For much of the season the MVP has been between just two men, but it’s time to give two others the credit they’re due.
We’ve seen it coming for a while now, but 2017 is shaping up to be one of the most contentious MVP races in quite a while. While candidates like Kevin Durant, Isaiah Thomas, and others have picked up steam for a week or two, the conversation for best of the season has been between just two players: Russell Westbrook’s season-long triple-double and James Harden’s own historic offensive season have made them co-favorites since November.
While both are extremely deserving candidates and will likely finish 1-2 on many ballots this spring, there are two other players being overlooked.
Both Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James are the best players on two of the three best teams, and yet neither has been given his due recognition. Whether it is Leonard’s understated excellence or LeBron’s long-standing greatness, both players’ “flaws” have prevented them from gaining a deserved foothold in the MVP race.
The Case for LeBron James
LeBron is the best player in the world and is having yet another fantastic season. But for some reason, it has become surprising when he is brought up in the MVP discussion. His 26.0 points, 8.8 assists, and 8.2 rebounds per game would be recognized in any other year, but due to his name and Westbrook and Harden, those stellar numbers are being overlooked.
Due to the lack of attention given to it, many people do not realize how historically great LeBron’s season has been. There have been just seven seasons where players in at least their 10th NBA season averaged at least 25 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists. Oscar Robertson (‘69-‘70) and John Havlicek (‘71-‘72) were the only two players with such seasons, but this year LeBron will reach that mark for his fifth time.
LeBron’s consistency and longevity is unprecedented in the NBA, yet we don’t really realize what we are watching. The bar for success for him has been set so astronomically high that I’m not sure what would be considered an MVP-caliber year for him anymore. He even had his own “MVP moment” to help convince us.
LeBron is continuing to perform despite the tread on his tires and despite the fact he averages just 0.1 minutes per game less than league leader Kyle Lowry. We will have to wait and see if this takes a toll on him in the playoffs (something tells me it won’t), but you’d be hard-pressed to convince LeBron to slow down.
Although he took some deserved flack for his “f—-ing playmaker“ comment earlier this year, he was most likely correct in his assessment of his team. With LeBron on the floor, the Cavs have a very respectable 7.9 net rating. But when he misses a game or is on the bench, that net rating plummets to -7.2. Of the probable MVP candidates, LeBron’s on/off court net rating difference is the greatest.
Cleveland simply cannot perform at even a mediocre level without LeBron on the court. In the five games he hasn’t suited up this season, Cleveland is 0-5, and has lost by an average margin of 16 points. While the Cavs were also without Kyrie and/or Kevin Love for some of those games, there’s no getting around just how important LeBron is to Cleveland’s chances of repeating as champions.
The Case for Kawhi Leonard
Leonard’s MVP case, like his play style, is simple yet effective. The two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year is the best two-way player in the league right now and has a chance to lead San Antonio to the best record in the league. While he does have talent around him, this is not the supporting cast you would expect for a 60+ win team.
The easy answer to any success Kawhi or San Antonio has is that the Spurs’ system just breeds success. Although Coach Popovich and the franchise did help grow Kawhi into a fantastic player, if you think he is only a product of the system you haven’t been paying attention.
Leonard’s individual net rating of +21 is highest among MVP candidates, and his 11.3 win shares and 28.6 PER are in the top three in the entire league. He is a fantastic all-around player, but Leonard is one of the few elite players where you have to start with his defense. We know that he is a great defender as his two DPOYs will attest, but it can be hard to state just how devastating a one-on-one defender he is.
Kawhi is such a good defender that he makes defense genuinely exciting to watch. He has the ability to just take the ball from some of the best players in the world in a way that makes his opponent helpless. This leads to my favorite stat that I have seen so far this year: through nearly 400 career games, Leonard still has more career steals than he does fouls.
I don’t even know how to quantify how ridiculous that is. The inherent risks of accidentally fouling a player when you attempt to steal the ball from them seemingly don’t apply to him. His massive hands just surround you until there is nothing you can do to stop the inevitable turnover.
The Spurs continue to have one of the best defense in the leagues, and Leonard deserves a huge share of the credit. Several of his highest profile teammates like Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, and Patty Mills are marginal defenders at best, yet Leonard is able to lead the team to an elite defensive level.
He deserves all of the credit and more, but this has actually caused his offense to be underrated. His scoring has risen every season he has been in the league to a career high 26.3 points per game this year, but he has maintained his efficiency throughout. Leonard’s eFG of 54.3% is just below his career average and only behind LeBron among the MVP candidates.
Before this season, Leonard’s career high was only 33 points and he had scored over 30 just twice in his first five seasons, however, this year, Leonard has not only surpassed his previous career high ten times already, but he is averaging over 30 points per game over the past two months.
His sneaky explosiveness and consistent perimeter shot make him extremely well-rounded, but his nonchalant attitude make him what many people consider a ‘boring superstar.’ However, that perception may begin to change if he continues to win games by hitting a three and then running back to block another MVP candidate’s shot.
Recent momentum from highlight plays like that and the Spurs’ run at the one seed have improved Kawhi’s chances, but at this point he is still a long shot. Similarly, unless the Cavs go on a massive run to the end the year off the back of some incredible LeBron performances, he will likely be unable to swing enough votes in his favor.
Unfortunately for both players, in many people’s minds the race has been between only Westbrook and Harden for most of the season and it is possibly too late to change their opinions. Both LeBron and Kawhi will continue to be fantastic down the stretch of the regular season and, who knows, if things start to break their way they may start to get the award recognition they deserve.
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