Add Kawhi Leonard to MVP List

After signing his max deal the summer of 2015, Kawhi Leonard, perhaps the quietest great player in the NBA, shocked just about everyone when he admitted his individual goals for the season were becoming an All-Star and winning the Most Valuable Player award. The timing of his declaration, early July, felt somewhat awkward and uncharacteristically self involved. The Spurs had just won the free agency sweepstakes and signed LaMarcus Aldridge and were being celebrated for their ability to collectively bring more talent into their nest. Conversationally, league discussions were that Aldridge was the heir apparent to Tim Duncan. Rarely was it noted that Aldridge had never advanced out of the second round of the playoffs, much less been a NBA Finals MVP as Leonard was. Aldridge had not yet proven himself worthy of the Tim Duncan crown.

Kawhi Leonard, who had amassed individual awards and a NBA title, seemed to be saying to the basketball public at large: remember me? This from the quiet man.

Leonard is generally perceived and talked about through the prism of being unselfish and willing to wait his turn. He takes on all the characteristics of the introvert. He does his job with little need for attention or flag waving. He isn’t a self-promoter, he doesn’t beg others to look at him. He doesn’t question overtly, he swallows his emotions, even in stunning defeat like the 2013 NBA Finals. He is non-reactive, non-controversial and not offensive. For Leonard, that makes him the perfect San Antonio Spur as opposed to the restless products the AAU culture delivers to the NBA year in and year out, players that seek the spotlight with their athleticism.

It also was popular to attach to Leonard’s character a reluctance to question. He would not rebel against the Spurs way of life in order to etch his own name on the cultural walls with offensive aggression that so defines MVP candidates.

So on that summer day when Leonard talked about being the MVP, he put to rest the public narrative of him that his role on the Spurs was one that would automatically fall into line behind Aldridge, as he did with Duncan. With Duncan leading the way, Leonard was pretty happy taking his 10-12 shots a game.

Kawhi Leonard, who won the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2015, and 2016, and won a NBA title in 2014, and a Finals MVP for his excellence, is thinking bigger and much, much broader these days. He wants the public acknowledgement that comes from extraordinary play. A MVP award is on his radar and why not? He’s a brilliant player.

In his first game of the season, against the Golden State Warriors , Leonard was MVP worthy. Leonard was dominant in every facet of the game. The Most Valuable Player is an offensive award and Leonard did something very un-Kawhi like but fitting with MVP candidates. He took 21 shots. He balanced his shot making with 5 rebounds. He shot 47% and scored 35 points. He also had 5 steals and 3 assists. He was the best player on the floor, hands down, no question.

The irony about Kawhi Leonard is that it is he, not Aldridge, that is going to run with the Tim Duncan torch. Leonard is younger than Aldridge, a better defender, a more versatile offensive player and he really wants to dominate. There is a certain logic to it. Leonard has achieved almost everything there is to achieve in the NBA, every single marker, except MVP.

The Tim Duncan Replacement Points FG% Rebounds Assists PER
LaMarcus Aldridge, 2016-17 17.8 50.7% 7.2 2.1 20.3
Kawhi Leonard, 2016-17 24.0 47.1% 5.9 3.1 27.2

Does it make Leonard appear more selfish because he has taken shots away from Tony Parker?Tony Parker is taking 10.0 shots per game, down from his career high 17.5 shots in 2008-09. Leonard’s attempts are a Spurs high 16.7 shots a game, more than last year’s 15.1 shots per game. No one disagrees with the premise. Kawhi Leonard is the Spurs best player.

At some point between that Clippers playoff loss in May of 2015 and Leonard signing his free agent deal, Leonard came to the realization that he is just as gifted a player as Paul George and Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant and Steph Curry. He’s not the passer that LeBron James is but James is rarely gifted in that area. So why not him? Why not Kawhi Leonard?

The MVP marathon race has Russell Westbrook and James Harden in the lead but there are close second choices in Leonard, Durant, and James. All are All-Stars who have guided their teams through this maze of a season.

The MVP Others Points FG% 3-Point % Rebounds Offensive Rating
Kawhi Leonard 24.0 47.1% 41.0% 5.9 121
Kevin Durant 25.8 53.8% 39.2% 8.6 124
LeBron James 25.8 51.0% 37.5% 7.8 117

Unlike LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard has been to the playoffs every year of his career. He’s been in toughly contested games. Last season was the first time he  played more than 66 regular season games. Leonard has averaged 30 minutes a game over the course of his career. This year, he is averaging, 33.2 minutes. He has an advantage of a high achieving bench which allows him the kind of rest a star like James is unable to manage with an inconsistent bench.

Leonard’s reputation is toughness. It is one of his many distinguishable traits. Previous to last season, he didn’t appear to have the psyche to go out and take an award. That’s how you get the MVP. You chase it down, then grab it because of your unstoppable brilliance.

In the past, Kawhi Leonard made offensive players miserable. This season, he is making defenders miserable.  48.7% of his catch and shoot baskets are scores. His pull-up jumpers are effective 40.7% of the time.

What Kawhi Leonard has in his pocket that no other MVP candidate has is two Defensive Player of the Year  Awards. He is the best two-way player the league has to offer. He can predict the future too. Last summer, he said he would be an All-Star. He was. The MVP trophy is the next one up. It’s coming.

photo via llananba