How does Kawhi’s return to form affect the West hierarchy

Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)
Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports) /

There goes that fun guy again.

Los Angeles Clippers star forward Kawhi Leonard has officially returned to form, and the team has climbed to the wild West’s 5th spot thanks in large part to his stellar play. Leonard’s resurgence certainly bodes well for the Clippers’ postseason hopes and spells trouble for their Western Conference competition in more ways than one.

Entering Saturday’s game against the Atlanta Hawks, the Clippers had won 4 of their last 5 games, and Kawhi has averaged 29 points and 5.8 boards while shooting a sizzling 61.9% clip from the field. When healthy, Kawhi has proven he’s one of the best players in the game. This recent run of pure efficiency should not shock anyone, but it has been quite some time since we’ve seen the San Diego State product perform at full strength.

Leonard has slowly returned to form.

He missed the 2021-2022 season after tearing his ACL in the 2021 Western Conference Semifinals and has not consistently dazzled since the 2019 playoffs when he led the Toronto Raptors to the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The Clippers have tried to slowly work him back into the fray, and teammate Paul Geroge has taken note of how he’s helped the team flip the switch.

“The great thing about ‘Whi and just being around him and a teammate of his is just the confidence he gives, just to everybody,” George told the Athletic. “He’s the one guy that’s just the most consistent, and when you’re on the floor with him, he just has so much of that confidence in him that it just bleeds out to the whole team. Like, we know when it’s gone time. We know when it’s time to finish.”

George’s endorsement is an important one. When he and Leonard are both healthy and on the court together- the entire team benefits. We all know about the scoring. George is averaging 23.5 points per game this season and  Leonard is not far behind with a mark of 20.9 points per game over 26 total games. Both have also shown the ability to facilitate when needed.

In Thursday’s 138-100 rout of the San Antonio Spurs, they both had seven assists and created numerous opportunities for players like Norman Powell, Nicolas Batum, and Robert Covington. George and Leonard could make the argument they are one of the most offensively diverse tandems in the West, and their collective experience could potentially serve them well against younger teams, fatigued teams, and less talented teams in the hunt.

The terminator’s return to form opens the gate for George and others to play more freely within themselves, and could ultimately illustrate the Clips’ depth advantage over teams like the Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns.

On a more singular level, Kawhi Leonard has proven that no stage is ever too big. His play in the 2014 and 2019 NBA Finals earned him 2 Finals MVPs and is still held in high regard. Statistically, he’s been about as solid as they come. He holds the 10th-best career efficiency rating in playoff play and is also 9th in terms of career-effective shooting percentage in the postseason. It seems as though he amps up the intensity whenever there’s something on the line.

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As the Clippers slowly begin to jockey for position, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Leonard take it up a notch just in time for his favorite part of the campaign. Of course, Kawhi Leonard is only as good as his availability. But, do not be fooled. If the 5-time All-Star stays involved, the West will have its hands full.