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Kawhi Leonard’s return puts the Clippers back on the hunt for the Western Conference


Kawhi Leonard

Kawhi Leonard
image: AP

It’s been nearly 16 months since LA Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard played an NBA game before Tuesday night’s win over the Portland Trail Blazers. Leonard finished with 11 points in 16 minutes, but more importantly, he looks to have fully recovered from the torn ACL he suffered in game 4 of the 2021 Western Conference semi-final against the Utah Jazz.

Last season, the Clippers dangled through the first two months of the season with Paul George in charge until he picked up an injury at the end of December. Paul missed more than three months before returning at the end of the season. March, but the damage was done. Clippers drop out of top 5 as George gets healthy play in tournament, where they were eliminated, missing out on the knockout stages just a year from the franchise’s first WCF appearance.

It’s all behind them now, because Leonard and George are back and healthy, making the Clippers a favorite in the West this year. Stacked against the rest of the West, this LA team has enough tools and depth to claim the Warriors western congress crown.

Of course, everything is predicted based on Leonard’s ability stay on the floor and available in post-season. Based on that, the Clippers have more than enough depth to compete with the best teams in the NBA. Over the past two years, head coach Tyronn Lue has proven that he is more than just a product of LeBron James. Lue can coach and is considered by many to be the best coach in the league at tuning.

LA should be able to go deep into their lineup, with 10 players receiving significant minutes on a given night. Having that depth should also help preserve Leonard and George through the long 82-game season.

In the backcourt alone, minutes will be tight with a six-guard rotation. Besides George, the Clippers have Reggie Jackson, Norman Powell, Terance Mann, Luke Kennard, and the newest addition John Wall as players who will fight for a few minutes on the floor. Leonard, Ivica Zubac, Marcus Morris Sr., Nicolas Batum and Robert Covington feature in the Clippers’ starting lineup and will all have key minutes, depending on the game. And many of these can play multiple positions.

The road to victory in the NBA is bumpy, but the teams with depth are often in the last left group standing last. Sure, this league is about the stars, but those stars also need to be surrounded by the right pieces for their game and what they do best on the field. The Clippers still don’t have a true starting point guard, as Jackson is more of a combo guard, but as we’ve seen in the past, he can definitely get the job done in times important when called.

But again, none of this matters without Leonard going to court when there is a problem. The depth is amazing – we just saw the Warriors and Celtics meet in the Finals owning two of the stronger teams in the association. Hopefully this year Clipperland won’t need too much load management and Leonard can play at least 65 games. It’s a feat he hasn’t achieved since he was in San Antonio.

Again, the main goal is to keep Leonard and PG-13 healthy enough to run into the knockouts. This is what the Clippers should focus on towards the 2022-23 campaign. You can play against many bad teams over the course of an NBA season. These Clippers are good enough to beat most teams in this tournament. Going up against the top four or five teams in the NBA is where stars and depth will matter most. If the Clippers can get through the main season strongthere’s no reason they can’t return to WCF right away.

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