2017 NBA MVP Race: The definitive case for Kawhi Leonard, the silent superstar

Find me the flaw in Kawhi Leonard‘s game. Go ahead. I’ll wait. 

In the span of six seasons, the San Antonio Spurs’ dynamo has gone from gifted role player to most dangerous X-factor to building block to franchise cornerstone and, this year, MVP candidate. He adds something with every passing minute on the floor. Couldn’t shoot out of college? Worked relentlessly on his corner 3-pointer with Spurs shooting whisperer Chip Engellend. Only a 3-and-D player? He added driving when opponents closed out hard on his perimeter shot. Couldn’t create his own offense? He developed his handle and a series of moves to make himself one of the most incredibly efficient, versatile players in the league. 

Oh, and he’s the best perimeter defender on the planet. 

Leonard has risen to be one of the best players in the NBA, with nary a word. He has no signature quotes, no commercials etched into the cultural fabric, no flashy celebration routines. He doesn’t twirl, flex, or fist-pump. He’s a machine, or as close as we’ve seen a player get to it. There’s a human somewhere in there, he just never shows it. That’s part of his appeal. 

When you’re evaluating the candidates for MVP, you can make arguments for the others that may be more convincing. But you can’t formulate a convincing argument that Leonard doesn’t deserve it. There are just no arguments against him strong enough to disqualify him. 

Here’s a look at the mile-high perspective on his MVP case, and then some detailed analysis for why Leonard should be MVP. 

Kawhi Leonard’s MVP Resume

Arguments in favor

  • Best player on 60-plus win team, best team record of all players in contention for award.
  • Best player on 2-seed with no other All-Stars.
  • Best perimeter defender in the NBA.
  • One of only four players to record a season shooting as often as he does per 100 possessions, scoring as much as he does per 100 possessions, with as many defensive win shares as he has. The other three were Michael Jordan, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant
  • Legendary efficiency on offense.
  • Does more with less, putting up comparable scoring numbers to James Harden, Russell Westbrook, with radically lower usage rate.
  • Has contributed to the most wins.
  • Spurs offensive efficiency is 9.3 points per 100 possessions better with Leonard on-court.
  • 7-2 record against the other three main candidates, including signature performances vs. Houston (including this sequence) and OKC (this sequence). 
  • No discernible weaknesses in his game.
  • Has the most blocks, most steals, and fewest turnovers per 100 possessions of the major candidates.
  • Has the second-highest PER of the major candidates (27.7) with the second-lowest usage.

Arguments against

  • Not nearly the playmaker, trailing the other candidates by at least five assists per game.
  • Spurs are only two points better in net points per 100 possessions with Leonard on the court vs. off.
  • The Spurs’ defense, for whatever reason you want to say, is seven points better with Leonard on the bench.
  • The other candidates are multi-faceted creators, they encompass the majority of the offense. Leonard is tip of the spear. 
  • As a member of the Spurs, he benefits from the best system, the best coach and the longest-running continuity in the NBA. Everything is built for him to succeed.
  • Not a top-flight rebounder.
  • If argument is based on win percentage success, then why are Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant not better choices?
  • Simply not as prolific of a season, despite incredible efficiency.

OFFENSE

Let’s start here. This, per Synergy Sports, is Leonard’s points per possession and percentile league wide (so higher is better) on various playsets. 

Kawhi LeonardPoints Per PossessionPercentile
P&R Ball Handler1.01292%
Spot Up1.24295%
Transition1.31988%
Isolation0.91665%
Post-Up0.99280%
Off Screen0.90346%
Hand Off1.06880%
Cut1.591%
Offensive Rebounds (put backs)1.29786%
P&R Roll Man1.08363%

That’s relatively insane. He is in the top 20 percent of the league in seven of 10 categories. He shoots 46 percent, 90th percentile, on catch-and-shoot shots, so you can use him as a floor-spacer. He shoots 43 percent and draws a foul 17 percent of the time in the pick and roll. He’s 78th percentile shooting off the dribble. He shoots 65 percent in the restricted area. He shoots 37 percent from deep, better than Harden or Westbrook this season. 

Basically, if you were to evaluate the MVP candidates on a measure of how “complete” their offensive game is, Leonard would have as good an argument as anyone. He doesn’t turn the ball over, he can score with the ball in his hands or off ball, he doesn’t struggle in any describable scenario. 

Stylistically ... there are a lot of similarities to infamous shooting guards. Consider this from the great Jonathan Abrams’ oral history on Kawhi’s career: 

Chip Engelland (assistant coach, Spurs): “Whether a billion hours, a million hours or a thousand hours, everyone has worked on their shot, and every shot’s personal, and not everybody’s willing to change. I didn’t have time to spend and get to know him and get personal with his shot.

“I used Richard [Jefferson] as a model and also used Kobe Bryant, because Kobe Bryant has really good shooting form. I didn’t know if Kawhi was a Laker fan or not or a Kobe fan, but you had to respect his work and his shooting. So, we used pictures and video of them. I showed him his pictures of where his was, similar to where Richard was. Kawhi’s smart, and he goes, ‘Let’s go to work, let’s do it.’”

via The Making of Kawhi Leonard, the Silent Superstar | Bleacher Report

Take a look at these two clips. First, here’s a comparison of Kawhi’s baseline jumper vs. Kobe Bryant’s, which was Bryant’s pet move. Then there’s Kawhi’s one-handed runner vs Michael Jordan’s

This is not to say that Leonard is as prolific a scorer as the two greatest shooting guards in NBA history and the best player ever to play the game. But there are stylistic similarities. Leonard raises straight up on pull-up jumpers, like Jordan, with a release point similar. He’s able to use his shoulder to create space the way they did. Leonard looks a lot like both of those legends in how he shoots. He just doesn’t shoot nearly as often. 

The weaknesses in Leonard’s game come in isolation, where he’s “only” in the 65th percentile, with a higher turnover rate than Russell Westbrook. He still sometimes struggles to find and land the shots he needs late in games when the defense is primed on him. He is not an unstoppable crunch-time player. Of the players in the top 10 for shots in a five-point game under five minutes, Leonard has the third worst field-goal percentage at 40 percent. He does, however, have the best plus-minus of those players, because, you know, defense. 

His playmaking is also low. He’s just not a great creator. That’s not to say he’s a bad passer. He’s a good passer. He has 18 bad-pass turnovers, per Basketball Reference this season, compared with 46 for LeBron James and approximately 11 billion for Harden and Westbrook, because their roles in the respective offenses are different. But Leonard is also not going to find a guy where you wouldn’t expect, he doesn’t find cutters the way you’d think, he doesn’t tear defenses apart for doubling him. They usually reset the offense and go back to getting a good look. But if you’re measuring him vs. those other guys, it’s a knock. He just doesn’t create as much offense. 

Leonard is used as the tip of the spear in the Spurs’ offense. The whole team’s construct is built to get him quality looks. Yes, there are reads and systems in place for the same kind of Spurs offensive diversity that we’re accustomed to, but Leonard is given the first and final option offensively. For a team with a top-six offense, with the second-best record in the league, that should count for a great deal.

DEFENSE

OK. Back in December, we looked at the reasons for why Leonard’s defensive rating was so much worse than the Spurs numbers when he was on the bench. Long story short, offenses are able to put him in the corner and attack the rest of the Spurs. At the time, Leonard’s individual defensive metrics were bad, too. He had a bad contested field-goal percentage and bad numbers, via Synergy Sports’ individual defensive metrics. 

Those individual numbers have evened out. Opponents are only shooting 1 percent worse against him than their average, per NBA.com, but that metic has some issues as Nylon Calculus has pointed out. And he’s still a plus on that end in that figure now. Via Synergy, he’s up to being 65th percentile in individual defense, which isn’t on par with what you’d think, but you also have to consider context. Opponents have tried to score on Leonard in isolation just 43 times this season. They avoid it like the plague. I went back and watched all those possessions, and guess what? It’s basically young dudes (Andrew Wiggins, you must stop this foolish pursuit), elite talent like Paul George, and Dion Waiters. No one tests him, which is part of why his numbers are skewed. Part of the issue with Synergy Sports is that if he’s guarding the ball handler, and there’s a switch, he gets tagged for the results of the pick and roll when he’s got nothing to do with it. 

All of this leads us to the big point about the defensive rating on vs. off numbers. Leonard still has the highest defensive rating of any major rotation Spurs player. The defense is worse when Leonard is on court. That is unassailable. You can explain why that is for a million reasons, but that remains the case. Here’s the big thing, however: this was never about how good a defender Leonard is. No one was arguing that because of those numbers, it shows that Leonard isn’t a good defender. Anyone who watches with any amount of attentiveness, or talks to any player or coach in this league on the subject, knows that Leonard is the best individual perimeter defensive player in the league. There is no debate on this. 

(As for whether that makes him the best defender in the league ... well, this is for another time, but it should be noted that you can effectively neutralize Leonard’s defensive impact in a way you cannot with Draymond Green or Rudy Gobert. That’s not about Leonard’s ability, it’s about his impact. Different questions.)

Leonard combines those insane octopi he calls hands with otherworldly anticipation. Here he bodies Andrew Wiggins, anticipates Wiggins going back middle, and times the swipe just right. Leonard has effectively learned to just shut down pocket passes. You cannot run it vs. him in the side pick and roll, or this happens. And there just aren’t many players who can shut down a 2-on-1 fastbreak like this, and then create a steal to boot.

And he routinely does this, just flat-out taking the ball away from other players. He’s a bully on the playground. 

Leonard is the best defensive player of the candidates, by far. LeBron James’ Cavaliers have a bottom-10 defense, and even with James on the court, their defensive rating is eight points worse than the Spurs’ with Leonard on the court. That’s an important element here. Yes, the Spurs’ defense is better with Leonard on the bench, but when he’s on the court, their defense is still better than any of the other’ candidates’ defensive ratings. 

NARRATIVE

Leonard winning MVP would value wins above all else. There’s no sexy narrative to latch onto Leonard, because the man doesn’t speak. Ever. The Spurs decline all opportunities to campaign for him. He goes out, plays hard, plays great, goes home. (And presumably sits in the dark waiting for the next basketball game with his eyes wide open. At least that’s how I envision him.) 

He plays the right way. He’s the best player on the second-best team in the league. He’s the most complete two-way player in the league. He doesn’t average a triple-double or operate the most wondrous offense in the league. He wins games. That’s his MVP argument, and it makes him more than worthy of the MVP. 

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Moore's colleagues have been known to describe him as a "maniac" in terms of his approach to covering the NBA, which he has done for CBS Sports since 2010. Moore prides himself on melding reporting,... Full Bio

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