Thirty-eight games have passed in what is expected to be a season of retribution for the LA Clippers. It's been almost six months since the franchise crashed out of last year's playoffs, throwing away a 3-1 series lead over the Denver Nuggets in the conference semifinals.
However, with new coaching personnel and several offseason trades, the Clippers find themselves firmly in contention for a top-4 finish in the West and are among the favorites for the NBA Finals.
Paul George and Kawhi Leonard have led their side so far and were both recently selected as All-Stars. After a season in which George joined the LA Clippers squad late, the 5-time All-NBA guard has hit the ground running after having a full preseason with Leonard.
So much so that while the two are on the court together, the LA Clippers have gone 17-6 this season. This only serves to bring to light the franchise's reliance on its stars, without one or both of whom the Clippers are 7-8.
Despite a positive start to the season, the Clippers entered the All-Star break on the back of three straight losses and only 4 wins in ten.
Fans may well be wondering what the second half of the season holds for their side and whether Kawhi Leonard and Paul George really have what it takes to elevate the franchise to the next level.
Do Paul George and Kawhi Leonard have what it takes to propel the LA Clippers over the Lakers or Jazz?
In what has been a turbulent season for the league, the LA Clippers stand only two games behind on where they were at the same stage last year.
Despite losses to the Bucks, the Celtics and the Wizards have pegged them back this week, Ty Lue's side have been dominant on the offensive end this season, winning 14 games by ten or more points (usually more points).
So much so that they currently rank second in offensive efficiency, pushing the supposedly untouchable Brooklyn Nets for that title.
Their offensive prowess has been in no short part due to superstar duo Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, both of whom are combining for an average of 50.3 of the LA Clippers' points.
With the mounting pressure placed on him, continuing to be dubbed unfairly as 'Playoff P', Paul George signed a max contract with the Clippers this offseason.
Although the chance to play in one of the most competitive franchises as their marquee player shouldn't be turned down, it takes a certain amount of bravery to rise to that pressure and return to being the player that came 3rd in MVP voting in 2019.
Paul George has displayed it in spades, and how.
It's easy to forget that in the playoff series George earned this unwanted nickname, he averaged 28.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists - hardly a sign of a player crumbling under pressure.
George is a unique talent in the NBA, an oversized guard whose athleticism and defensive ability makes you forget he is 6'8" and 220lbs. The former 10th pick overall in 2010 has an elite shooting stroke which is at a career-high 49.9% from the field this season.
George has a net rating of 12.2 when on the court while his teammates are 5-6 without him and leads the LA Clippers with 5.4 assists.
Perhaps combining with Kawhi Leonard for a fully immersive preseason has done the trick not only for George's confidence, but to create the partnership the LA Clippers sought after signing the pair in 2019.
Kawhi Leonard came West with the kind of pedigree and expectation that a 2-time champion, 2-time Finals MVP should come with. Leonard's 'culture-creation' has been brought into question this season. However, being in LA has forced the former 2-time Defensive Player of the Year to continue to adapt his game.
Of course, Kawhi Leonard continues to be a prolific defensive barrier for the Clippers, ranking 10th in the league in steals and top among forwards. Look beyond his obviously strong defense, though, and LA Clippers fans have been treated to Leonard's offensive masterclass this season.
Among forwards across the league, Leonard ranks 2nd in points, 3rd in assists and has an offensive rating of 120.6, ranking second across all players who have played in more than 20 games.
Without a traditional point guard, Kawhi Leonard has had to take on additional responsibility as a creator, averaging a career-high 4.9 assists and only 1.9 turnovers per matchup.
His importance to the LA Clippers side could not have been more obvious in that his win share of 5.1 is ranked 7th in the league. But if the franchise is to be competitive this offseason, they have to keep Kawhi Leonard healthy.
Rest and back spasms have kept the small forward out recently, with fans questioning whether he should play in the All-Star game.
Even though his minutes are managed during the regular season, Leonard has had no problem competing in the playoffs. The LA Clippers will need to ensure he makes it there fully fit if they plan on taking on the Utah Jazz or LA Lakers in what could be 7-game series.
Against the current top-8 sides in the West, the Clippers are 5-4 this season, including their opening-game win against the Lakers and a 1-2 series with the Jazz. Both sides are favorites to top the conference, though a fully-fit Clippers side has shown the potential this season to stop them.
The significance that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George hold on both ends of the floor is not to be overlooked. The franchise has a very clear motive in that the Western Conference Finals are a must.
Having never made it there before, but having a leader and coach who is a key ingredient for a Championship side and with Paul George back to his All-Star best, we could yet see the LA Clippers' first finals appearance.