'It's a feeling': Why Kawhi Leonard believes the Clippers could be great

Los Angeles Clippers' Kawhi Leonard dribbles during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Golden State Warriors Friday, March 17, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Forward Kawhi Leonard says it's hard to explain why he believes the Clippers could be a great team. "It's just about you knowing that everybody's on the same page." (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Every strong team Kawhi Leonard has been part of has met his same, personal criteria.

It’s not defensive rating.

It’s not assist-to-turnover ratio.

It’s not quantifiable at all.

“It’s a feeling when you know you have a great team,” the Clippers’ star wing said Sunday. “It’s not always [leading] to a championship, it’s just about you knowing that everybody’s on the same page. It’s just a continuous motion. It’s hard to explain.

“Yeah, there’s something special. You got to feel it, and then you’ll know.”

Do these Clippers, who played so unevenly through the season’s first half, rebuilt the roster at the trade deadline only one month ago and have struggled mightily to win without Leonard, meet that criteria?

Inside the Clippers’ locker room Sunday night in Portland following a victory over the Trail Blazers, a fifth win in their past six games to move within a half-game of fourth place in the Western Conference standings, there was a feeling — of cautious optimism.

“I think we were starting to jell a little bit more, like I said, just experience playing with each other,” Leonard said ahead of home games against eighth-place Oklahoma City (35-36) on Tuesday and Thursday. “You get new guys coming in, there’s different colors you’re seeing, different coaches’ voices, different schemes, it’s totally different, different city.

"So I think once those guys settled in and was able to see what we’re doing I think things started to change, but we still got to get better. It’s a lot of things, a lot of mistakes that we’re making at times but we just got to clean that up a little bit and see if we can just keep making leaps.”

Just getting to 38-34 was a leap by itself.

Following last month’s All-Star break, while working to integrate new additions in guards Eric Gordon, Bones Hyland and Russell Westbrook and center Mason Plumlee, the team felt it was only a few plays away from a breakthrough despite a five-game losing streak. Though they were close, with two of the losses decided by one point, they also appeared far away from approaching their self-professed championship potential.

During that losing streak, their offensive rating of 112.8 points per 100 possessions ranked 16th and their defensive rating (120.8) ranked 26th. Their assist-to-turnover ratio (1.59) ranked 22nd. Winning the possession battle was a constant struggle, ranking 29th in offensive rebounding percentage, 21st in defensive rebounding percentage and 25th in the percentage of possessions ending in a turnover (15.7%).

Since a March 5 comeback win against Memphis that began their run of five wins in six games, the improvements have been stark. The Clippers have bumped up their offensive rating by eight points per 100 possessions (120, to rank fourth) while being eight points better defensively (112.9, to rank seventh).

Their assist-to-turnover ratio has jumped to 1.94, to rank 16th, a turnaround that has corresponded with the 13th-best turnover percentage (13.1%). And their rebounding has, well, rebounded. Where the Clippers were 29th in offensive rebounding percentage, they have since ranked third. Where they were grabbing 46% of available defensive rebounds, they have since grabbed 72.5%.

And yet when asked what has changed — and what still needs to improve — the Clippers follow Leonard’s lead and point to a feeling.

“We have a pretty good spirit right now amongst our guys and they want to win,” said associate head coach Dan Craig, who won Sunday in relief of coach Tyronn Lue, who did not travel to Portland because of a non-COVID illness.

“We come in and we expect to win, that's really the key,” said Paul George. “We expect to play well. We know what we need to do and we know what it looks like when we're at our peak. We're dialed in, we're getting on guys if we're blowing coverage, if we're not where we need to be.

“I think we're holding each other accountable because we know what it looks like when we are succeeding. It gave us that accountability to step up in that way.”

The Clippers never trailed in Sunday’s win in Portland, and yet by losing a 15-point lead in less than one quarter to one of the league’s most aimless teams since the All-Star break, the Clippers also offered fresh evidence for why many within the locker room are encouraged, but unsatisfied, with their progress.

“Right now we’re getting better and we’re still figuring it out but we got to start showing a level of dominance of showing what we can really do,” said Gordon, , who defined dominance by gaining control of a game and sustaining a lead.

“Offensively I’m not too, too worried about that,” he said, “but I think defensively is the main point.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.