Why Kawhi Leonard deserves to be MVP


This year’s MVP race is coming down to the wire as NBA fans are spoiled night in and night out with triple doubles, chase down blocks, crucial steals, and clutch buckets. Quite frankly, fans are unsure about how the media is going decide on an MVP this year with the likes of Russell Westbrook, James Harden and LeBron James putting up some Oscar worthy performances. Although I, along with many other fans can agree that they're all great candidates for the award this year, we can’t help but pay attention to Kawhi Leonard this year.

Yes, Kawhi “System Player” Leonard. The system player who won Finals MVP started in two all-star games and won back to back Defensive Player of The Year awards by the age of 25. He’s doing this before he’s even reaching the peak of his prime, and now he’s giving everyone a case to be this year’s MVP.  What is his case anyway?

1. He's Winning Games

The San Antonio Spurs have been a winning franchise for a majority of the average NBA fan’s life. The Spurs have recently clinched a playoff spot for the 20th year in a row, and are currently giving the Golden State Warriors a run for their money at the 1st seed. Most NBA MVP’s have been on the 1st or 2nd seed team in their conference. The last MVP to not be on a team who finished 2nd or 1st in their conference was Michael Jordan in 1988 where the Bulls finished 3rd. When the media is going to vote for the MVP in a couple months, seeding will be an important factor in securing a vote. The Spurs are going to approach 60 wins this season, and with that many wins on the table, it’s hard not to give Leonard the attention he deserves.

If we dive into the statistics of previous MVP winners, the average Win Shares per 48 is 0.25. Kawhi Leonard Currently sits at 0.28 Win Shares per 48. The reason why we are using Win Shares per 48 and not Win Shares on its own is because Kawhi is playing very few minutes as an MVP candidate. This season, Kawhi is averaging 33.6 minutes per game, while the average NBA MVP averages nearly 40 MPG. To shed some perspective, if Kawhi were to win MVP this year, he would have played the 3rd fewest minutes behind Bill Walton’s MVP in 1978 (33.3 MPG with 0.21 WS/48) and Steph Curry's 2016 MVP (32.7 MPG with 0.29 WS/48).

The stats are nice, and of course the Spurs are winning, but does he pass the eye test? Does he actually win games for San Antonio on his own?

You be the judge.

 

2. He's Barely Turning The Ball Over

Turnovers are a statistic that most people don’t take into account when looking at the MVP in previous years, but this year it’s more of a deciding factor. Turnovers are a concern for the likes of James Harden and Russell Westbrook, so it's definitely being put under the microscope this season with regards to MVP discussions.  Since turnovers hold some significant merit this year, let’s look at the turnover rates for this year’s top MVP candidates:

Player Turnovers Per Game
Kawhi Leonard 2.1
LeBron James 4.2
Russell Westbrook 5.5
James Harden 5.8

And here are total turnovers so far this season:

Player Total Turnovers This Season
Kawhi Leonard 116
LeBron James 239
Russell Westbrook 344
James Harden 370

For reference, the average MVP winner in the NBA turns the ball over 3.1 times per game. As we can see, Kawhi barely turns the ball over as one of the best two-way players in the game. The only MVP to have a turnover rate that low was Dirk Nowitzki in 2007, who has the lowest turnover rate for an MVP to date. The next four lowest turnover rates for an MVP are held by none other than Michael Jordan.

Player MVP Season Turnovers Per Game
Dirk Nowitzki 2006-07 2.1
Michael Jordan 1997-98 2.3
Michael Jordan 1995-96 2.4
Michael Jordan 1990-91 2.5
Michael Jordan 1991-92 2.5

In contrast to the 1988-89 season, Magic Johnson won the MVP by turning the ball over a staggering 4 times per game which is the most turnovers an MVP has done to date. This year we have two candidates who blow that number out of the water with over 5.5 turnovers per game. Either the media can consider voting for someone who will have a historically high turnover rate who is elite offensively, or vote for someone with a historically low turnover rate while playing both ends of the floor on an elite level. Turnovers will have an impact when the media will decide to vote for the MVP, and Kawhi has a significant advantage in this category by a landslide.  

3. He's a Defensive Threat

This is Kawhi's bread and butter for his MVP case. No other MVP candidate is able to shut down the opposing team's best player night after night while being a top 10 scorer in the league. 

To understand how much of a threat Kawhi is on defense, we have to take a look back at the start of the season. There was a game against Chicago earlier in the year where Fred Hoiberg understood that Kawhi's defense is so good, that he might as well make it a 4 on 4 exhibition match in the United Center. Watch Jimmy Butler contribute nothing to the offense as Kawhi Leonard is forced to walk with him while the Bulls attack the basket.

 

And watch as Kawhi barely moves because he's taken out of the flow of the game.  

 

These aren't D-Wade isolation plays either. These are sets the Bulls run throughout all of their games except for the fact that they have taken their best player out of the rotation because the man defending him is such a threat on the defensive end. Unbelievable.

Kawhi also has the stats to back him up as he is averaging nearly 2 steals a game (1.9), and he would be one of the top 10 MVP leaders in steals if he were to win this year. Michael Jordan once again emerges as one of the front-runners in this category with a blistering 3.2 steals per game, which just so happens to be the year where he won DPOY as well.  

Player MVP Season Steals Per Game
Michael Jordan 1987-88 3.2
Michael Jordan 1990-91 2.7
Allen Iverson 2000-01 2.5
Michael Jordan 1991-92 2.3
Michael Jordan 1995-96 2.2
Stephen Curry 2015-16 2.1
Julius Irving 1980-81 2.1
Larry Bird 1985-86 2.0
Stephen Curry 2014-15 2.0
LeBron James 2011-12 1.9

You will never see the opposition put someone like Russell Westbrook, James Harden, or even LeBron James on an island during the regular season. Despite that happening, he still strips the ball away nearly two times per game.  If that doesn't put the "valuable" in Most Valuable Player, I don't know what will.

4. His Offensive Growth 

If those clutch Kawhi moments that you watched earlier didn't convince you as to how good the man is on the offensive end, don't worry. Here are some Kawhi facts about his offensive growth:

Leonard came into the league averaging less than 8 PPG and has been consistently adding to his offensive arsenal every season.  Leonard, alongside Jimmy Butler, Gordon Hayward and Giannis Antetokounmpo are the few players who came into the league averaging less than 10PPG who are now averaging over 20 PPG over the span of the last 5 years.   

Kawhi has more 30 point games that Steph Curry, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant. Steph has 16, LeBron has 15 and Durant has 15 as well. Leonard only had 4  of those games last year. Kawhi has 23 of them after beating the Rockets on Monday.

Leonard is flirting with a 50/40/90 season, averaging a 48.5/37.9/89.3 shooting split. Only 9 players have achieved such a season, which include former MVPs Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Dirk Nowitzki, and Steve Nash 3 times. 

He is currently second in Player Efficiency Rating with a rating of  28.2, only behind Russell Westbrook who sits at 29.8. 

Kawhi is top 10 in both offensive and defensive win shares. He is the only MVP candidate to be within the top 10 on both lists this season (note that Kevin Durant appears in both lists, but is no longer in the MVP race due to his injury).

He has the same true shooting percentage as Steph Curry this season sitting at 61.8%. James Harden sits at 62%.

His free throw attempts have skyrocketed. in 2015, he took 252, in 2016 he shot 334 of them, and now he is sitting at 431 attempts with 20 more games to go. He currently sits in the top 10 for attempts. 

You could read more about the stats he's putting up, and where he sits in the NBA leaderboards, but it's much more entertaining to watch the man go to work. 

 

The Klaw has a serious case to win the MVP this season. He shines on the biggest stages in the NBA, he is elite on both ends of the floor, and his team is winning games. He hardly turns over the ball, he makes his teammates better, and if Kawhi Leonard didn't exist on the Spurs, the chances of San Antonio making the playoffs or being a contender would be significantly diminished. He is incredibly valuable. He is the most valuable player in the league today.

To truly solidify himself as the MVP front-runner, he will need to put on some great performances over the remainder of the season. 11 of the Spurs' last 20 games are against playoff contenders, arguably one of the toughest schedules in the league right now. They will face the likes of the Warriors twice, Memphis 3 times, Utah twice, OKC 2 more times, and have some final showdowns with the Clippers and Cavaliers too. 

I believe that Kawhi Leonard will excel in those games as he has proven himself time and time again this season. The stats back him up, and the eye test backs him up too. It's his MVP to lose during this gauntlet, and I have confidence that he'll show up, as any MVP would. 

 All stats provided by BasketballReference.com unless otherwise noted. 

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