The performance was remarkable for its efficiency. So was the speed with which it was overshadowed.
In fewer than 26 minutes on March 10, Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard scored 23 points, making 64% of his shots and 40% of his three-pointers, with five assists and four rebounds, in a runaway road victory against Golden State. Leonard also did not commit a turnover. Yet staged against the backdrop of the spread of the novel coronavirus in the Bay Area, the night was quickly forgotten. Within 24 hours, the NBA season was suspended.
No one knows what comes next for the NBA — whether it will restart at all or, if so, in what form. Whether or not Leonard’s performance against the Warriors will be his last this season, it was the latest in a year that saw him average a career-high 26.9 points and 5.0 assists, 7.3 rebounds, which ties his career-best, and 1.8 steals and put him on pace for one of the most memorable, and one of the top statistical, individual seasons in Clippers history.
“This is not a scenario where you got a guy that’s kind of having a season that’s coming out of nowhere,” said Greg Anthony, an 11-year NBA veteran and NBA analyst for Turner Sports. “The guy was the MVP of the Finals last year, he’s been the MVP of the Finals before. I think he’s established himself as, without a doubt, a top-five player in the league.
“When you think about what he’s done, the other [Clipper] that obviously jumps out is Blake Griffin and also Chris Paul. Those are the three guys who’ve had the biggest impact, statistically and wins. He’s without a doubt in that conversation.”
Before this season, a 26-7-5 stat line had been produced only 37 times in NBA history, with four more — Leonard, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Dallas’ Luka Doncic and Houston’s Russell Westbrook — on pace to join that group this season. And Leonard was doing it while playing 32.2 minutes per game, the second-fewest minutes averaged among those 41 qualifying seasons.
A stat line of 26-7-5, plus at least 1 ½ steals, has been done only 15 times by five players. Leonard and Westbrook were set to crack that group, as well.
The abbreviated nature of Leonard’s season, playing 51 out of a possible 64 games as the team managed his regular-season workload, makes it difficult to rank side-by-side against past seasons by Clippers stars, said Ralph Lawler, the team’s broadcaster for 40 years until his retirement last season.
“But you watch him play and think, this guy could be the greatest Clipper player to ever play the game,” Lawler said. “Some would say, ‘Well that's not a very high bar,’ but it is a high bar. Chris Paul was here and a young, vintage Blake Griffin was here and Elton Brand was here and there have been some very good players over the years. Just none of them ever stayed long enough.”
Leonard was on pace to nearly double his career average of 2.7 assists per game and make him only the fifth Clipper 6-foot-6 or taller to average at least 5.0 assists in a season. His improvement as a playmaker reflected a shift in his style of play to meet his new team’s needs.
Without a true starting point guard — only in late February did they add a primary ballhandler to their bench with the signing of Reggie Jackson — the Clippers put the ball in Leonard’s hands more than ever. He had possession nearly 33% of the time the Clippers had the ball, the league’s ninth-highest usage rate, and 63% of his made field goals were unassisted, the highest percentage of his career excluding his injury-shortened nine-game season in 2017-18.
The volume did little to water down Leonard’s efficiency. Among the eight players ahead of Leonard in usage rate, only Doncic has a higher offensive rating. Leonard's scoring average was on pace to be the highest by a Clipper since World B. Free in 1980. Against Cleveland on Jan. 14, he became the only Clipper to score at least 40 points in fewer than 30 minutes.
“Statistically, his offensive numbers are on par with what we saw last year, but that’s the one that really sticks out,” Anthony said. “He’s proven to be more of a playmaker.”
Among Clippers to play at least half a season, Leonard ranks second in player efficiency rating, behind Paul’s 2011-12 season, and slightly ahead of Brand in 2005-06. In February, he became the third player in franchise history to be selected the most valuable player of an All-Star game, following Paul and Buffalo’s Randy Smith.
For all of Leonard’s regular-season production, it was supposed to be just the warmup for the playoffs. Leonard, indeed, appeared to find a rhythm in more recent games that wasn’t there in the season’s early weeks, as he increased his workload after leg injuries kept him from training as usual in the offseason. His offensive rating of 118.6 points per 100 possessions since Jan. 1 was nearly six points higher than in October, November and December.
“I’m feeling better,” he said Jan. 10 after scoring 36 points against Golden State in Los Angeles. “I’m able to jump without it grabbing me too much. Hopefully I just keep going uphill from here.”
He did. That night began a nine-game streak in which he scored at least 30 points, the second-longest such streak in franchise history. During that stretch he averaged 34.6 points, 7.7 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 2.2 steals and shot 51% overall and 39.7% on three-pointers.
In February, coach Doc Rivers felt Leonard was healthy enough to have him guard opponents’ best offensive player more often. In March, Leonard cut his season-average turnover ratio nearly in half.
It was all leading to the postseason’s start in April, when the Clippers hoped to advance to the franchise’s first conference finals and beyond. Instead, it’s led to a waiting game to see whether Leonard, and the Clippers, will get their chance to author a truly memorable season.
“They are one of the two best teams in the Western Conference, period,” Anthony said. “That’s not really a question. What you want to see though is as we get to and in the playoffs, when things get heated, how they perform under duress. How they perform when there’s some adversity and anxiety and tension. Do they trust what their identity is and have they established that? It sounds strange to say that, but there’s a lot of new pieces."