Kawhi not?: Why the understated, underrated Spurs star should be the 2016-17 NBA MVP

The race for this season’s NBA Most Valuable Player award has been one of the most hotly contested and highly debated in league history. Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double for the season. James Harden scorched the competition running one of the league’s most efficient offenses. Meanwhile defending champion and former four-time MVP LeBron James and reigning two-time MVP Stephen Curry once again put up big numbers while putting their respective teams back in title contention.

The glitz and glamour associated with the names listed above likely means Kawhi Leonard won’t be named the 2016-17 NBA MVP. While compelling cases can be made for any of the four names mentioned above, Kawhi Leonard should be named the 2016-17 NBA MVP. Allow me to explain:

Nearly a decade ago I wrote about my desire to fix the NBA’s MVP award. More specifically, I wanted to clarify what is meant by the term “valuable” because 10 different voters might define that term differently in regards to how it plays out over the course of an NBA season. My system, which first debuted in 2008, may not be perfect, but it accounts for 10 of the most significant arguments people tend to make regarding their MVP choice.

To summarize the process, I whittle the list of MVP candidates down to 10 with two major provisions. First of all, I do not include anyone from a non-playoff team. If a player is not valuable enough to get his team into the postseason, he may be an all-star, but he is not the MVP. Secondly, I only permit one MVP candidate per team. So, in the case of a team like the Golden State Warriors, I had to cut Kevin Durant in favor of Steph Curry. (Durant’s injury made this decision a little easier than it otherwise would have been.) The rationale is simple: if a player is not the MVP of his own team, he cannot be the MVP of the entire league.

List of MVP questions

I then ask myself the 10 questions shown above. For each question, I rank the 10 nominees with 10 being the highest and 1 being the lowest. The nominee who totals the highest (out of a possible 100) earns my vote for MVP.

In the 9 years I have been using this process, my vote has matched the eventual winner of the MVP award 8 times. The only time my vote differed from the real life result was in 2011 when the NBA awarded the MVP to Derrick Rose. My system named LeBron James the rightful winner and actually had Rose third behind both James and Kobe Bryant.

Year-by-year comparison on my MVP vote and the actual MVP recipient

As I answered the 10 questions this year, I could tell this season’s MVP race was different. Each of the top five MVP nominees earned a total of 65 or greater, which had never happened before. In fact, there have only been two seasons since 2008 when even four players totaled at least 65.  And while the 2011-12 vote had the closest margin between first and second place (4), this year’s vote had a margin of only 10 between first and fifth place.

2016-17 MVP questionnaire results

As FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine writes, the case for Kawhi Leonard rests on his versatility and all-around game. “Among players who’ve logged at least 1,500 minutes this season, Leonard is the only one who ranks among the top half of the league in all nine statistical categories,” writes Paine. “All of Leonard’s MVP competitors, by contrast, have at least one statistical hole in their respective games. James turns the ball over too much; Stephen Curry doesn’t rebound; Westbrook and Harden play below-average defense, both by block rate and overall defensive RPM.”

That logic played out in my questioning process, too. Both Russell Westbrook and LeBron James placed first in more categories than Leonard, who only topped the charts in response to Question 8 (If you needed one defensive stop, who would you want playing defense?). However, Leonard was a top-three answer to five of the questions and, unlike the other top contenders, Leonard lacked a weak spot.

When it comes to creating a positive impact on his teammates and winning games, Leonard stands out from Westbrook. In terms of clutch free throw shooting and making a positive impact on teammates, Leonard is clearly a superior option than James. In regards to defense and a well-rounded game, Leonard is hands down the choice over Harden and Curry.

While Westbrook, James, Harden, and Curry may have slightly more gawdy offensive numbers than Leonard, Kawhi is not far behind them. He finished 9th in the league in scoring while shooting 48.5 percent from the field, 38.0 percent from 3 and 88 percent from the line. He scored more than Curry and shot better than Harden and Westbrook. LeBron makes highlight reel chase-down blocks. Kawhi takes on the challenge of defending the other team’s best player night in and night out. Whereas the other players excel on offense, Leonard is an all-star caliber offensive player who also has been named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year in each of the past two seasons, None of the other top MVP candidates have even made an All NBA Defensive team in the past two seasons, and that almost surely will not change this year.

Casual basketball fans know LeBron James and Steph Curry from their past MVP and Finals exploits. And they probably know Russell Westbrook and James Harden after they dominated the YouTube and Twitter highlight reels this season. Unfortunately, too many casual fans do not know about Kawhi Leonard. Like Tim Duncan and David Robinson before him, Leonard is the consummate San Antonio Spur: professional and polite, quiet and reserved. He is a competitor and a winner, but he is not flashy or ostentatious. Leonard’s personality may be too nice to earn him the media spotlight and social media attention the other marquee superstars attract. Leonard’s game is too nice to overlook. Kawhi Leonard should be the 2016-17 NBA MVP.

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