Although James Harden and Russell Westbrook are the favorites to bring home the MVP award this year, Kawhi Leonard quietly deserves a hard look.
Jeff Van Gundy brought this up during Saturday night’s telecast between the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder, and how little Leonard is talked about in the MVP conversation is shocking. Either Harden or Westbrook will be the guy taking home the award at the end of the season, but seeing Leonard finish fourth — or even third — should be expected.
The San Antonio Spurs have the second-best record in the league at 41-12, and if it weren’t for the surprising success of the Houston Rockets, Leonard would be one of the favorites to take home the hardware. He’s 10th in the league in scoring at 25.6 points a night and third in PER with 27.9, but his situation is different because he’s expected to be the go-to guy on offense while locking down the opposing team’s best player, something that Harden and Westbrook don’t have to worry about.
In addition to the expectations on the defensive end, Leonard delivers, and he’s, by far, the best defender in MVP talks. The only other superstars that are tasked with doing so much on both ends are Jimmy Butler and LeBron James, and Leonard is great enough not to sacrifice anything on either end.
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Leonard’s usage is above 30 percent for the first time in his career, and he’s one of 10 guys who has played more than 1,500 minutes with a usage rate that high. His efficiency is tremendous, and Leonard is second in true shooting percentage (62.2) and effective shooting percentage (54.6), and he’s also last in turnovers with 100, an impressive number for a ball-dominant superstar.
Unlike Westbrook and Harden, Leonard is just as versatile has he is efficient, and there’s no level that he’s not a threat. With Harden, 69.9 percent of his shots come at the rim or from three, but that’s how Mike D’Antoni wants him to play; Westbrook’s a bit more balanced with roughly 43 percent of his shots coming in between three and 22 feet, but he shoots just 42.2 percent from the field overall.
Leonard has 48.2 percent of his attempts coming at the rim or from three, and his ability to convert on those shots has helped turn him into a mid-range assassin. He’s had a solid in between game for the last couple of seasons, but having range forces defenses to adjust and his progression as a playmaker is another thing for opponents to worry about. No longer is Leonard a player who gets the ball just to score, he’s now actively looking to pass, and his assists are at a career-high 3.4 a night — it’s not much, but Leonard averages 2.2 for his career.
If the season were to end today, I’d pick James Harden as the MVP with Westbrook second, LeBron James at number three and then Leonard fourth. It’s not a knock on him, but the Spurs are expected to be one of the best teams in the league every year, and Harden and the Rockets have shattered all expectations.
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