April 15, 2024

KAWHI LEONARD IS a man of few words who hears even less of what is said about him.

But after a 120-114 loss at the Golden State Warriors on Nov. 30, when Leonard and fellow LA Clippers star Paul George completed their second back-to-back in a week, Leonard found some humor in the duo being used as examples in stories about the NBA’s player participation policy.

“We should sue for — what do they call it? — negligence,” Leonard joked to ESPN.

The league’s policy, adopted in September, was designed to get stars to play more and curb sitting out high-profile and nationally televised games. So far, that hasn’t applied to the Clippers, who are off to their healthiest start of the Leonard-George era.

Leonard has played every game this campaign and George missed just his second game the season on Wednesday against the Dallas Mavericks due to illness. The team is surging on an eight-game winning streak since that defeat at Golden State. With both players eligible for contract extensions this season, the two All-Stars played in the first 23 games — their longest stretch of consecutive games together on the court since joining the Clippers in the summer of 2019.

While James Harden‘s arrival on Oct. 30 has added a new dimension, it is no coincidence that the Clippers’ winning streak is in large part due to the good health of their two franchise cornerstones.

“That was never the case,” George said after the Golden State loss about he and Leonard sitting out games last season to rest. “We had injuries that we were trying to keep minimal.

“No one knows what we go through, what and where our bodies are at. But they paint that picture on us as if we were sitting games out like we wanted to.”

While George will miss Wednesday’s game against the Mavericks, Leonard has a chance to play in his fifth back-to-back this season at Dallas and at the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday. The two stars played only 38 games together last season, but they already have appeared in more back-to-backs together this season (four) than they did in the previous four campaigns combined (three), according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

Leonard said it would take two years for him to return to his two-time Finals MVP form after tearing the ACL in his right knee during the 2021 playoffs, an injury that forced him to miss all of the 2021-22 regular season. He is playing perhaps his best regular-season basketball as a Clipper, yet Leonard has often been subjected to criticism over his recovery regimen.

“I think people think when he’s sitting out, it’s like he just doesn’t give a f—,” Clippers assistant coach Jeremy Castleberry told ESPN. “And ‘I’m just sitting out to sit out because I can.’

“That part is what’s funny, especially when you know what he’s been through and playing on.”


CASTLEBERRY HAS KNOWN Leonard since the two played together at Martin Luther King High School in Riverside, California. They both played at San Diego State, where Leonard starred and Castleberry was a walk-on. Previously an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs and the Toronto Raptors when Leonard played for those two teams, Castleberry knows what the forward has endured physically behind the scenes.

During his final year with the Spurs in 2017-18, Leonard played just nine games due to a right quad injury. The following season in Toronto, Leonard was named NBA Finals MVP after leading the Raptors to the championship despite the effects of the injury limiting him to 60 regular-season games.

“The [Spurs’ title] year in [2013-14, when Leonard also was Finals MVP], it’s not really publicized, but he pretty much played on one leg [as well],” Castleberry told ESPN. “And everybody kind of knows what he was going through going into the 2018-19 season, when Toronto won the championship and he’s pretty much playing on one leg.”

Because Leonard and his teams don’t often go into detail about his injuries, it can lead to speculation from fans and pundits, like when some suggested Leonard was load managing after he was ruled out for Game 3 of a first-round matchup against the Phoenix Suns in April. At the time, the Clippers did not specify his injury, but Leonard would miss the rest of that series with a torn meniscus in his right knee.

Leonard, who averaged 55 games in each of his previous four regular seasons, has now appeared in 26 straight contests within a campaign for the first time since 2016-17, when he played the first 31 games that season for the Spurs.

This season, Leonard is averaging 24.2 points on 52% shooting from the field, including 44% on 3-pointers, in a career-high 34.4 minutes. Only Leonard, LeBron James, Karl-Anthony Towns, Tyrese Haliburton and Kevin Durant are averaging at least 20 points while shooting 50% from the field and 40% on 3s.

The Clippers’ forward might be the most efficient player in the league at the moment, averaging 32.8 points on 65-59-95 shooting splits in his previous six games. Leonard is the only player ever to average 30 points on 65-55-95 shooting in a six-game span, according to ESPN Stats & Info data.

“It was years trying to get through that wall,” Leonard said of getting himself back to this point after a win at the Sacramento Kings on Nov. 29. “I’ve been dealing with this right knee injury for a while, since 2016-17. Even going through the Raptors’ run, that being my first year going so far [again] just put another toll on it.

“Now, I feel good coming out of games, and I don’t feel any [pain]. So, I just want to keep going, and that’s my goal is just to stay healthy, and the rest will play itself out.”


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James Harden celebrates with a snow angel after four-point play

James Harden does a snow angel celebration and yells into the camera after a four-point play in the fourth quarter.

AS HARDEN DRILLED his sixth 3-pointer in the fourth quarter of Monday’s 151-127 rout over the Indiana Pacers and celebrated by doing snow angels on the Gainbridge Fieldhouse court, a giddy Leonard and George leaped off the bench and feted their red-hot point guard.

Leonard and George are still scoring points in bunches, but they don’t have to do all the heavy lifting with the addition of Harden, a former league MVP and three-time scoring champ.

The Clippers lost six straight shortly after the Harden trade, but they have since won 13 of 16. With Harden now handling the ball as the starting point guard and Russell Westbrook taking on a sixth man role, Leonard and George have adjusted their game, which, in turn, is lightening their nightly physical toll.

George said in late November it would take time for the Clippers stars “to figure out who’s the ‘new you'” with Harden aboard.

Last season, George was asked to be more of a playmaker. He brought the ball up for 20.1 half-court possessions per game, his highest rate in a season since player tracking began in 2013-14.

This season, he is down to 12.9 such possessions per game, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Handling the ball less often also has cut down on his turnovers from 3.1 a game in 2022-23 to 2.2 this season.

Harden’s contributions also have helped lessen the toll on Leonard, according to Clippers coach Ty Lue. Leonard is getting more catch-and-shoot 3s and is able to play off opposing defenders closing out on him, and Lue also said the forward is acting quicker on double-teams.

Additionally, Harden’s passing and presence have allowed Leonard to get to his midrange spots more efficiently and with less pounding.

“So, that’s good for us in the long haul going down a stretch and he’s not playing 82 games [where] we’re getting beat up every single night,” Lue said. “And so that’s the great thing about having James.”

“For them, getting easier shots, open 3s. Before in the past, they had to take every shot. They had to create every shot,” Lue explained when asked about Harden’s impact on Leonard and George.

George and Leonard are still averaging the most minutes they have as Clippers this season; each has played at least 38 minutes in eight games each since Harden’s arrival.

“Win games,” Lue explained of his rationale for the heavy minutes for his two stars after a Dec. 11 victory over the visiting Portland Trail Blazers. “We just got to win games ’til we figure it out … right now, we need every bit of it.”

Leonard and George’s robust start this campaign also has been felt by the rest of the Clippers. Last season, there were times when Leonard, George or both stars would be ruled out on the day of games and, in some cases, hours before tipoff, sometimes frustrating coaches and teammates.

“It gives us a lot of confidence,” center Ivica Zubac said of having a healthy Leonard and George this season. “You know we’re going to go out there and fight every night. And when we’ve got our two main guys with us every single game, it pushes us to be even better. It motivates us.

“The last few years, sometimes when they were out, it’s kind of a little harder going out there and knowing you don’t have your No. 1, No. 2.”

Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank said the team had to take the regular season more seriously after winning 44 games in 2022-23 and finishing fifth in the Western Conference.

The Clippers are aware of how their stars are perceived when they are rested. Still, Frank didn’t like seeing his two stars depicted as prime examples of the need for the participation policy.

“I thought it was very, very unfair and a low blow,” Frank told ESPN. “But we’ve said from the beginning we have to earn it. … Were our guys hurt? Yeah, they were hurt. When they’re healthy, do they play? Yeah, they play.”

“What I love with [Leonard] and Paul is just the ownership they’ve taken in being Clippers,” he continued. “Your best players, they do it with their actions.”

Leonard said playing every game this season is just about being healthy again.

“It was never about no rules,” Leonard said. “Always want to play basketball. Just about getting healthy but we still got a long season to go.”


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