Kawhi Leonard and Co. have been dominant through their first seven games. When Paul George returns, they could be the closest thing we’ve seen to Michael Jordan’s Bulls.
The Clippers have looked unbeatable this season even without Paul George. They are tied for the NBA’s fourth-best record (5-2) and fifth-best net rating (plus-6.1) without their second-best player, but even that undersells their dominance. With Kawhi Leonard on the floor, they have a net rating of plus-18.2 in 183 minutes. By surrounding the best player in the world with waves of shooters and defenders at every position, the Clippers have become the clear favorite to win the NBA championship.
Kawhi snatched the crown in last season’s playoffs. As Kevin Durant tore his Achilles and LeBron James watched from home, Leonard flipped the Eastern Conference finals by shutting down Giannis Antetokounmpo and then finished off the banged-up Warriors in the NBA Finals. Nothing has changed in the first two weeks of this season. LeBron was outclassed by Kawhi in the Battle of Los Angeles on opening night, and Durant is out for the season.
If anything, Leonard has raised the bar even higher. He’s averaging career highs in points (29.3 per game) and assists (5.7), and is tying career highs in rebounds (7.3) and steals (2.3) despite playing the sixth-fewest minutes (30.5) of his career. While quad injuries have sapped some of his athleticism, the 28-year-old more than makes up the difference with greater skill and a better feel for the game.
It’s time to start talking about Kawhi as one of the greatest players of all time. He’s a two-time Defensive Player of the Year who scores more efficiently than James Harden. He’s in the 98th percentile of isolation scorers leaguewide this season. He needs only an inch of space to get his jumper off, and a perimeter player with his size (6-foot-7, 230 pounds, 7-foot-3 wingspan) and strength can create space off the dribble whenever he wants. The wildest thing about the comeback he led against the Jazz on Sunday—scoring 18 points in the fourth quarter against the no. 1 defense in the NBA—is how easy it looked:
It doesn’t matter who is guarding him. The Lakers have the no. 2 defense in the NBA and Kawhi scored 30 points on 10-for-19 shooting in only 32 minutes in the Clippers’ season-opening win.
If the defense leaves one man on him, Leonard can score at will. If they send help, he finds the open man. That has been the biggest area of growth in his game: He has turned himself into an elite playmaker who can read the defense, make plays on the move, and thread passes across the floor.
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