Over the last few years, we knew that Kawhi Leonard’s ascent to stardom was inevitable. He had all of the tools – physical and mental – to be a dominant two-way player, a legendary head coach in Gregg Popovich making sure he reached his full potential and a talented group of future Hall of Famers (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, etc.) around him to help him develop.
Now, the Leonard era is officially underway.
Two years ago, he surprised everyone when he was the Finals MVP in the San Antonio Spurs’ victory over the Miami HEAT. Last season, he was named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year. This year, he made his first All-Star appearance. Leonard has been improving each season, and the player who hates the spotlight and individual accolades has been receiving more recognition lately – whether he likes it or not.
Before, Leonard was viewed as one of the NBA’s top up-and-coming talents. Now, he is officially one of the NBA’s best players.
It’s very possible that Leonard will win Defensive Player of the Year again this season, as he remains one of the best perimeter stoppers in the NBA and he shuts down the game’s best scorers on a nightly basis. His excellent instincts, huge hands, 7’3 wingspan, freakish athleticism, high basketball IQ and always-running motor make him a dominant defender. The numbers back this up, as he ranks first in the NBA in Defensive Win Shares (5.1) and second in Defensive Rating (95.1). San Antonio has by far the league’s best defense, allowing only 95.6 points per 100 possessions, and Leonard’s play is a huge reason for this.
However, the reason that Leonard is my pick for MVP runner up is that his offensive game is finally catching up with his defensive excellence. This season, in addition to being a shutdown defender, he is leading the Spurs’ offensive attack as well. Leonard is averaging a career-high 20.9 points while shooting an extremely efficient 50.9 percent from the field and 46.7 percent from three-point range. When Leonard entered the NBA, scouts criticized his shooting and said it was his biggest weakness. Now, Leonard is knocking down two threes per game and making almost half of his attempts from long range, which demonstrates just how much Leonard has grown as a player in his five NBA seasons.
In addition to scoring 20.9 points per game, he is also averaging 6.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.8 steals and one block. He fills the stat sheet every night, and yet he does so many things that don’t show up on the box score that it’s impossible to quantify his impact on the game.
Advanced analytics help show how dominant Leonard has been this season. Among all NBA players, he ranks first in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus (9.89) and second in Win Shares Per 48 Minutes (.282), trailing only Curry. Leonard also ranks third in Win Shares (12.4), fourth in Box Plus/Minus (8.2), sixth in Player Efficiency Rating (25.8), sixth in Value Over Replacement Player (5.5) and eighth in True Shooting Percentage (.619). He has become a well-rounded player who is elite in many facets of the game.
It also helps that the Spurs are currently 59-10; we all know that MVP voters love to select players from top teams. While Curry and the Warriors are an insane 62-7, it’s extremely impressive that San Antonio is just three games behind them in the standings.
The Spurs have turned Leonard into their two-way juggernaut that decimates anything in his path without showing any emotion. And the scariest thing about Kawhi is that he’s only 24 years old, so he’s not even in his prime yet – unlike the 28-year-old Curry or the 31-year-old James. The fact that I can make the case for Leonard as the runner up for MVP right now when he’s only scratching the surface of his potential is why the rest of the NBA should fear him for years to come.
– Alex Kennedy