For much of this NBA season, the MVP race has been focused on two players who have put up eye-popping numbers. Russell Westbrook and James Harden have redefined the statistical limits of individual players in today’s league, and their accomplishments are not to be taken lightly. Westbrook is on the cusp of averaging a triple-double for an entire season, currently sitting at 31.9 PPG, 10.5 RPG, and 10.1 APG. His constant ferocity and relentless intensity have dragged a roster devoid of talent to a likely playoff spot without Kevin Durant, and have made for incredible individual games such as this clutch performance in Boston.
Meanwhile in Houston, the explosive style of new coach Mike D’Antoni has put Harden in a position to put up similarly insane stats. In his first season as point guard, Harden is right there with Westbrook, averaging 28.9 PPG, 11.2 APG, and 7.9 RPG. His unique style is impossible to guard, as Harden can get a pull-up three, a lay-up, a foul, or a kick-out to one of Houston’s many shooters whenever he wants. He has taken D’Antoni’s old Seven Seconds Or Less concept from Phoenix to its logical conclusion, and this is what it has led to:
But while each of these two has a great claim to the MVP award, there’s one player who also deserves consideration. Here are the three reasons why San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard can win the MVP.
1. Leonard is having an incredible season himself.
Leonard’s traditional season averages aren’t as noticeable as those of Westbrook and Harden, though certainly still impressive: 26.2 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 3.4 APG. But check out this table, courtesy of http://www.basketball-reference.com/ .
As you can see, Leonard is a far more efficient player in nearly every offensive statistic. He’s a better shooter, which is hugely important in today’s league. Whereas Harden and Westbrook’s huge numbers come with turnovers, Leonard rarely takes opportunities away from his team.
And don’t think Leonard’s efficiency is the result of a small work load. Kawhi’s usage rate has jumped to 31% this season, the highest of any Spurs player under Popovich. Kawhi could probably put up numbers close to those of Harden and Westbrook if he was used as much as they are, but the fact that those two do everything for their team isn’t necessarily a good thing. It’s easy to say that Westbrook and Harden have to do it all because their teammates aren’t as good as Leonard’s, but in doing so they don’t give those around them the chance to develop their skills through reps. Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo have been disappointing this year, but how are they supposed to make plays if Westbrook always has the ball? How is Patrick Beverly going to develop ball skills if Harden is the one making every decision?
Basketball is a team sport. The best teams win because they play together and trust each other. We’ve seen time and time again that historically ball-dominant players don’t enjoy much team success. Part of being an MVP is realizing when to step back and let your teammates do what they do well. Leonard has that. Harden and Westbrook don’t.
And if you’re one of those people who still thinks Leonard’s offensive production lacks creativity and is simply a result of a great offensive system, please watch this video. Kawhi can get his own shot whenever he wants.
2. Leonard’s team has the best record of the three.
The Spurs are currently sitting at 51-14, just a half game back of the Warriors. It took until Kevin Durant’s injury for the nation to realize that the Spurs weren’t far behind Golden State in the standings, ready to pounce on the top seed if Golden State faltered. Meanwhile, Houston has a record of 45-21 and OKC is 37-29.
You might be saying “But Kawhi is in San Antonio, the players and coaches are better. Kawhi is just part of a system!” It might have been possible to say that a few years ago, but this is no longer the case. While Kawhi certainly benefits from having one of the best coaches ever in Gregg Popovich, Harden has the advantage of a brilliant offensive coach who has tailored the team’s attack to his specific strengths. Harden always has the ball surrounded by shooters, and is granted the free reign to attack at all times. Westbrook also always has the ball, a freedom not granted to Leonard.
As for the teammates around them, this is not the Spurs teams of old that had talent out the wazoo. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are on their last legs and nowhere near as effective as they once were. The same is true of Pau Gasol. Leonard does not enjoy the depth of shooters around him that Harden does. He also doesn’t really have a second dynamic playmaker like Westbrook does in Victor Oladipo. Just look at the rosters; the best players around Kawhi are LaMarcus Aldridge, Gasol, Parker, Ginobili, Simmons, Dewayne Dedmon, Danny Green, Patty Mills, and Jonathon Simmons. Harden has Trevor Ariza, Clint Capela, Lou Williams, Eric Gordon, Patrick Beverly, Ryan Anderson, Montrezl Harrell, and Sam Dekker. Westbrook has Oladipo, Steven Adams, Taj Gibson, Enes Kanter, Domantas Sabonis, Doug McDermott, and Alex Abrines.
Overall, yes, Leonard has the best roster around him of the three. But is that slight advantage enough to make up for the 6.5 game lead that San Antonio has over Houston? Or their 14.5 game advantage over OKC? In such a star-driven sport, wouldn’t such large disparities indicate that the Spurs’ star has been the best out of the three?
Leonard’s demeanor can’t be overlooked here. Unlike Westbrook and Harden, who have drawn attention for a number of off-court distractions, Leonard is a quiet, consistent winning presence. You hardly ever hear a Kawhi interview, and you sure don’t hear about him dating a celebrity or having a feud with another player or the media. As we’ve seen in football with the New England Patriots, distractions are the enemy of success, and Kawhi is all about winning.
3. Leonard is by far the league’s best two-way player.
There’s just not much debate on this front by now. In addition to being the focal point of the Spurs’ offense, Leonard is also tasked with guarding the other team’s best scorer pretty much every night. He’s the one guy in this league that LeBron James does not want to see guarding him. We all know what Harden looks like on defense, but Westbrook is one of the league’s most overrated defenders. Harden never gives enough effort, and Westbrook vacilates between little effort and over-pursuing, which puts the defense out of position. Leonard and LeBron are probably the only players in the league who could do this:
That is what an MVP looks like. Not doing everything for his team, but doing everything his team needs when it matters most. Don’t think it’s an accident that Leonard had his MVP moment against Harden, either. He plays his best against the highest level of competition. Harden and Westbrook obviously have legitimate claims to the award. Both made great strides this year and have accomplished so much. But in picking an MVP, it’s important not to let stats blind your perception. What you need to keep in mind is who does the most to help their team win, and few people win more than Kawhi Leonard.