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If you're a casual NBA fan paying half attention to the league until at least football season ends, I've got a number that I'm betting will shock you: Kawhi Leonard, the poster boy for load management, the guy who has missed at least 30 games in each of the last two seasons he's played with one full one in between, has missed a grand total of four games this season. 

Forty-two games played for the Clippers

Thirty-eight games played for Leonard. 

In this new awards world where a player becomes ineligible for MVP once he's missed 18 games, and with the countdown being on for Joel Embiid who has already missed 11, Leonard should be getting more MVP buzz than he is. Which is to say, he should be getting at least some buzz, because he's not getting any. It's insane that one sportsbook has him at +25,000 to win, which is the basketball equivalent of a three-legged horse. Dude isn't even an All-Star starter. It's surprising when you hear the guy's name even come up in the national discourse. 

It's always been that way. Leonard has zero interest in the spotlight, plays a relatively boring game, and oddly the Clippers, despite their Los Angeles market and super-team roster, are the easiest elite team to forget about. There's a generally dismissive sentiment attached to the Clippers, I believe. In the end, people think they'll get hurt. Or Harden will flame out in the playoffs. Something always goes wrong. 

But until that happens, or until the Lakers or Warriors make a meaningful trade (I believe the Lakers, at least, will do so), I would classify four teams -- sorry, Minnesota -- as the cream of the contender crop: Boston and Denver, obviously. Oklahoma City. And the Clippers, who are absolutely humming after a sketchy start to the James Harden integration. 

Harden has been sensational, as has Paul George. But Leonard is a notch above. Since December 2, when a nine-game win streak commenced, the Clippers are 20-4. With Leonard in the lineup, they are 18-2. Over that span, Leonard has rampaged everyone in front of him to the tune of 25.5 PPG on fewer than 17 shots. 

His shooting splits are outrageous for this big a sample: 57% overall, 50% from 3 and 92% from the line for a 67.7% true-shooting clip -- a higher number than Stephen Curry has ever logged for a season. 

Leonard's paint pull-ups, in particular, are impossible to defend. His separation strength and natural fading release allow him to get these 4-14 foot jumpers off cleanly regardless of circumstance. For the season, he is making them at a 53.3% clip. Since Dec. 2, he's at better than 55%. In both cases, only Nikola Jokic and Luka Doncic rank higher among all players who attempt at least four shots a game from these spots. 

Leonard can get to this shot with or without a screen. He ranks in the 91st percentile in isolation scoring, per Synergy, and the 89th percentile out of pick-and-roll. Equally problematic is that he doesn't operate predictably. Seventeen percent of his offense comes from P&R, 18% from isolation and 19% from spot ups, according to Synergy tracking. 

It's this last area that rounds out the Clippers' attack, with three superstars who are all capable of making either self-or-assist-created shots. If they all needed the ball to create their own rhythm, that would be an issue. But even Harden, a super ball-dominant scorer by trade, is making 40% of his catch-and-shoot 3s. 

George is even better at 45.5%. Leonard is the best at 48%. Now, when Harden is initiating, defenses have to close out super hard on Leonard at the 3-point line, which in turn leaves them vulnerable to Leonard putting the ball on the deck and getting to his aforementioned short mid-range spot, where he's pretty close to automatic. Pick your poison. 

Flip that around and put the ball in Leonard's hands, and how are you going to double him with the way George and Harden are shooting? Norman Powell is also making 48% of his catch-and-shoot 3s. Sure, defenses will try to force Russell Westbrook and Terance Mann to make shots, but head coach Tyronn Lue can play certain closing lineups accordingly if it's a problem. 

Besides that, again, Leonard can always get to his pull-up jumper. That's the ace up the Clippers' sleeve. That's the reliable, almost guaranteed midrange offense every true contender needs down the stretch in postseason series. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who looks a lot like Leonard in his mid-range pull-ups, does this for OKC. Jokic does it for Denver. Probably the only question about the Celtics is whether they will be able to create this kind of consistent late-game offense. 

The Clippers can just go so many places for buckets, and they spread it out expertly. Leonard, George and Harden all register between a 20 and 26 usage rate. Since Dec. 2, when the three of them have been on the court together, the Clippers have outscored opponents by 17 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. 

Take Harden off and just leave Leonard and George, and the Clippers outscore opponents by better than 24 points per 100 while operating at what would be the best offensive and defensive ratings in the league. Take George off and make it just Harden and Kawhi, the Clips are plus-10. Take Kawhi off and leave Harden and George, it's plus-11.7 with a 128 offensive rating. 

Any way you slice it, as long as two of these three guys are on the floor, the Clippers are cooking folks. It's probably the reason Kawhi isn't going to get any real MVP love, even if Embiid becomes ineligible, because the perception is that he has a ton of superstar power by his side. Which he does. 

But make no mistake, Leonard is the best player on this team. More than that, he has, if only because he's healthy, reestablished himself among the small group of superstars that can lead a team to a title. He did it for the Raptors. Playing like this, he can do it again for the Clippers.