The mainstream sports media has basically narrowed the MVP race down to two individuals: James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Both men are having unbelievable and, in Westbrook’s case, historic seasons. But to me, there is a third hat in the ring that deserves MVP consideration: Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs. Here is why Kawhi Leonard is the Most Valuable Player in the NBA:
1) He’s doing more with less
The raw stats don’t tell the story. Here are Kawhi’s stats in comparison to Harden and Westbrook (per basketball-reference.com):
- Kawhi Leonard: 26.3 ppg, 6 reb, 3.4 ast, 1.9 stl, 0.7 blk, 2 TOs, 48.8% FG, 38.6% 3pt, 89.6% FT
- Russell Westbrook: 31.7 ppg, 10.6 reb, 10 ast, 1.6 stl, 0.4 blk, 5.5 TOs, 41.9% FG, 33.7% 3pt, 83.9% FT
- James Harden: 29 ppg, 7.9 reb, 11.3 ast, 1.5 stl, 0.4 blk, 5.8 TOs, 44.3% FG, 36% 3pt, 85% FT
By the raw stats, Kawhi looks like he’s lagging in most areas except all shooting percentages and turnovers. But when you look beneath the surface, this becomes more explainable. Currently, Russell Westbrook’s usage percentage is at 42.1%, which would be and likely will be the highest in NBA history by 4% (over Kobe Bryant‘s mesmerizing 2005/2006 season in which he dropped 81 points in a game). In comparison, James Harden is at 34% usage on the season, which is 5th in the NBA, and Kawhi is at 31.2% usage which is 7th in the NBA. Are Westbrook’s stats inflated because he is dominating the ball more? Most likely.
What about James Harden? Are Harden’s stats a by-product of the D’Antoni effect that helped net Steve Nash two MVP awards in the mid-2000s? Harden’s points per game have stayed the same, but his assists, rebounds, field goal percentage, and three-point percentage are up in fewer minutes per game. On the surface, it looks impressive, but the Rockets are currently 4th in PACE (possessions per 48 minutes). In comparison, the Thunder are 7th in PACE and the Spurs are 25th. For Kawhi Leonard to have the season he is having and have statistical relevance to both Harden and Westbrook and do it in much fewer possessions per game and at a lower usage rate speaks volumes to his efficiency and excellence on the court.
2) His defense sets him apart
Harden and Westbrook are offensive juggernauts and deserve praise for that, but Kawhi Leonard deserves equal amounts of praise for his prowess on the defensive end. The Spurs played the Rockets last night and watch the last two possessions and how Kawhi made incredible plays on both ends to win the game for the Spurs:
Kawhi Leonard is getting to the place where he makes plays like this on a regular basis. Just Friday night against the Pelicans, he swiped the ball from Jrue Holiday and coasted in for a dunk in crunch time:
The statistics back up Kawhi’s defensive excellence as well. Kawhi is 6th in Defensive Win Shares this season, which is better than Westbrook (9th) and Harden (17th) per basketball reference.com. Per NBA.com/stats, opposing players are shooting 1.1% less when Kawhi is guarding them. In comparison, opposing players are shooting 7.1% better with Westbrook guarding them and 2.1% better with Harden guarding them. Also, Kawhi Leonard is currently 7th in Defensive Rating compared to Westbrook (13th) and Harden (who is nowhere near the top 20 and is closer to 73rd). Kawhi Leonard may be the best defensive player in the NBA and may have taken the crown as the best two-way player in the league.
3) Team Success Should Mean Something
It’s hard to take Westbrook seriously with that egregiously high usage rate and with his team sitting in 7th in the Western Conference standings, 14.5 games back of the Spurs. The Rockets are currently 3rd in the West…and are a full 6 games behind the Spurs for 2nd. The Spurs are 2.5 games back of the first seed and have already secured a Playoff berth. Doesn’t team success usually mean SOMETHING in the MVP race? Wasn’t that the justification when Charles Barkley won the 1993 MVP or when Karl Malone won in 1997? Or when Steve Nash won back-to-back MVPs and Derrick Rose interrupted LeBron’s reign of dominance by winning the 2011 MVP? Team success matters in the MVP race and when you have Kawhi Leonard rising to another level the year Tim Duncan retires and leading the Spurs to a possible top seed in the West, how can you simply discount that?
To me, when you factor in the inflation of both Westbrook and Harden’s stats, the two-way dominance of Kawhi Leonard, and him continuing the Spurs machine, Kawhi Leonard is simply the MVP. He’s not likely to win it this year, but he shouldn’t be discounted. He should be right in the discussion for not only the MVP, but as the best player in the world. Kawhi Leonard is a two-way force and a full superstar in the National Basketball Association.
Brandon Pence is the co-founder of B2 Hoops and the founder/editor emeritus of “The Bulls Charge.” Follow him on Twitter here.