All-Star Analysts

Can Kawhi Leonard quietly lead the Clippers to the finals?

Published May 14, 2021, 7:20 AMNorman Black
Norman Black

Kawhi Leonard has evolved into one of the NBA's best two-way players. Will this be the year he and the Clippers come out of the West?

Back in 2011 when I was still coaching the Ateneo Blue Eagles, we went on our annual trip to Las Vegas to train at IMPACT basketball run by Joe Abunassar and got to train around Kawhi Leonard. 

We had been going there for the last six or seven years and got to train beside – and sometimes scrimmage with – some NBA players like Kyle Lowry, Kevin Love, Isaiah Thomas, Corey Maggette, and Demar DeRozan, who were there to work out during their offseason in the spring. They would come in at around 7 in the morning. We would come in at around 9 and get our work done while they were doing weights. On the weekends, some of them would scrimmage against us.

In Kawhi's case, we never really got to work out with him. When we were doing our on-court work, he would watch us while he was icing. For the two weeks that we were there, we never really got to talk, but he was still pleasant with us. He was, and still is, a very quiet person. Back then, you could already see the type of work ethic he had. Of all the players we got to see at that camp over the years, Kawhi probably had the best work habit because he was always there early when he had a choice to come in later. 

What struck me about him then was he didn't have the arms of a 6-foot-7 guy; he had a wingspan of a 7-footer. At that time, he was already a dead shot from midrange. When I say dead shot, he was automatic from 20 feet and in. When he eventually turned into the player that he is now, it didn’t surprise me given his work ethic.

Kawhi through the years

NBA scouts will usually tell you that a prospect needs three years to turn into the player that he's eventually going to become in the league. I always liked Kawhi because he was a two-way player, meaning he impacted the game on both ends of the floor. He wasn't too productive in his rookie year, but he was already shooting 38 percent from 3.

He continued to develop dramatically, even winning Finals MVP when the Spurs won the title in 2014. Coming out of San Diego State, Kawhi was being touted as a defensive stopper, so I was surprised that he turned into such an efficient scorer in the NBA. You could really see that in his breakout year in 2015-2016, when he first became an All-Star, scoring 21.6 points per game while shooting 50.1 percent from the field.

At the same time, his defense was still great. As a defender, Kawhi is a disruptor. He uses his physical tools to harass you and make it difficult to dribble around him. You'd have to protect the ball when he's around you and you can't just make a simple pass. An understated thing about him is he's also a great defensive rebounder. People don’t really think about defensive rebounding as part of defense, when it's actually what completes the defense. When you have a guy like Kawhi that helps limit teams to one shot, he becomes a very valuable part of your defense. That's why coaches love defensive rebounders more than they love offensive rebounders.

It's in 2016 when teams started the strategy of going away from their best offensive players because Kawhi was guarding them, which reminded me of what most PBA teams tried to do over the years against Marc Pingris of Magnolia. In his prime, you did not want him involved in any pick-and-roll or any one-on-one play. So basically, we'd take his man and sit him in the corner. Even with that, he'd still try to switch off his man just to stay involved in the defense. Just like how we'd have to set up an offensive movement for Ping's defense, that's what happened with Kawhi in the NBA. Sometimes you’re so good, a team will have to sacrifice one of its best offensive players just so you’re not involved.

Eventually, when he moved to the Toronto Raptors, he became a superstar. With San Antonio, he was a great player that had an established trio of superstars leading the team in Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker. In Toronto, he got a chance to be the leader. He had the most experience in that group. They needed so much from him to win a championship and he delivered.

Kawhi the Clipper

As for now, the biggest question is if Kawhi and the Los Angeles Clippers can quietly win the West. Looking at their team, they should be favorites, though not a lot of people are talking about them.

The Clippers are number five in the league in rebounding differential (51.9 percent), number one in 3-point shooting (41.5 percent), and number one in free throw shooting percentage (84 percent) -- that combination is enough to win in the NBA, particularly because you have big-time defenders on the team. Kawhi and Paul George are both elite at their positions while Terance Mann, Marcus Morris Sr., Nicolas Batum, and Patrick Beverley are all solid defenders. They even picked up DeMarcus Cousins to go with Serge Ibaka and Ivica Zubac to form a pretty good center rotation.

When you have a defensive lineup like this and you have a solid offense, that gives you a good chance of winning the championship. They can match up against any team in the West defensively, and they have six guys shooting above 40 percent from deep on offense. To win a championship, you have to have a combination of skills that put you over the top and those skills aren’t going to be the same for every team.

In the Clippers’ case, they have a lot of things going for them. Their wing rotation in Leonard, George, and Morris might be the best in the NBA. They have solid options in Rajon Rondo, Reggie Jackson, and Beverley at point guard. They also have a lot of shooters that could take turns in making big shots in the playoffs. What you have here is an efficient scoring team with sound defense.

The reason they’re not getting a lot of love this season might be because of how they exited the playoffs last season. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George need to show up as better leaders this coming postseason. To their credit, they have improved a lot this year, particularly George. Probably, no one talking about them is the best thing that could happen to them.

Kawhi in the future

All players should strive to add to their game every offseason, which all superstars really focus on. In Kawhi’s case, it doesn’t surprise me anymore that he continues to evolve as a player.

That prospect who quietly and diligently went about his business in 2011 is one of the best players now in the NBA. He deserves to be in the upper group of best defenders in the history of the league. When he's healthy, he's the best defender on the court every time.

You can see that Kawhi has turned into one of the most skilled scorers in the league, even developing great ball-handling. He gets compared to the late Kobe Bryant a lot with how he’s been scoring. Kobe went to the post more later on in his career, and I can see Kawhi doing the same. For now, he's already one of the best to ever play. Now, can he quietly win a third title with his third team?

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