Don’t let the title fool you. This isn’t a declaration, more so an evaluation and comparison of Kawhi Leonard’s candidacy for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award.
For most of the season, Leonard has been an afterthought in the MVP talks, with Russell Westbrook, James Harden and LeBron James dominating the conversation. But he forced his way in last night – and over the past couple months – by putting the Spurs on his back once again, this time taking down Harden and the Rockets.
Leonard scored 39 points in 39 minutes, hitting 12 of 18 from the field, 4-5 from three and sinking all 11 of his free throws. He added six rebounds, five assists, two blocks and a steal. While the entire body of work from his game was impressive enough, it was the second half of the fourth quarter that had everyone talking, as detailed here by Paul Garcia.
Kawhi Leonard ABSOLUTE.
Hits COLD-BLOODED go-ahead 3, then HARVESTS James Harden's soul at the other end to seal victory 😨 pic.twitter.com/H7sqTCKmt5
— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) March 7, 2017
The shot-and-block heard around the world sent the NBA world into a frenzy, as The Klaw demonstrated why he is considered one of the best two-way players in the league.
But does one game – particularly one epic sequence – really qualify Kawhi Leonard as MVP? Hardly. It’s everything else that does.
Arguably, Westbrook is having the best season of the MVP candidates, averaging a triple-double (31.7 PPG, 10.6 RPG and 10 APG). But this isn’t the NBA’s best player award; it’s the most valuable player.
For starters, Westbrook’s team currently sits at seventh in the west. Over the last forty years, only one player has won MVP on a team that finished no worse than a three-seed in their conference, Moses Malone for the Rockets in 1981-82. While it might not be fair to undermine his accomplishments due to his team’s record, it has obviously been a factor for voters and shouldn’t be discounted.
That being said, Westbrook is close to finishing the season averaging a triple-double, a feat that has only been accomplished once in the NBA, by Oscar Robertson on the Cincinnati Royals in 1961. While Robinson went on to win MVP in 1964, he lost out to Bill Russell in ’61. Russell’s Celtics had the best record that year at 60-20 while the Royals finished 43-37.
Westbrook is also on pace for 448.5 turnovers this season, which would break the NBA record for most turnovers (374) in a season set by James Harden last year.
Speaking of Harden, he is also on pace to set a new turnover record, as he currently has 370 on the year with 18 games to go. He is projected to finish with 474.4 turnovers if he continues at his average of 5.8 a game. A massive amount of turnovers doesn’t disqualify either player from MVP but it’s not a great indicator. It should be pointed out that both have better assist-to-turnover ratios than Leonard (1.95 for Harden, 1.83 Westbrook and 1.7 for Leonard), but Leonard is on pace for significantly less turnovers, 164 for the season (two per game).
Harden’s stat line of 29 PPG, 11.3 APG and 7.9 RPG – as is Westbrook’s listed above – is worthy of an MVP. While Leonard’s stat line of 26.3 PPG, 6 RPG and 3.4 APG pale in comparison; his defense is what separates him. He locks down his assignment while still putting up 30 points, as he is averaging 30.2 PPG over the last two months.
Leonard has scored in double figures in 91 straight games, tying a franchise record with none other than Tim Duncan, who accomplished the same feat in 2002 and 2003. (Duncan won back-to-back MVP’s in 2001-02 and 2002-03.)
He is also the unquestioned leader of the Spurs. San Antonio currently sits at second in the West at 49-13, 5.5 games better than Harden’s Rockets (44-20) and 14.5 games above Westbrook’s Thunder (35-28).
What about LeBron James?
Here’s the deal with LeBron: He is the best player of this generation, arguably of all time. It would have been justified had he won MVP each of the last ten seasons and this season is no different. He’s averaging 26 PPG, 8.8 APG and 8.2 RPG and his Cavaliers currently have the best record in the East at 42-20.
However, playing in the weaker Eastern conference on a stacked team could be a glaring factor as to why he won’t get MVP this season. The other three players are battling it out in the West, primarily against tougher teams, yet the Spurs and the Rockets have better records than the Cavs, with the Thunder not too far below Cleveland records-wise. Imagine what Leonard’s, Harden’s and Westbrook’s numbers would look like in the East?
Voter fatigue is also a factor for James, as unfair as that is. He has been an MVP candidate year in and year out and, frankly, people are tired of seeing him rewarded. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve it, but it’s just a fact about the voting process.
All four players are having incredible seasons and are extremely valuable to their teams. Take away either of these players for a full season and the likelihood their teams are contenders is slim at best.
With a little less than ¼ of the regular season left to play, it’s still too early to crown the MVP and a lot could happen. Turnovers and poor defensive skills are issues for Westbrook and Harden, while LeBron has exhausted voters and is playing in a weaker conference. Leonard is dominant on both sides of the floor and is on a team with the second best record in the league.
Is this enough for Leonard to be named MVP? Only time will tell, but there is no doubt he is deserving of being in the discussion.