Kawhi Leonard Wants the Regular Season MVP

The most unselfish man in the NBA is not so unselfish after all. Kawhi Leonard, who just signed a five year max deal with the Spurs, has laid out his plans for the upcoming season. He wants to be the regular season MVP and he wants to be an All-Star. Like 90% of the NBA, Leonard wants the wreath of individual glory wrapped around his neck.

When evaluating Leonard, it’s a shock that he has never been an All-Star. But then when you look at his numbers, it’s not that jaw dropping. He’s not a pure scorer. He’s not an iso player. He doesn’t need the ball in his hands. He’s not aggressive to the point of taking the offense over on his own, begging people to look at him blow by dudes. He’s not part of the popularity clique that fans are desperate to see and cheer and faint over. It doesn’t help that Tim Duncan is on his team and Tony Parker, so he rightly defers when the situation requires it. From time to time, Leonard can get lost.

But, there is something superlative about Leonard even if his offense isn’t always in your face. What Kawhi does on defense is damn good. Rarely will he have a stop it Kawhi highlight on ESPN but he won Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2015 cementing his identity as a tough player to score on. But the rest of it?

There are two Kawhi Leonard arguments. Argument number one: he doesn’t have the psychological makeup to drop 25 a night, every night, over 82 games, nor does he have the passion for it, the will. He’s too quiet. He doesn’t have the guts to keep shooting when he’s 3 of 17. He does what the Spurs need him to do and he doesn’t question it because it has brought him rewards. He won a title at the age of 22.

The second argument is the Dean Smith rule. When asked who was the one man to stop Michael Jordan, the answer was Dean Smith who coached Jordan at North Carolina and kept Jordan’s ego and game in check.

Is the Greg Popovich offense stopping Kawhi Leonard? Do the Spurs have too much talent?

Leonard already has a Finals MVP award and a championship and he’s been to the playoffs every year since he was drafted by the Pacers and then traded to the Spurs. His ability to dominant on the wing on both offense and defense in every single game requires more than 31 minutes and 16 points. He has to be the best player and the leader of the Spurs but not to be repetitive, Tim Duncan is on his team. And now, so is LaMarcus Aldridge and David West. How many opportunities is he going to get?

These are the past nine regular season MVP’s: Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Lebron James, Derrick Rose, LeBron James, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki. With the exception of Nowitzki, they are all ball dominant players who play a lot of minutes.

Curry’s 32.7 minutes was the lowest for a MVP. When Kobe Bryant won the MVP in 2008, he played 38.9 minutes. The last time LeBron won the MVP he played 37.9 minutes. Leonard logs 31 minutes. And one other thing. Kawhi Leonard has never played more than 66 games. MVP’s play a full schedule or they play, at the very least, 75 games. But, Gregg Popovich loves to rest his players.

Of the nine MVP’s since 2007, Dirk Nowitzki had the lowest scoring average of 24.6 points. Two years ago, Kevin Durant had the highest scoring average of 32 points. The other MVP’s of the past nine seasons fell within that range. Leonard has never averaged 20 points a game, never averaged 18 points a game and it makes perfect sense on a team with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli. The shots are spread out and this year with the addition of Aldridge and West the number of shots are going to slide further.

The Spurs offense relies more on ball movement and less on individual excellence. It’s all about making the extra pass to get the best shot. It’s an offense that inhibits 20 points scorers, that suppresses MVP candidates.

The best player on the best team is awarded the MVP. Is Kawhi Leonard the best player on the Spurs or is Tim Duncan? Or, LaMarcus Aldridge? When Aldridge signed there was a lot of talk about Aldridge eventually replacing Tim Duncan as the Spurs star and leader. Two years ago, that was said about Kawhi Leonard. What happened? All he did was earn a Finals MVP.

Is Leonard feeling the need to distinguish himself with all that Spurs talent. Is he trying to justify or outperform his contract? To earn the MVP, Leonard would have to go out and get it the way LeBron James does seemingly every year. The award has to mean something to Leonard so that he is aggressively in pursuit of it.

Leonard’s interest in individual awards is inverted. Traditionally, a very young player enters the NBA with the goal of trying to make a name for himself. Leonard, with the Spurs, fit in with their unselfish, ball movement style of play. He had the Spurs character- I’ll do my part to help us win- rather than the familiar look at me AAU egocentricity.

Leonard made a name for himself in the NBA Finals in his third year, in 2014. Now he wants what LeBron James has. To have the regular season belong to him, to dominate the league with his talent and play.

As far as being an All-Star, it’s a crowded field. The starters are voted in on a popularity spectrum. Kevin Durant is a shoo-in, as is Blake Griffin. Pencil in Anthony Davis. That leaves about 4 or 5 subs voted by the coaches who have a large pool of talent to draw from: DeAndre Jordan, DeMarcus Cousins, Dirk Nowitzki, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Dwight Howard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tim Duncan, Serge Ibaka. You have to have a spectacular year both in numbers and in the small details. Hitting a few last second shots on nationally televised games doesn’t hurt either.

Before Leonard’s comments he was generally assumed to be the Quiet Man, happy in San Antonio deferring to Tim Duncan when necessary and picking his spots. Change usually is refreshing, though. Kawhi Leonard wants to grow as a player. He may not be the MVP this season. He may not be an All-Star. But, he’s out there trying to make it happen on a team with crowded talent and NBA title aspirations.


photo via llananba