Three signs Kawhi Leonard can lead Los Angeles Clippers to an NBA title … and three signs he won’t

kawhi leonard

Just like in past seasons, Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard missed a handful of games with an injury.

Unlike in past seasons, Leonard so far has mostly spent more of his time on the court than in the trainer’s room.

The Clippers (21-12) enter Friday’s game against the New Orleans Pelicans (21-14) with Leonard playing in 29 out of a possible 33 games. Though he missed four games with a left hip contusion, Leonard returned for Monday’s game against the Miami Heat and scored 24 points on a 10-for-19 clip. Leonard followed up that in the Clippers’ win over the Suns on Wednesday with 30 points on 9-for-16 shooting.

Should this leave the Clippers feeling more optimistic about their NBA title chances? Though that question is technically premature considering the NBA has just completed just about a third of its regular-season, the Clippers have offered both positive and negative signs they can hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Three signs why Leonard can lead the Clippers to an NBA title

Kawhi Leonard has mostly been healthy and dominant

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Not only have we seen Leonard participate in more practices and games this season. We have also seen more flashes of Leonard’s two Finals MVP performances than in recent seasons.

Leonard has averaged 24.6 points on a 52.3% clip along with 6.0 rebounds in 34.7 minutes, numbers that are fairly familiar to what he has posted in his first three seasons with the Clippers. Consider the context, though. After averaging 22.6 points while shooting 48.2% from the field and 36.5% from 3 in 14 games through November, Leonard has averaged 29.3 points while shooting 61.3% overall and 50% from deep in nine games through December.

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue attributed that big increase to both Leonard and the team setting himself in postups and isolation plays better than at the beginning of the season. “He’s more efficient when he’s going faster this year than in the past,” Lue added. Leonard has proven capable of doing that because he can handle a bigger workload after having surgery to treat a torn ACL in his right knee (2021 playoffs) and a procedure to repair a torn meniscus in the same knee (2023 playoffs).

The Los Angeles Clippers’ stars now know how to co-exist

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The trade initially looked like a disaster. After acquiring James Harden from Philadelphia, the Clippers lost five consecutive games. Harden looked both out of shape and uncertain. Russell Westbrook appeared compromised with sharing ball-handling duties even with a former familiar teammate. Leonard and Paul George received far fewer touches than before Harden’s arrival.

Now, the trade looks like one of the best moves the Clippers could have made. Following that turbulent start, the Clippers reeled off three significant winning streaks (three, nine, three). Lue proclaimed Harden as the primary ballhandler, empowering him both to create for himself and others with more aggression. Lue followed Westbrook’s suggestion to play as a reserve, allowing him to play at a fast pace as the second unity’s primary ball handler. And Leonard and George have become more efficient with moving off-the-ball.

Though the season is far from over, the Clippers have at least shown enough of a sample size that they have improved the dynamic among their four stars.

The Los Angeles Clippers still have depth

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The Clippers received some criticism for acquiring Harden for two reasons. Harden forced his way out of Houston, Brooklyn and Philadelphia when things didn’t go his way. The Clippers also sacrificed some veterans (Nicolas Batum, Robert Covington, Marcus Morris Sr.), youth (KJ Martin), and draft picks (one first-round, two seconds, one pick swap). Nonetheless, the Clippers have shown encouraging signs with their existing supporting cast.

Clippers guard Norman Powell has produced instant offense as an off-the-ball secondary scorer. Clippers center Ivica Zubac has remained a dependable rim protector. And the Clippers should have some additional reinforcements with big man Mason Plumlee returning after missing previous 26 games with a sprained knee ligament.

Three signs why Leonard can’t lead the Clippers to an NBA title

Los Angeles Clippers’ health is still a concern

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Regardless of the team’s improved availability this season, the Clippers cannot ignore their stars’ injury history.

Even if Leonard is further removed from his two major injuries, San Antonio, Toronto and the Clippers have all had to manage him with care through other ailments. Leonard missed significant time in 2019-20 (15 games), 2020-21 (20), 2021-22 (whole season) and 2022-23 (30). Same thing with George in 2019-20 (24), 2020-21 (18), 2021-22 (51) and 2022-23 (26). Harden has also struggled with staying durable in recent seasons, particularly in the playoffs. Westbrook has not shown any issues with his help, but he has shown only spurts that he can be capable of becoming the No. 1 option as he was in Oklahoma City following Kevin Durant’s departure (2016-19).

While no one should wish any injuries on any professional athlete, the Clippers and their fans should temper their expectations on whether the promising early snapshots will represent the final picture in the training room.

Can Los Angeles Clippers’ stars co-exist in high-stakes playoff games?

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It’s one thing to sacrifice minutes, shots and touches during the regular season. It’s quite another thing to do that in the playoffs. Will Harden feel fine with becoming more of a playmaker than a scorer? Or will he sour on that designation just as he did in Philadelphia? Will Westbrook still embrace his bench role? Or will he scoff at that when he presumably sits during crunch time? Will Leonard and George still prefer not to have the ball in their hands? Or will they feel the pinch to take over because of their individual talents?

The Clippers may know how to share the ball in the regular season. No doubt, that foundation can help them in the postseason. But Westbrook and Harden have shown mixed progress with still embracing that responsibility in more significant games.

The Los Angeles Clippers still have a top-heavy roster

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Clearly, the Clippers’ success or failure will hinge on the health and effectiveness of their four stars. They still could use more help elsewhere.

Outside of Powell, the Clippers don’t have a consistent secondary scorer. Terrance Mann has struggled all season. Batum is now in Philadelphia. And Amir Coffey and Kobe Brown are still too young to produce substantially. The Clippers have some center depth with Zubac’s rim protection as well as flexibility to use Plumlee and Daniel Theis as backup centers. Even in today’s NBA, the Clippers are smart to have such size both to defend the paint and to serve as speed bumps against Denver’s Nikola Jokic or Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid. Nonetheless, the Clippers need more wing players to help Leonard and George.

Theoretically, the Clippers could add more depth before the Feb. 8 trade deadline. Outside of their stars, though, the Clippers don’t have much left to offer to land anything substantially.

Mark Medina is an NBA insider for Sportsnaut.  Follow him on XInstagramFacebook and Threads.

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