His time is now: You can see Kawhi Leonard, but he doesn't care

His time is now: You can see Kawhi Leonard, but he doesn't care

♪ Your time is up, my time is now ♪

♪ You can't see me, my time is now ♪

The beat is booming, trumpets blaring. The crowd is hyped — anticipation of something amazing will do that to you.

Normally, this would be the paragraph where John Cena is described. How he plays to the crowd, the message he gives to the camera conveniently zoomed in on him before he flashes the "Never Give Up" towel and runs to the ring

Instead, the music just happens to be playing during the fourth quarter of the Toronto Raptors-Los Angeles Clippers game on Wednesday night. 

Kawhi Leonard trots up the left side of the floor with OG Anunoby, the best perimeter defender in the league by many (read: my) accounts, waiting for him near half-court. Eric Gordon steps up to set an early drag screen, but Leonard rejects it to continue his leftward path.

Leonard gains inside leverage — doing that a lot, these days — and meets Jakob Poeltl at the rim. Well, more accurately, he gets to the rim and Poeltl just happens to be in his way. It sucks for him, because he wasn't stopping the funk coming his way. 

"You can't see me, my time is now" works for Cena. Try as you might, you're not on his level. You're distant. He's better and he knows it. He's better and his fans know it. He's better and you probably know it, deep down inside.

Leonard is different. You can see him; he just doesn't care that you can. It may be more accurate to say he can't see you. Is this the face of a man that thinks he's overcome insurmountable odds?

Absolutely not.

If a dunk like that is the Attitude Adjustment (the old name was better, cowards), his middy might be the shoulder charge before the Five Knuckle Shuf — okay, I've done enough with the wrestling analogy.

(Psst, he's knocked down 50.1% of his mid-range shots this season, per Cleaning The Glass. That feels like a typo, especially when you factor in how contested they've been.)


What shouldn't be lost in all the hoopla surrounding the Clippers — Russell Westbrook talk, rotation talk, podcast talk, Western Conference standings talk — is the metronomic, inevitable nature of Kawhi.

He's both a source of friction and a reason for optimism. The Clippers aren't here without him being on the recovery plan he's been on; conversely, the Clippers wouldn't be a reasonable playoff pick without his two-way dominance.

The further we get away from his initial return, the more terrifying he looks. Just look at his season in 10-game intervals.

First 10 (8 starts): 13.7 points on 51.7% True Shooting, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists in 26.0 minutes

Next 10: 23.2 points on 61.1% True Shooting, 6.6 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.5 steals in 33.4 minutes

Following 10: 29.2 points on 63.2% True Shooting, 6.3 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.0 steals in 37.1 minutes

Last 10: 27.0 points on 67.6% True Shooting, 6.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.5 steals in 36.9 minutes

You can't erase portions of the season for a player — at least not in good faith — but a 30-game sample of 26.5 points on 64.0% True Shooting, 6.6 rebounds, 4.0 assists (1.8 turnovers) and 1.7 steals per game certainly qualifies as elite production. It's nasty stuff, even.

I often find myself cackling at the casual nature of Leonard's approach. No matter the arena — isolating, posting up, running ball-screens, bringing the ball up in transition — it feels like he's in total control of what's happening.

Different defenders are tossed at him. Opponents oscillate between aggressive ball pressure, switching to flatten two-man actions and all-out traps to get the ball out of his hands. Their helpers do what they can to crowd the middle of the floor.

None of it matters, really. 

Wednesday night's "revenge game" against the Raptors felt like one of those "it doesn't matter" games. His stat line was good enough: 24 points on 15 shot attempts, a season-high 12 rebounds, 4 dimes and three gimme-dats with the Clippers winning his minutes. But how he accumulated some of those? It's like, what do you do with him?

You can see him; he just doesn't care that you can.

To the versatility point on offense: The Clippers have scored at an elite level when Leonard is involved in the action. 

On trips featuring a Leonard-led ball screen, the Clippers are generating 1.085 points per possession (PPP). Among 96 players to run at least 500 ball-screens this season, that ranks No. 5 in the NBA. With Leonard setting an on-ball screen, that number rises to nearly 1.12 PPP — seventh among 209 players to set at least 150 picks.

Related: Keep an eye on the Leonard-Westbrook partnership. The sample must grow, but Westbrook screening for Leonard (1.82 PPP) and Leonard screening for Westbrook (1.00 PPP) has been pretty fruitful so far. The latter scenario has mostly been used for mismatch-hunting to get to isos or post-ups — "reverse-engineering" as expertly stated by Steve Jones Jr. —  but there's real juice behind inverting the action. 

We can keep going. He's sixth in post-up PPP (1.18) among 37 players with 100 reps under their belts; seventh in PPP (1.13) among 51 players with at least 200 isolation possessions.

It simply has not mattered.

Flip the court, and the efforts to best Leonard have also been futile. He's not 2014 Kawhi anymore as an on-ball defender. The screen navigation isn't the same, nor is his lateral quickness at this stage. He remains incredibly difficult to deal with, though. 

It's hard to move him. His prep work before the screen gets set is still superb. Even quieter, his sense of when to pursue after getting screened vs. when to peel-switch and take away a passing window is still strong. 

At this point, it's less about what Leonard can do defensively and more about his opponents fearing what he's capable of. If he's in your face, you have your work cut out. If you get him off of you, you still have to be wary of where he is.

It's been 40 games, which puts him a little behind the 8 Ball in terms of award talk. He isn't winning MVP. He's not winning Defensive Player of the Year, nor should he. An All-Defensive Team may also be out of the question, considering how deep the class is.

I'd keep an eye on his All-NBA case, though.

It feels like three spots are written in pen (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum, Julius Randle), and another two are in pencil (Kevin Durant and LeBron James, who would easily be inked without their injuries, and still might be). Between Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Lauri Markkanen, Pascal Siakam and Kawhi's co-star Paul George, we may be in for a furious debate.

Leonard is No. 10 in the league (+6.1) in DunksAndThree's Estimated Plus-Minus (EPM) metric, which estimates a player's total impact per 100 possessions. That would place Leonard sixth among forwards, trailing Butler (third, +7.1), Durant (seventh, +6.6), Giannis (eighth, +6.2) and LeBron (ninth, +6.2). Markkanen trails behind in 23rd (+4.8).

The cumulative version of the metric, Estimated Wins, places Leonard outside of the top 30 because of minutes played, putting him on par with Anthony Edwards (8.2) and slightly ahead of Siakam (8.0).

Of course, those are just two metrics out of the many in the public sphere. The most important thing is that Leonard looks like a two-way force getting close to peak form. That should terrify everyone.

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