Kawhi Leonard and Paul George can't do it all. Clippers held back by their defense

Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) drives around San Antonio Spurs forward Jeremy Sochan.
Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, right, drives around San Antonio Spurs forward Jeremy Sochan during the Clippers' 131-126 win Friday night. (Eric Gay / Associated Press)

For all of the training-camp discussion about whether the Clippers boasted the NBA’s deepest roster, it obscured what the team knew to be the season’s more basic truth.

No matter how many switchable wings or shooters on the roster, the Clippers’ potential was tied to the capabilities of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the franchise cornerstones around whom this season’s offense and defense were tailored.

On Friday in San Antonio, George played one of the best games of his career as a ballhandler, his 16 points and 12 assists taking a backseat to his most unexpected contribution — zero turnovers, for a star averaging 3.3 of them since joining the Clippers in 2019. Coach Tyronn Lue referenced George as the team’s point guard.

Leonard scored 36 points, with four dunks — this after 12 in his first 22 games — to continue a process that began to take shape five weeks ago. Since Dec. 12, Leonard has averaged 24.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 41% three-point shooting during a 15-game span, a progression that has grown more pronounced in his last six games as Leonard has averaged 29.8 points on 50% three-point shooting.

In what has become by far the most encouraging trend of an uneven Clippers season, Leonard looks like the All-NBA-caliber wing he was before his 2021 knee surgery.

“Playing through our best players, that’s how we want to play, that’s how this team has been constructed,” Lue said Friday. “When we have those guys on the floor, we know we can be a dangerous team.”

As for the progress of this team, this was not what was hoped for midway through a season with designs on a title — needing every bit of its stars’ offensive efficiency to outlast, by five points, a Spurs team with a 14-32 record and designs on winning the Victor Wembanyama draft sweepstakes.

One consistent culprit has been something else that has been building for one month: a defense that, as a Spurs offense that ranks among the NBA’s worst can attest, is struggling to get stops.

“Offensively, we know we’re going to be able to score the basketball,” Lue said. “That’s very encouraging. Just now defensively we have to do a better job of locking in and understanding our principles.”

Once ranked as second best in the NBA through mid-December by giving up 91.9 points per 100 possessions of half-court defense, the Clippers have tumbled to fourth worst since, giving up 104.4 points. Their transition defense has been leaky, as well, but opponents have played against what should be a set Clippers defense 80% of the time in the last month. But with the Clippers regularly unable to force turnovers, Lue is frequently using lineups featuring multiple smaller guards — constructions he has acknowledged lead to defensive shortcomings — and with Leonard and George in and out of the lineup, and roles up and down the roster changing each game, the defense has sagged.

Nowhere has that been more obvious than in defending the rim.

During the season’s first two months, as the Clippers were building one of the league’s best defenses, their opponents shot a league-worst 58% on shots within six feet of the rim when the shot was defended.

Over the last month — coinciding with the start of a five-game trip against Eastern Conference teams — Clippers opponents have shot a league-high 70% on defended shots in the same area.

The Spurs shot 58% on Friday on shots generated by their 62 drives against the Clippers, the defense giving up layups on back-cuts multiple times because a defender had lost their man.

All season, the Clippers have hoped Leonard could regain his explosiveness, and after Friday, Leonard “looks really good,” Lue said, “his pop is there.”

Now the wait begins on the recovery of their defense.

Note: Reserve guard Luke Kennard did not participate in the team’s practice Saturday, according to a team spokesman. Kennard has missed the last seven games because of a calf injury he’d initially suffered earlier in the season. Lue has said the team has a "plan in place” for how to reorganize its glut of guards, but hasn’t been able to implement it until Kennard returns.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.