“For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required…” (Luke 12:48)
The best player in the NBA not named LeBron James has been given a lot. On draft night, he was traded from the Indiana Pacers to the San Antonio Spurs with very few questioning why. But that in itself was a gift. He was then mentored by Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan to begin his NBA career. He was dropped into an organization that last missed the playoffs when Bill Clinton was president. Kawhi Leonard was not rushed nor hurried; he was nurtured like the wines Popvich loves to drink. In the process, Leonard matured and became a champion and was a Finals MVP and a two time Defensive Player of the Year winner and is the best player on the Spurs.
Don’t get it confused. Kawhi Leonard is by no means the only player who checks the great player box. The NBA is filled with talented scorers (Steph Curry, Kevin Durant.) They have great rebounders (DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus Cousins). They have seasoned specialists (Kyle Korver, J.J. Redick). But the overall ballers game which includes scoring and rebounding and off ball defense and on ball defense and shooting efficiently and making free throws, and thriving under stress and team play and unselfishness- very few players have the versatility and the talent to excel at all of them.
Very few players have won awards for Defensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player in the same season. The Defensive Player of the Year award began in 1983 with Sidney Moncrief as it’s first recipient. In 34 seasons of Defensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player, only two athletes have been exceptional enough in a single season to bring home both trophies. Michael Jordan did it (1988). Hakeem Olajuwon did it (1994).
2017 should see Kawhi Leonard join that club.
Kawhi Leonard and Russell Westbrook have something in common. They both lost a generational player. The loss of Tim Duncan thrust Leonard to the front of the class, the best player on the team.
He leads the Spurs in points, field goals, free throws, deflections, 3-pointers, steals, loose balls recovered, dunks, 30 point games, PER, Usage rate, Win Shares, Real Plus Minus.
Because Kawhi plays on the Spurs and because of his soft spoken nature, he will never get the publicity of players who do far less with not much at stake but that isn’t Kawhi’s fault. The media is constructed to overexaggerate the flashy and spectacular and the big market stars get the lion’s share of pub and adoration. It leaves Kawhi exactly where he wants to be, away from the media and social media chaos. San Antonio is a perfect fit for the shy.
Two seasons ago, before Kawhi inked his max deal, the quiet man stated out loud, and this was startling to just about everybody, that he wanted to be the MVP. That was right after the Spurs signed LaMarcus Aldrdige and it was widely assumed that Aldridge was going to fill in the Tim Duncan hole. And here was Kawhi telling everyone that he was gunning for an award- let’s face it, the MVP is about offense- that routinely goes to the big time shot makers. Before Leonard’s announcement, he had never played an 80 game season nor had he had a 20 point year. He upped the pressure on himself and what happened in 2015-16, in Tim Duncan’s final season, is that Kawhi Leonard walked the walk.
Last season, Kawhi Leonard shot 50.6% and 44.3% from three, (a career high). He pulled in 6.8 rebounds, dished out 2.6 assists( a career high), and blocked 1.0 shots (a career high). He won Defensive Player of the Year award again. He was the 5th best player as far as on-court impact. The only players ahead of him were Steph Curry, Chris Paul, Draymond Green and LeBron James (Real Plus-Minus).
This year Leonard is shooting 48%. He is draining 38.6% of his threes. With Pau Gasol in tow his rebounds (6.0) have taken a small tumble but he is at a career high in assists, 3.4. The Spurs are benefiting by Leonard moving the ball and scoring in a plethora of ways, inside, outside, on the block. Not surprisingly, the Spurs have won 79% of their games and are two and a half games behind the Warriors for the one seed. The Spurs play the Warriors on Saturday night. In the season opener, Kawhi scored a career high 35 points against the Warriors.
Gregg Popovich is a believer.
“He enjoys the responsibility. He welcomes it. He’s done well in that environment. So I haven’t given him the talk this season because I don’t think he needs it. He already understands the position he’s in and what’s expected.”
In spite of being a player in the MVP race, Kawhi’s generous but focused nature is concerned about the team first. “I’m out there just playing for my team. If I got noticed for my individual performances, that’s what happens. Other than that, I’m just trying to win the game.”
Winning is what the Spurs do best and how a MVP candidate is judged. Do you make your teammates better? Do you elevate them to a dominant season as contenders?
That is why Kawhi Leonard should win the award over Westbrook, particularly if the Spurs get the top seed in the west. The Thunder are not contenders, despite Westbrook’s 58 points in a loss on Tuesday night. He hasn’t made his teammates better.
Leonard has carried the Spurs to wins . On Monday night, his block and go ahead three against the Rockets sealed a close win and victory.
The Spurs dominant record and a shot at his second Finals MVP puts Leonard in the driver’s seat, despite very little attention coming his way.
Kawhi Leonard as Defensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player puts him in rare air. Michael Jordan will welcome him to the club if it happens.
It should happen.
photo via llananba