Absolutely loaded. That’s the only way to describe this year’s class of MVP candidates. Russell Westbrook continues to rack up triple-doubles while doing his best impression of a hurricane. James Harden unlocked his best self as the engine to Mike D’Antoni’s Ferrari offense (which, once upon a time, even made Chris Duhon look like a halfway-decent player in the league). And there’s always the omnipotent ubiquity of LeBron James.
Then, with much less ballyhoo, there’s Kawhi Leonard. Maybe he doesn’t get the proper acclaim because of his non-flashy solemnity, or because no one’s ever heard him talk. Or perhaps it’s because he’s a cyborg cooked up in a West Texas laboratory commissioned by R.C. Buford.
Kawhi Leonard Should Win MVP
Whatever the reason, after the Spurs beat the Rockets on March 6th – mostly thanks to Leonard’s basketball wizardry in the waning moments – the groundswell for Leonard’s MVP campaign gained traction.
Leonard recorded his highest Game Score of the season while matching Harden with 39 points on an absurdly efficient 12-18 from the field, 4-5 from downtown, and a perfect 11-11 from the line.
Now, even though the MVP is a season-long award and all 82 games are of equal value, individual showdowns toward the end of the year get put under the magnifying glass of recency bias. They give a direct correlation and incite appeal as primal, mano-a-mano battles for supremacy. It’s a rudimentary measure, but when a race is especially tight, these match-ups serve as tiebreak justification.
Playing Well on Both Sides of the Ball
While it’s nice that Leonard got the spotlight shone on him, he isn’t completely recognized for his consistent brilliance. Defense makes up half of the game, and few players in the history of the sport have rivaled his prowess on that end. By not boasting the gaudy, surface numbers of his peers, he gets held in a lower regard by the average fan. And it makes sense; Leonard’s 25.9/5.9/3.5 points/rebounds/assists per-game averages pale in comparison to Westbrook’s 31.2/10.5/10.4, Harden’s 29.5/8.0/11.3, and James’ 26.1/8.4/8.8.
However, if you peel back the onion, the advanced stats give credence to Leonard’s case. Of the four, Leonard is tops in both offensive and defensive rating per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference. In the macro view, ESPN shows that the Spurs have the sixth-best offensive efficiency rating and best defensive efficiency in the NBA. The Rockets rank second and 13th, the Cavaliers are third and 22nd, and the Thunder place 15th and 10th, respectively.
Of course, since Leonard is the paragon of the great Spurs machine and has one of the best coaches of all time, there’s a slight undertow that he’s a product of the system.
The Supporting Cast
During this golden age of point guards, the Spurs have arguably the worst point guard situation of any team in the playoff picture. San Antonio’s second best player, LaMarcus Aldridge, just got back from a literal heart problem, after playing through a figurative one for his entire career. After that, it’s a concert of semi-washed-to-washed former stars and role players. When you take a glance at the standings to see this team on the cusp of 60 wins, you realize that it’s borderline miraculous.
Leonard probably won’t win the MVP, but he probably should.
All stats are accurate through March 24th.