Last Word On Basketball

Top NBA Players 2022-23: #8 Kawhi Leonard

PLAYA VISTA, CA - SEPTEMBER 26: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the LA Clippers poses for a portrait during NBA Media Day on September 26, 2022 at the Honey Training Center in Playa Vista, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)

Kawhi Leonard comes in at number 8 on our list of the best players for the upcoming 2022-2023 season. The two-time Finals MVP with the San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors will look to prove his health after missing all of the 2021-2022 season with a torn ACL. He’ll rejoin the LA Clippers’ title chase and embark on the fourth year of partnership with co-star Paul George.

Leonard is the unquestioned best player on the Clippers, but his standing among the league’s elite is an open question. This Clippers’ season will undeniably disappoint if they cannot win the title. Can Leonard play well enough to lead LA to a Finals win?

Top NBA Players 2022-23: #8 Kawhi Leonard

Kawhi Leonard’s 2022-2023 Season

There’s obvious guesswork when trying to project how someone returning from injury will perform. In Leonard’s case, history provides some hints. Zach LaVine tore his ACL in Feb. 2017, but recovered his athleticism and became an All-Star. Of course, LaVine was a month shy of his 22nd birthday when he suffered his injury, while Leonard was on the cusp of 30. We haven’t seen Jamal Murray return from the same injury yet. Klay Thompson came back last season a half-step slower on defense and thirsty to prove himself on offense. Luckily for Leonard, he only tore his ACL, while Thompson had to rehab from a torn Achilles also.

Leonard likely won’t start the season playing as he did against Utah in the 2021 playoffs before his injury. However, the lengthy regular season and the Clippers’ incredible depth mean he can pace himself during the 82-game grind. Leonard and the team will surely hope he can rediscover his legs and previous form in time for the playoffs.

Leonard’s style of play makes this a reasonable expectation. Never a LaVine-style high flier, he uses a patient, methodical approach to get to his preferred midrange jumpers. He’s a quiet bully, content to use painful-yet-legal shoulder checks and an understated but effective handle to do his talking for him. Leonard’s giant hands have never impeded his shooting ability, further muddying that contentious debate

His defense has slipped over the years, and that’s likely where he’ll see the biggest on-court regression. If he’s lost a significant amount of quickness that he cannot recover, he might be better suited to defending power forwards instead of wing scorers going forward. That development will have a huge impact on Leonard’s value and how the Clippers construct the roster around him going forward.

Kawhi Leonard’s Effect on the LA Clippers

Even a diminished Leonard will make a huge difference for the Clippers, but in what ways? Shockingly, the biggest difference might be on the defensive boards. LA was the sixth-best defensive rebounding team in 2020-21, but slid all the way to last place (in a tie with the Houston Rockets) last season. This is despite the Clippers playing nearly all of their minutes with a seven-foot center on the floor in Ivica Zubac or Isaiah Hartenstein. Leonard’s huge frame will enable him to help on the glass with boxouts, particularly if he’s playing more minutes at power forward. 

The five-time All-NBA player’s return will obviously help the Clippers on offense as well. The Clippers’ effective field goal percentage was third in the league in 2020-21. They ranked 20th in 2021-2022. Leonard can help improve this mark as both a play initiator and play finisher. 2020-21 saw Leonard finish with his highest field goal percentage and assists per game since the 2015-16 season. He’s slowly but steadily improved as a playmaker for others each year, and his presence will allow his teammates to shift into more fitting roles on offense.

The Clippers have perfectly constructed the roster to alleviate Leonard’s on-court burden. George, Reggie Jackson, and Norm Powell (Leonard’s former Toronto teammate) provide perimeter scoring punch. New addition John Wall can help make plays for others and Leonard. Nicolas Batum, Marcus Morris, and Terence Mann are all options to guard threatening perimeter scorers. Batum, Zubac, and Robert Covington provide excellent help on defense so no primary defenders (including Leonard) will be overtaxed. This is a deep and complete team that will enable Leonard to use the full regular season to discover how good he remains post-injury.

The Last Word on Kawhi Leonard

Leonard has plenty to prove this upcoming season. His last two healthy seasons ended with him winning Finals MVP in 2019, and with the Clippers suffering one of the most embarrassing playoff defeats in NBA history against the Denver Nuggets in the 2020 bubble playoffs. He’ll obviously be looking to repeat the success he enjoyed in 2019 while putting an end to Clippers curse talk for good.

There’s much for Leonard to prove individually as well. Before the injury, Leonard’s peers were the truly elite superstars like Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Leonard’s contemporaries on this list are players like Devin Booker, Jayson Tatum, and Jimmy Butler, great players who aren’t universally considered top-5 NBA players. Leonard will finally be able to prove his place among the game’s greatest this season.

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