With Kawhi Leonard healthy again, Clippers look like major threat

Toronto Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic says that Immanuel Quickley is day-to-day with a right thigh contusion, and believes he will sit out against the Los Angeles Clippers, while Scottie Barnes will step up to start at point guard.

TORONTO — How many titles did Kawhi Leonard leave on the table?

We’ll never know, of course. And the man has two championship rings to go along with two NBA Finals MVPs, so it’s not like he needs any validation or any more proof that at his best he’s among the very best to ever do it.

But the NBA moves fast, and Leonard is now 32 years old, and will turn 33 this summer. He’s 10 years removed from his first championship with the San Antonio Spurs as a 22-year-old, two-way force that no one really saw coming. He’s five years out from his win with the Raptors when he was the best player in the world for a span of two months, lifting his game to new heights a season after he missed most of a year due to a leg problem, the treatment and diagnosis of which prompted his split from the Spurs.

Looking back it’s hard to imagine the 2019-20 Raptors wouldn’t have defended their championship had Leonard stayed in Toronto. The Raptors set a franchise record for winning percentage without him and went to seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals with the Boston Celtics. They were an elite team in need of a closer.

Was running in it back with Leonard ever even in the cards?

One Western Conference executive I spoke with recently said that “all the intel out there was that he was going to Los Angeles, that anyone who traded for him would have him for one year.”

The Raptors rolled the dice and won, but lost Leonard.

The Raptors’ best hope was that with a title as proof of concept and the image of the championship parade fresh in his mind, Leonard would stick around. But it wasn’t good enough. Leonard wanted to play in Los Angeles and the Clippers were able to cut a deal to make it happen.

The question is whether Leonard will reach the heights he reached as a Raptor ever again.

No one is suggesting he’s not capable. He rolls into Toronto on Friday night playing like the Kawhi of old, or young, depending on your perspective.

Leonard and the Clippers started slowly — Leonard recovering from off-season knee surgery and the Clippers adjusting to the addition of James Harden — but he’s been his monstrous self since, better than ever in some respects.

Since the middle of November, Leonard is averaging 24.9 points a game with nearly absurd shooting efficiency as he’s converted 54.4 per cent of his two-point attempts, 45.1 per cent of his three-point attempts and 90.8 per cent of his free throws. It adds up to a True Shooting percentage (which factors in accuracy and production from all three categories) of 65.3 per cent.

For reference, his True Shooting percentage during his championship run with the Raptors was 61.9. When Nikola Jokic — one of the most efficient offensive players in league history — led the Denver Nuggets to the championship last season, his True Shooting percentage was 63.1.

It’s bonkers stuff. And as anyone who watched earlier this season when the Raptors lost to Clippers in Los Angeles and saw Leonard eliminate Scottie Barnes in the fourth quarter can attest, the Clippers star remains one of the most formidable stoppers in the game, too.

“He’s a force of nature,” said Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic, who was an assistant with the Spurs summer league team the year San Antonio acquired Leonard — unheralded as the 15th-overall pick in the 2011 draft — in a trade with Indiana. “I was able to follow his career from the start, his very first Summer League. It was amazing transformation… he just continues to improve every single year, adding more stuff to his game and obviously one of the best two-way players in the league.”

But for Leonard, the only number that really matters is games played.

Even with the Raptors he was only able to play 60 regular-season games, and while he led the playoffs in minutes played, there were moments during the run when his availability wasn’t certain as he dealt with a persistent knee issue.

Since then, Leonard’s career has been a story of peak performances sandwiched around lengthy injury absences. Leonard was putting up 30.4 points per game and shooting 57.3 per cent during the 2020-21 playoffs before a partially torn ACL ended his post-season in the Western Conference semifinals. He missed all of the 2021-22 season but was back on his game in 2022-23 and had put up a pair of giant performances to open the Clippers’ first-round series against the Phoenix Suns but tore the meniscus in the same knee where suffered his ACL injury. His post-season was done early again, with the Clippers being eliminated in the first round shortly after.

It’s been a different story so far this season. Heading into Friday’s game, he’s played in 38 of the Clippers’ 42 starts. He’s played in back-to-backs and has only missed four games total due to a strained hip flexor over Christmas. If he maintains his current pace, Leonard will play 74 games this season, which would tie his career high, set as a 25-year-old with the Spurs in 2016-17 when he finished third in the MVP race.

Not surprisingly, having Leonard available and playing at his usual elite level has been a boon for the Clippers. Since starting 3-7, Los Angeles has gone 25-7, the second-best record league-wise over that stretch.

“It’s been great for us, just having that consistency,” said Clippers head coach Ty Lue when I spoke with him in Los Angeles earlier this month on the same day Leonard signed a three-year contract extension for $153 million. “Just having our guys playing every night. We can fix our rotations, we can understand who plays well together and the perfect fit. … The biggest thing with Kawhi was that this summer, like he always does, he put in the hard work. But it takes a little luck. It’s a tough game and the way he plays the game, injuries are part of it and a big thing in sports. I’m just thankful he’s healthy and all the hard work he’s put in this summer to get to his point has been good for him.”

Of course Leonard is just halfway home. But at this stage it’s hard not to look at the Clippers as a formidable threat in the Western Conference, and with Harden and Paul George and the support of an otherwise deep roster, one that can emerge from the West.

And if the Clippers make the NBA Finals and Leonard is healthy, his ability to close the deal is well documented. Title No. 3 is waiting.

Three is an impressive number to be sure, but as any Raptors fan knows, with Leonard there will always be a question of how many more he could have won.

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