Clippers need to start seeing prime Kawhi Leonard soon, or their best-laid plans could crumble

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 31: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the LA Clippers drives to the basket during the game against the Indiana Pacers at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on December 31, 2022 in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.(Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Kawhi Leonard remains the key to the Clippers unlocking their championship form. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Two months ago, Tyronn Lue assured us that the sky wasn’t falling on his Los Angeles Clippers — a team tipped as a championship contender (and maybe even the favorite) before the season began, but that had muddled through injuries and offensive inconsistency in an up-and-down start to the 2022-23 campaign. And, for what it’s worth, he was mostly right.

Lue’s squad didn’t exactly take off after that proclamation, mostly continuing to bob and weave around .500 without winning or losing more than three straight. But by the grace of Paul George and with some contributions from what purported in preseason to be the NBA’s deepest supporting cast — a big night from Norman Powell here, an onset of “ogre mode” for Ivica Zubac there — the Clips weathered the storm of Kawhi Leonard’s ongoing absence, staying afloat in the choppy waters of the West long enough for their main man to return and finally resume resembling a made man.

As December wore on, Leonard started to strong-arm, averaging 20.6 points, seven rebounds, and 4.2 assists in 31.9 minutes per game. The lift and touch on that indefensible mid-range jumper was coming back — 52.5% between the restricted area and the arc last month — and he’d looked excellent in a few outings while starting to log more minutes. After a quality road win in Toronto on the second night of a back-to-back, L.A. sat at 21-15, winners of seven of nine with Leonard in the lineup, blitzing opponents by a monster 14.5 points per 100 possessions when he and George shared the court. Maybe, at long last, the Clips that were promised had finally arrived?

Fast-forward to an ugly week and a half later, though, and maybe it wasn’t the sky, but something extremely large and impossibly heavy sure as hell fell on the Clippers in Denver on Thursday:

What looked like a towering tilt between title hopefuls with long-simmering postseason beef — both of whom, in something of a miraculous turn of events, actually fielded healthy starting lineups — quickly turned into, um, not that. The Clippers came out of the gate with six straight misses, clanged 10 of their first 11 3-point attempts, were down double figures after just over eight minutes, and were doubled up by halftime. L.A. never led, trailing by as many as 43 in what settled as a 122-91 annihilation. Cleaning the Glass, whose stats strip out production compiled in garbage time, stopped counting after the third quarter; Lue, fed up by the total lack of competitive mettle shown by his starters, sat them for the entirety of the second half.

“It’s one thing to lose,” Zubac said after the game, “and another thing to lose like this.”

Your standard caveats about not assigning too much meaning to an early January affair apply. Given the talent on L.A.’s roster and Lue’s steady hand at the tiller, nobody would be all that surprised to see the Clippers rip off a big run and enter springtime as precisely the powerhouse so many projected. The lingering image from Thursday’s beatdown, for me, though, was a comparatively unremarkable first-quarter sequence:

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That Leonard created that corner three for Marcus Morris is good, especially considering how little north-south oomph the Clippers showed through the (brief) competitive portion of the contest. For a team that continues to linger in the bottom-third of the league in shot attempts at the rim, drives to the basket and paint touches, every little bit of dribble penetration and resultant shot creation helps, and a dependable catch-and-shoot target like Morris will cash out on those looks if they keep coming. It’s what happened afterward that caught my eye, though: Leonard chugging as he tried to get back on defense, pointing out Bruce Brown on the wing and asking somebody else to pick him up, unable to hit the gas to do it himself, and landing in the lane a step too late to contest a fast-break layup that put the Clips down a dozen.

It’s probably fair to assign some caveats there, too; maybe the hitch in Leonard’s giddy-up there was solely a product of the challenges of playing at elevation in the Mile High City, of the flu-like symptoms that he said left him bedridden earlier this week, of the fatigue that comes with playing six of the last seven on the road, or some combination thereof. Either way, though, it offers a tidy summation of the state of affairs: In a league where every team jousting for pole position features a game-breaker who can bend the proceedings to his will, the Clippers need Leonard to be theirs.

George can do it, for stretches, when he isn’t lugging around a balky hamstring. But Leonard has done it, on the biggest stage, twice. Against the best of the best, if he doesn’t have it — his first bucket didn’t come until the 3:31 mark of the second quarter, when the Clippers were already down by 38 and en route to their fourth straight L — then the Clippers probably don't, either.

To this point, for the most part, they haven’t. As noted by NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, no team in the NBA has a bigger gap in its performance against teams above and below .500, with L.A. going 16-5 against teams with losing records and just 5-14 against teams with winning records. The disparity has played out on a per-possession basis, too: According to Cleaning the Glass, the Clippers are 2-7 against opponents in the top 10 in point differential — compared to 12-4 against bottom-10 opponents and 7-8 against middle-of-the-pack sides — with the NBA’s third-worst net rating against the top flight.

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The optimistic view reminds us that, prior to the destruction in Denver, precious few of those contender-class clashes came with the Clippers at full strength, due to the vast array of injuries that has once again so bedeviled Lue’s team that he’s apparently got to keep a cheat sheet with reminders of how many minutes guys are cleared to play on any given night. And with Leonard looking healthier while other significant injuries dot the Western landscape — from Zion Williamson’s hamstring injury and Devin Booker’s groin strain to Stephen Curry’s shoulder subluxation and Anthony Davis’ stress reaction — this feels like an opportunity for the Clips to make a move up the standings, if Leonard’s up to more consistently shouldering the load. The strong overall numbers for the full-strength starting lineup and centerless five-out lineups featuring Leonard (albeit in limited minutes) offer hope that, with more regular reps for the kinds of groups Lue would likely lean on in big spots, the Clips can still work their way into form by the postseason.

It’s just that … y’know … we’ve kind of found ourselves saying that every season, haven’t we? Stayed waiting for the on-paper plan born of Steve Ballmer’s billions to actually come to fruition in the season’s biggest minutes?

Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray tore up the blueprint in the bubble in 2020. Leonard’s brutally timed ACL tear scuttled the opportunity in 2021, and effectively kept L.A. from ever getting out of the blocks last year. Now, nearing the midpoint of what’s supposed to be The Season, the Clips are in a precarious position — two games south of home court in Round 1, but also two games north of watching the play-in, with two more long road trips before the All-Star break in what is, according to several strength-of-schedule metrics, the toughest remaining slate in the Western Conference. Heading into the season, the Clippers profiled as an upper-echelon championship pick; halfway through, the playoff projection models give them only a 1% or 2% chance of hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

These are the times that try teams’ souls — the spots where you need your superstar to carry you. For his part, Leonard’s working on it; he told reporters after Thursday’s loss that he’s working toward a goal of eventually being able to play both ends of back-to-back sets and “trying to establish games with me hitting those high 30-minute marks.”

That’d certainly be a welcome change for a team that has continued to struggle to establish and maintain a consistent identity. The weeks ahead should provide more opportunities for him to get closer to that goal: After the All-Star break, the Clips will only have two back-to-back sets, will play 13 of their final 21 games at home, and will be playing on more rest than their opponent eight times, according to schedule analysis from Positive Residual.

That should create an environment conducive to Lue having his No. 1 option on the floor and in on the action more often, and we know when Leonard’s operating at the peak of his powers, he can go toe-to-toe and blow-for-blow with absolutely anybody; we’ve seen it. We just haven’t seen it much recently. If we don’t start seeing that more, and soon, then the sky may well start tumbling down in L.A. — and an entire franchise’s best-laid plans might come with it.