the lock emoji he once was. Younger, healthier Kawhi caused ballhandlers to hover forty feet from the basket so as not to accidentally catch the ball, turn it over, and give up a dunk in transition; current Kawhi is a much more approachable problem. He’s been caught reaching a few times, been a bit slow to rotate a few times more… minor things that should correct themselves.

Leonard is still balancing when to help and when to stick with his man, but his ball-hawking instincts are coming back. He’s averaged two steals and five deflections in his last three games (for reference, teammate Paul George leads the league in deflections, averaging a hair over four per game). In addition, he’s been guarding everyone from Jaylen Brown to Kristaps Porzingis (to varying levels of effectiveness).

Most importantly, the team has been absurdly impenetrable when Kawhi is on the floor. Per Cleaning the Glass, Kawhi has played 589 non-garbage-time possessions this season. The Clippers have allowed just 574 points, less than a point per possession, an outrageously low total that would be a historically great mark if sustained for a full season.

That defensive rating will likely stabilize a little (teams are hitting just 30% of threes when Kawhi is on the floor, a mark that will rise with larger samples), but the Clippers routinely put out five above-average perimeter defenders that make life hell on shooters. That’ll be even more true in the playoff crucible when so much high-level offense involves picking on a team’s weak links. The Clippers have none. Los Angeles is filled with tough, long, gritty role players eager to do the dirty work.

Even with this slightly diminished Kawhi, LA threatens to be one of the best playoff defenses we’ve ever seen. While the offense has generally been yucky, they won’t need to score many points to comfortably win games with scores that look like they were stolen from local Chargers games.

The Clippers must be pleased with Kawhi’s form after not even a dozen games. We know that players coming off long absences have often taken months to get back into game form, so Kawhi’s quick return to full strength would change the trajectory for this team.

Make no mistake: he still will miss a lot of games. Load management plus a balky knee that seems to act up randomly ensures that he’ll never carry too much of a regular-season burden. But if Kawhi (and George) are healthy come playoff time, the Clippers won’t need to worry about seeding. I can already envision very good teams tanking to avoid the high seed that has to face a six- or seven-seeded Clippers team.

Kawhi’s return won’t be linear. He’ll have setbacks; he’ll have games where it doesn’t look right. But the Clippers are hoping that a rock-solid process finally yields results, and so far, returns look very positive.

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at basketballpoetry.com that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.