Kawhi Leonard May Have Put the Clippers’ NBA Title Hopes Over the Top

Look out, NBA Western Conference hopefuls. Los Angeles Clippers star Kawhi Leonard is back. Or should we say that the 10th-year guard is back-to-back?

The at-times fragile star has committed to taking fewer nights off during the regular season, which could pay off in a big way when the postseason arrives.

Kawhi Leonard is a difference-maker for the Los Angeles Clippers

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The world-champion Toronto Raptors were so good in the 2018-19 NBA season that the team had the luxury of giving Kawhi Leonard extensive rest. Leonard may have led them with 26.6 points a game in the 60 contests he played, but Toronto had great balance. Pascal Siakam averaged 16.9, Serge Ibaka 15.0, Kyle Lowry 14.2, and five other rotation players averaged at least 6.9. It helped explain why the Raptors were a solid 41-19 with Leonard but a stellar 17-5 when he sat.

The Leonard effect was much more apparent last season, his first with the Los Angeles Clippers after leaving Toronto as a free agent. While Paul George and Montrezl Harrell led a comparable battalion behind him, Leonard meant more to LA than Toronto. The Clippers were 41-16 when he played but 8-7 without him.

Did that make a difference when the playoffs rolled around? Maybe.

The Clippers finished three games behind the Los Angeles Lakers and three games ahead of the third-seeded Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference. There was no home-court advantage in the playoffs because all the games were played in the bubble in Orlando. However, the Nuggets knocked off the Clippers in seven games in the conference semifinals. We’ll never know,  but perhaps the Clippers would have beaten the fourth-seeded Houston Rockets in the semis had they earned the No. 1 seed over the Lakers.

Kawhi Leonard hadn’t played back-to-games recently

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When Kawhi Leonard has missed games in recent seasons, it has almost always been the front or back end of back-to-back games. Ten of the 22 he missed in 2018-19 with the Toronto Raptors were one of the games the team played on consecutive nights. Ten others were contests tucked in the middle of stretches of four games in six or seven nights.

Last season with the Los Angeles Clippers, 11 of the 15 games he missed were parts of back-to-backs.  

In fact, you can go all the way back to April 2017, when Leonard was still a member in good standing with the San Antonio Spurs, to find the last time that he played on consecutive nights.

That changed this week. On Jan. 5, Leonard scored 30 points in 37 minutes during a loss to the Spurs. The next night, he played 34 minutes and logged 21 points to help beat the Golden State Warriors. Leonard shot half as often against Golden State and turned the ball over seven times compared to none vs. San Antonio, but his plus/minus was plus-14 in both games.

Playing every night could help him put the Clippers over the top

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The home court should mean more to NBA teams at the conclusion of the current season. Unlike the end of 2020, teams are playing in their own arenas and there aren’t plans for playoffs in a bubble.

If you add in the possibility of at least some fans attending postseason games, the home court becomes more important. Travel won’t be a factor against the Los Angeles Lakers, but it would be against other Western Conference foes and – if all goes well – the East’s representative in the NBA finals.

Kawhi Leonard recognizes the importance, and ESPN reported that he intends to continue playing back-to-back games.

“I think I’ll be playing, pretty much,” Leonard said. “The last few years, I was injured, and I worked on getting my leg stronger, and it’s been a long time. But I was patient, and I’m able to play.”

All stats courtesy of Basketball Reference