After trading for James Harden and thereby assembling one of the most expensive starting lineups ever, the pressure cooker was turned on for the Los Angeles Clippers.

They needed to establish themselves as championship contenders to justify their massive budget sheet. At first, Los Angeles’ other team failed to meet expectations, stumbling to an 8-10 record despite touting four former All-NBA players.

But since then, the Clippers have won their last eight contests and have climbed their way into the top 10 in our supercomputer’s title odds.

A big reason for their recent turnaround has been the performance of the player who ushered in this epoch of Clippers basketball – two-time NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.

Over his last eight games, Leonard is averaging 29.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and 1.3 steals on traditional shooting splits of 62.3/54.8/95.1, reaching levels that no other player has before him.

But what is Leonard doing that is making him so damn effective? Is he doing something different? And is this version of him the very best basketball player on the planet?

What Kawhi’s Doing

The unsexy truth of the matter here is that what Leonard’s doing on offense right now isn’t all that different from what he’s done in the past. Simply put, Leonard is still the basketball cyborg we have come to know and love.

He’s still forcing his way into his favorite spots (first clip in the montage below), feasting off of shallow pindowns (second clip), soldiering his way to the charity stripe (third clip), and using his line drive jumper to masquerade as a human flamethrower from beyond the arc (fourth clip).

The major difference between 2023-24 Leonard and the versions of him we’ve seen in the past is his role. Since joining the Clippers back in 2019, Leonard has been asked to do a great deal of playmaking to compensate for their lack of a traditional point guard. 

Leonard has improved as a passer over the years, but running an offense possession after possession has never been his strong suit. That’s why the Clippers have tried to bring in various floor generals to elevate some of this burden off of his (broad) shoulders.

Guys like Rajon Rondo, Reggie Jackson and Russell Westbrook have all tried to fill this void, but none of them compare to James Harden in this category.

Even at his advanced age, Harden is able to handle the lion’s share of ball-handling and playmaking duties. This allows Leonard to operate in a more consolidated role – one that allows him to focus primarily on scoring while mixing in some playmaking.

This phenomenon is better understood when you look at his usage (a career low this year) and true shooting (a career high this year) percentages during his time as a Clipper.

kawhi percentages

On defense, Leonard is in the 92nd percentile in the NBA in defensive DRIP (minimum 100 minutes played). This output isn’t too dissimilar from his standing in past seasons. But if you watch the tape, you can’t help but notice that Leonard looks more agile than he did last Christmas.

He’s getting back and defending in transition (first clip in the montage below), he’s playing safety in the passing lanes (second clip), using his bear paws to end isolation possessions prematurely (third clip), and he’s making plays at the rim (fourth clip).

Speaking of rim protection, Leonard’s block rate of 1.7% is the highest mark he’s tallied since his days in San Antonio. Some of this has to do with the fact that Leonard is playing more power forward than ever (25% of his minutes, per Basketball Reference).

But a lot of this is a byproduct of the fact that he didn’t have to spend the offseason rehabbing a torn ACL injury. And so far (knock on wood), he’s been able to carry that health streak into the regular season – playing in all 26 of Los Angeles’ games.

Best Player on the Planet?

The last time Leonard made it through a non-Bubble postseason without injury it was in 2019 when he led the Toronto Raptors to the NBA title.

Back then, people were starting to talk about him as potentially being the best player in the world. And now that he’s putting together this historic stretch, those conversations have resurfaced.

So, is he?

The exercise of ranking players is complicated. It requires hours of film and data analysis just to come out with a semi-definitive answer.

With that said, we can get a feel for where a player ranks among their peers by looking at variables like one-number metrics (like our DRIP) and net rating (to see how good the player’s team is when they are on the court).

And when you compare Leonard’s numbers in those areas to some of the league’s other heavy hitters, you see that he is right up there with anyone.

Drip leaders

Of all the players that are commonly discussed as the best in basketball, Leonard is tied for second in DRIP and fifth in net rating. The only other player in the top five in both those categories is Nikola Jokic – the individual many people believe to be the best player in the NBA.

When he’s healthy, Leonard is a two-way monster with hardly any weaknesses. In fact, some would argue that he possesses the fewest weaknesses of any NBA superstar.

The problem is the one main weakness he does have may be the most damaging (no pun intended). In the past, Leonard’s body has broken down on him. So, it isn’t wise to make any sweeping proclamations about his ranking until he shows us that it won’t happen again this year.

But if he can prove us all wrong and get a fully healthy season under his belt, you’ll likely only need one hand to count the number of players ahead of him.

Hell, depending on how this postseason goes, you may not need any hands to count how many people are better than Kawhi.

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