Don’t Blink: A Vote for Kawhi Leonard

This is all too familiar:

“Nobody is talking about the Spurs…”

“The Spurs are flying under the radar…”

“Everyone needs to pay attention to Kawhi Leonard…”

It’s almost like when a player is not underrated because everyone talks about how underrated he is.  LaMarcus Aldridge wove that wave for years.  “LaMarcus Aldridge is the most underrated player in the NBA.”  That was said every night on SportsCenter for two seasons.  It’s contradictory.  Oh, and I almost forgot the worst one:

“The Spurs are boring and slow…I don’t like to watch them play…”

I kid you not I have heard that in the last 10 days.  We all know those people though – the ones that claim the NBA is all isolation, that the NBA is a bunch of thugs, that the league’s talent pool is diluted.

Okay, the talent pool is definitely diluted, but the rest is false, especially in the case of San Antonio.  Although they rank 25th in pace, they are fourth in the league in assists per game, fourth in true shooting percentage, and first in defensive efficiency.  They are an incredibly well-balanced team that rarely makes mistakes, and very fun to watch.  Headlined by Kawhi Leonard, a 2017 MVP candidate, the Spurs are more than capable of taking the one seed.  The Durant-less Warriors are 4-4 without their superstar, allowing the Spurs to close the gap to just 2.5 games. The time is now for San Antonio.

With four legitimate MVP contenders: Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, James Harden, and Leonard, we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory this time of year.  Typically, we can just give the MVP to the best player on the best team (Curry twice), default it to LeBron James (four times), or give it to a guy who played exceptional when a key teammate was injured (Durant).  The Nowitzki, Nash, Bryant and James race in 2007 was a bit compelling towards the end, but there are four current superstars peaking with major MVP credentials.  My vote is Leonard, but I have to give the other three props.

We’ve become accustomed to saying LeBron James does more for his team than any other player. That changed this season for the first time in half a decade. Take James off the Cavaliers and they still boast sufficient talent to compete in the East. In fact, take James, Westbrook, Harden, and Leonard off their respective teams and the Cavs are by far the most talented.

But statistically, I kid you not, this is LeBron’s best season: 26.0 PTS/G (most since ’14), .542% FG (highest since ’14) .385% 3PT (highest since ’13), 8.4 REB/G (career high), and 8.9 AST/G (career high).  Oh, and he leads the league with 38.8 minutes/game on the road at age 32.  The Cavs’ starting lineup has missed 81 games this season, of which LeBron accounts for just six.  The scariest part is that in some areas of his game, he’s still peaking.  The East should be terrified for the next three years at least.  When most wing-forwards age, they find themselves playing more on the block, à la Jordan, Bryant, and Pierce.  Not LeBron.  He took care of his body in the summers, cut the extra weight, and now roams the perimeter like a two-guard.  The speed is unstoppable.  But we’re talking about value here.  LeBron is a close second, but what Leonard does for San Antonio on both ends of the floor is a notch above.  Maybe we won’t be saying that in the playoffs when LeBron takes his “secret stuff,” but the regular season was all Kawhi.

Westbrook is also sporting his best statistical campaign.  Actually, he’s having arguably the best individual season for a point guard since Oscar Robertson.  The triple-double is very real now.  It’s no longer a lofty thought saved for later in the season.  Westbrook currently sits at 31.7 PTS/G, 10.5 REB/G, 10.3 AST/G, while shooting .420% from the field and .338% from deep.  Unfortunately for Westbrook, his Thunder sit at seventh place.  If MVP history has told us anything, the winner almost always carries his team to the top four in his conference.  Best case scenario: the Thunder use this summer to build around Westbrook.  Even if his stats drop a little bit, if his team wins 55+ games he could very well win the MVP in the coming seasons.

As for Harden, it’s safe to say I’m a hater.  Hitting the 13,000 point mark and breaking the single-season record with seven 40-point triple-doubles are equally impressive to me.  Harden is playing exactly how we envisioned when D’Antoni was signed last summer: complete freedom, an abundance of shooters, and excessive high pick-and-rolls.  The system offers Harden an opportunity to maximize his talents on the offensive end; consequently, the Beard sits at 29.2 PTS/G, 11.2 AST/G, 8.1 REB/G on a .446% mark from the field.  Very impressive indeed – but I’m still a hater.  His lack of focus on defense is as conspicuous as ever, and his unrelenting thirst to get fouled is annoying.  More importantly, I don’t think an MVP has to be exceptional on defense, but he can’t be a complete liability.

That leaves us with Kawhi.  Let’s start with offense: 26.3 PTS/G (career high), 6.0 REB/G, 3.4 AST/G (career high), .485% FG, .387% 3PT, and a remarkable .894% FT (career high).  So he’s third in scoring in the group, second in efficiency behind LeBron, and number one in percentage from deep. In other words, he’s in the same conversation offensively as the other candidates.

That moves us to defense…he’s a freaking wrecking ball on that end.  He’s better at defense than any candidate is on offense.  He’s the best perimeter defender since Scottie Pippen – and maybe even better than him.  He has that same effect on opposing players – where they’re too scared to even dribble or pass near Leonard.  We often hear, “who would score if you take Harden/Westbrook off their respective teams?”  Try this, “who would play defense if you take Leonard off the Spurs?”  San Antonio ranks second in points allowed (98.6), second in opponents’ field goal percentage (44.1%), third in opponents’ three-point percentage (34.0%), second in blocks per game (5.8), and first in overall defensive efficiency (100.9).

I’ll give Danny Green the credit he deserves.  He’s solid on defense, but how could a team with Tony Parker, Pau Gasol, and LaMarcus Aldridge in the starting lineup rank at the very top on that end of the floor?  Kawhi Leonard is that good.  He is more dominant on defense than any player in the NBA on either side of the floor.

And because Silver moved the MVP announcement to late June, we have to consider how this plays out in the postseason.  There’s a good chance San Antonio plays Oklahoma City in the first round and Houston in the second.  In that case, the Spurs easily dismantle the Thunder and Westbrook is no longer in the conversation.  Then we have Leonard hounding Harden for seven games.  Fact of the day: the Rockets haven’t faced the Spurs in the playoffs since the famous Robinson-Olajuwon matchup in 1995.  Imagine how Harden is going to look on offense by game three against San Antonio.  The Rockets won’t be good enough defensively to compete over seven games.  Leonard trumping Harden and the Rockets in the playoffs will naturally remove the Beard from this debate.

Alternatively, the Spurs could play the Grizzlies in the first round and play the winner of OKC/HOU in the second. That OKC/HOU series would eliminate one candidate, probably Westbrook, and the same would ensue for Harden against San Antonio.

That leaves LeBron and Kawhi as the final two candidates by late May.  Because the road to the finals is so easy in the East, LeBron has to win the championship to get the MVP.  If that doesn’t happen, Kawhi will win the award.  He has my vote regardless, but we all need to keep in mind that the MVP honors will be released in June now.  This changes everything.  No way Steve Nash wins back-to-back awards if the disclosure occurred after the finals.  Under no circumstances would Derrick Rose win in 2011 if we had a chance to see LeBron and Miami wreck Chicago in five games in the East finals.  Jordan would have definitely won over Barkley (’93) and Malone (’97), totaling his MVP count to seven.

My point is that Kawhi Leonard not only deserves the MVP, but the natural selection of the 2017 postseason may ensure his victory.  It’s not outlandish to think a player with a championship and a finals MVP could win a regular season MVP.  He’s that dominant night in and night out.  Pop has been frustrated with their consistency as of late, but that seems natural for a team that has started 15 different players.  This team has been riddled with injuries.  Parker missed 18, Pau missed 17, and Aldridge and Green missed 8 a piece.  Leonard deserves credit for holding this team together and carrying them atop the West.

All in all, each of the four candidates demonstrated MVP-quality play this year.  It’s a tough one.  In short, I vote Kawhi because of his prowess on both ends, his eventual playoff run past at least the Thunder and probably the Rockets.  Plus, Leonard has successfully carried a team struggling to keep guys in the lineup.  He’s even masked the fact that five guys in their thirties (Parker, Gasol, Aldridge, Ginobili, Lee) play significant minutes every night.  And most importantly, he captains the very best defense in the league and maintains an all-world offensive repertoire.  In a competition so close, Leonard is the most deserving, especially with the announcement occurring after the season’s end.

(Photo Credit via Jose Garcia)

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