As I said earlier this week, and basically the last half of the NBA season, the MVP race is a two horse race with the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook and the Rockets’ James Harden taking a huge lead on the rest of the pack for the award. But just because these two will fight it out for the top award in basketball, doesn’t mean that these two players are the best players in the sport. That honor belongs to a man who has no chance to win the award, but it’s not because he’s not producing.
Kawhi Leonard is producing this season. Sure he isn’t carrying a season long triple double average like Westbrook or a 29.1/8.1/11.2 line like Harden, but the Spurs’ small forward doesn’t have to. Leonard doesn’t touch the ball on some San Antonio possessions, and there is little doubt that he couldn’t handle the creative burden on offense that the two leading MVP candidates do.
So with no shot at the MVP and stats that don’t match what any other candidate have, how can we claim that Kawhi has been the best player in basketball this year? I mean after all he averaged just 3.5 assists per game. And of all the perimeter players to win, only Michael Jordan in 97-98 averaged so few, and Leonard isn’t quite Michael Jordan (he compares better to Larry Bird). So why then is he the best? How can anybody compare him favorably to Westbrook or Harden? Because stats don’t tell the whole story. And the stats that really matter say there’s none better.
Points per possession is one of those stats. San Antonio has scored 112.6 points per 100 possessions with Leonard on the floor, and just 102.6 with him sitting. And while 10 points might not seem that grand, that is nearly the difference between Golden State’s league-best offense and Atlanta’s 27th-ranked brick-fest. And there is a reason San Antonio needs those points.
Dewayne Dedmon is a starter for the Spurs. Tony Parker just wrapped his worst season as a pro. LaMarcus Aldridge, who was supposed to be the offensive star, dropped off across the board. And Danny Green is what Danny Green is, a nice fourth or fifth option on the floor. Surrounding Leonard is hardly a group of all-stars like Lebron James has. It’s hardly the offensive super-group that surrounds Steph Curry in Oakland, and it doesn’t fit the profile of a 60-plus win team. But thanks to Leonard the Spurs are once again high seeds heading into the Western Conference playoffs.
And while some people claim that Aldridge is the true scoring threat of the silver & black, the Spurs managed just 99.6 points per 100 possessions (and a negative scoring margin) in the 423 minutes he played without Leonard, worse than any team’s offense, just going to show how important and how dominant Leonard was on the side of the ball he is known the least for.
Of course the stats don’t quite tell the same story on the other side of the ball, which is interesting considering Kawhi is favored to win his third straight Defensive Player of the Year Award. But while San Antonio’s larger points allowed per possession figure with Leonard on the floor, compiled mostly against the best opponent lineups, that number would still rank top-5 overall at the team level. In other words, against the opposition’s best lineups, with atrocious defenders like Tony Parker and Pau Gasol beside him, Kawhi is still able to lead his team to a top-5 defense in the league. That is borderline elite.
Then again, people already know what they are getting out of Leonard defensively, so we’ll take a deeper look at his overlooked offense. After all, averaging 25.5 points a game on 48.5% shooting, a higher percentage than both Harden and Westbrook, is incredible for a player better known for his defense. Add in the fact that Leonard has a higher 3-point and free throw percentage than any of the other three MVP contenders and it goes to show that Leonard is the most well-rounded player in the NBA.
Maybe that is why the Spurs’ superstar is the focal point of the San Antonio offense. Kawhi Leonard’s role offensively is more important than Lebron James’, as the SDSU alum has a higher usage percentage than the player that many believe is year-in and year-out the most important player in the NBA. Kawhi is used in 31% of the Spurs’ possessions, which is comparable to both Westbrook and Harden who played a position that handles the ball a lot more. So despite the thought that Westbrook and Harden are much more important players to their squads it isn’t like they are used much more than the bigger, stronger, better shooting, fewer turnover producing, superior defensive player that Kawhi Leonard has proven to be.
Of course Kawhi isn’t as flashy as either of the MVP caliber guards, but the fact that maybe his dunks aren’t as hard as Russell Westbrook’s and his handles aren’t as good as James Harden’s doesn’t mean that Leonard’s efficiency should be overlooked. Now that might not seem sexy, but what’s not sexy to basketball purists is turnovers, of which Kawhi Leonard has a measly 2.1 per game. That’s less than half the turnovers Lebron James produces per game, despite handling the ball more than King James does. And it’s far less than the record number of turnovers per game that Westbrook (5.4) and Harden produced (5.7), which are numbers that shatter their all-time NBA record from previous reckless seasons.
But how can a guy who is obviously a system player like Kawhi be the best in the league if its Gregg Popovich’s system that is putting him in place to produce the way he is? Because Leonard is much more than an average guy playing in a system suited to his talents. In fact, it’s when the system breaks down and Leonard is asked to create something from nothing that he is at his best. This season Leonard hit 51% of his post-up shots, which puts him in the top 25 in the league. He also averaged better than a point per possession on pick-and-rolls, well above both Harden and Westbrook. And his .939 points per possession weren’t far behind Harden’s .973, and ahead of Westbrook’s .938.
So while people look at Westbrook leading the league in scoring and Harden averaging a near triple-double himself, what they might want to realize is that the only reason Kawhi Leonard isn’t dominating those stats is because he wasn’t asked to. Both guards played far more minutes for their teams than Leonard, as Westbrook played an extra 250 and Harden and extra 450. That shows their importance to their team, which is no doubt why they are the frontrunners for the MVP. But it’s hard to claim that just because they are more valuable to their teams that they are the better players.
After all there is nobody more dominant on defense, no player more efficient on offense, and nobody in the league better, than Kawhi Leonard.