December 14, 2017
Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi Leonard has filled Tim Duncan’s MVP role for San Antonio.

By Sarah Cilea

This is not about who should win MVP.

The 2017 Most Valuable Player race has been refreshing.  Not that 2016 was anything to sneeze at, mind you.

Watching Stephen Curry absolutely smash through the previous record (his own) for three-pointers made in a season (from 286 to 402) last year, averaging 30 points in 34 minutes as well as 5.4 rebounds, 6.7 assists, and 2.1 steals per game, and turn in a 50/45/90 shooting performance (making five(!) threes on 11 attempts(!) a game) wasn’t exactly boring.

In its own way, Curry’s unanimous win—the first ever—was new and exciting.  In terms of suspense, however, the way he completely smoked the field right out of the gate left something to be desired.

The current race has been Hitchcockian by comparison, as if all the world’s NBA fans are collectively watching the greatest slow-burn whodunit thriller concocted with an eye to finding out who truly is the most valuable.  It’s Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle.  It’s Fincher and Fukunaga.  It’s a basketball-themed game of CLUE:

Was it Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City with the triple-double and clutch heroics, not to mention an insatiable bloodlust?  James “The Beard” Harden, former partner of Westbrook’s, in Houston drubbing defenses with a flawless command of the D’Antoni offense, an ability to sucker law enforcement by framing those who try to stop him and a foolproof getaway method known as the Eurostep?  Silent man in black Kawhi Leonard of the Old West, top-rate bully and thief, proficient with daggers, able to kill in self-defense and get away with it?

Somehow last and least suspected is a previous four-time offender, made all the more dangerous by his disarming ability to desensitize us to his special brand of violence on the hardwood.  Yet no MVP lineup is complete without usual suspect LeBron James, always up to no good on his cross-country rampage from Cleveland to Miami and back again.

The pool of suspects is wide and diverse. We’re tweeting each other elaborate theories in the middle of the night.  As the season unfolds and new evidence becomes available, opinions on the subject change weekly if not daily, sometimes hourly.  Only, unlike the Parker Brothers board game, there’s no sure culprit enclosed in an envelope to be opened and revealed at the end of play.

Therein lies the fun, and perhaps the crux, of the hotly contested 2017 NBA MVP race: the audience—especially those with a vote—have as much to do with writing the story as the principle characters.  It’s a choose-your-own-adventure novel, a Give Yourself Goosebumps book (“Reader Beware… You Choose the Scare”) with multiple endings.  Voters and fans alike come into it with their own inherent biases and follow the statistics, the history, and the narrative important to them to arrive at their own conclusion.

That’s okay.  It’s unfortunate that several worthy candidates will go home empty-handed but there’s beauty in the fact that each of these four players has played well enough to justify his selection.  It’s important to acknowledge that.  I’m certainly not here to dissuade anyone from his or her particular belief.  As I mentioned, this is not about who should win MVP.

I would only advise one thing: Kawhi is no red herring.  Lest you think he’s that potential suspect who turns out to be irrelevant, serving merely as a distraction from the real baddies, be warned.  I’m not saying he’s the clear-cut winner; I am saying he’s not just an also-ran.  To grudgingly place him comfortably “in the conversation” but exclude him from serious consideration would be a disservice to the entire race.

Matt Moore wrote it well in an article born of his MVP research: “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.”

If there’s any downside to this thrilling MVP race it’s how it has brought out the wannabe “True Detective” in us all.  Absent any concrete evidence to separate one from the field, people have resorted to some far out arguments.  We’ve got a bunch of unkempt Matthew McConaugheys staring into the rolling camera that is a blank tweet draft, making doll people out of beer cans while they philosophize about what value is, really.  Worst of all, the frequent theory of choice is the dreaded hypothetical.

“Other players would average a triple-double with Westbrook’s usage.”

“Harden’s wins are less valuable than Westbrook’s because the Thunder are a D-League team without Westbrook.”

“The Spurs are still a playoff team without Kawhi.”

“Is this thing on?”

Hypothetical attacks have been levied at each candidate with alarming frequency but they seem most often to be used as a means to decide Westbrook vs. Harden, Harden vs. Westbrook.  For whatever reason, Kawhi ends up the indirect victim of the duel.  With respect to the teammates of Harden and Westbrook, all of whom are routinely thrown under the bus, Kawhi is the one who seems most often to be the target of hypothetical bouts, unfairly penalized for circumstances if not dismissed altogether.

Take the hypothetical absolutely sweeping the Twittersphere like wildfire this year, some variation of the formula: team x – player y = a flaming pile of garbage.  It’s been used to prop up the exploits of either Westbrook or Harden while simultaneously downplaying the impact of Kawhi.

If it sounds familiar that’s probably because it’s a close relative of the old “take player x out of system y” argument that followed Kawhi through the first five years of his career.  They’re part of the larger family of hypothetical arguments, all of which are a lot like the iconic improvisation game show, “Whose Line Is It Anyway.”  Everything’s made up and the points don’t matter.

In theory, sure, it makes sense to try to assess a player’s value with that line of reasoning and, heck, it’s fun to argue—so long as you ignore the fact that it’s impossible to extricate the 2017 Spurs from Kawhi, Thunder from Westbrook, or Rockets from Harden.  The imaginary exercise is useless.  It’s more feasible to try to determine what each candidate’s teammates provide, but even that leaves room for blind spots in context.  I think we can all agree that defensive metrics cause enough problems so let’s kill the hypotheticals and focus on the known.

That brings us to the arguments that are undeniably true but lacking in relevance:

“Kawhi plays with Hall-of-Famers.”

“Kawhi also plays for one of the greatest coaches ever.”

I happily admit these are true facts .  I also fail to see what these statements have to do with Kawhi’s MVP candidacy.

Kawhi does benefit from good coaching and knowledgeable teammates thriving in well-defined roles.  So have many MVPs before him, including at least one other candidate in the current pool.  I’m not sure when that became a strike against an MVP resume.  If that’s the case, I guess we should retroactively rescind both of Tim Duncan’s MVP awards since we didn’t know then that Popovich was this great, or that Parker and Ginobili were future Hall-of-Famers.  They were probably as close to their primes in their rookie seasons as they are now anyway.

Honestly, did anyone ever hold Pat Riley and HOF teammates against Magic or LeBron?  Or Phil Jackson, Kobe Bryant and Scottie Pippen against Shaq and Jordan?  I’m genuinely asking.  Has that argument ever been used as a negative before?  Or is that new?  I know times change and maybe I’m a hypocrite because I admittedly found the idea of a Warrior garnering serious MVP consideration this season distasteful due to their glut of talent.  That felt like a special case but I’m open to the possibility and likelihood that I was wrong.

Some of the arguments against Kawhi are just so strangely dismissive.  Someone truly suggested that his rising points per game average was due to Duncan retiring and Parker and Ginobili aging…  Obviously that created the opportunity for Kawhi to score more but it’s not as if it just happened.  Why overlook the work he has put in and the obvious improvement he’s shown?

(Posted by Bruno Passos on Twitter)

 

If we’re supposed to believe he looks so good because of Popovich’s influence or the Spurs’ aura, how do we explain that he’s doing things no Spur under Popovich has ever done?

 

Speaking of, this is what Kawhi has done:

 

Play Type Points Per Possession Percentile
Pick-and-Roll Ball Handler 1.02 92
Isolation .93 69.5
Post Up .98 78
Spot Up 1.24 93.5

–per Synergy

For one, he continued to improve his offensive skill set at a torrid rate.  He was well above average as a scorer in every major category in 2017, and posted downright elite numbers as both a pick-and-roll ball handler and spot up shooter.  His 1.02 points per possession when running pick-and-roll are better than Harden, Westbrook, James, Curry, and anyone else you can name outside of Kyle Lowry and Isaiah Thomas.

His overall efficiency as a scorer is also third overall amongst high volume players (behind Durant and Thomas) at 1.11 points per possession through March 26.  He’s hovered around that number and been in the top five all season.  He slipped out of contention for a 50/40/90 season in the final months but still managed a 48.6/38/87.9 shooting season.  Those are better percentages across the board than both Harden and Westbrook.

Kawhi averaged 25.7 points per game on a true shooting percentage of .612 and scored 30 or more in 26 outings including stretches of six in a row in mid-January (ending in a 41-point career high in an overtime victory at Cleveland), four in a row in mid-February, and four more in a row to start March.  The Spurs are 20-6 when he passes the 30-point threshold and 9-6 when he scores fewer than 20.

His performance in the clutch rivals that of Westbrook, albeit in a smaller volume.  In games within five points in the final five minutes Westbrook is 82-of-184 for 44 percent while Kawhi is 38-of-94 for 40 percent.  As the game gets tighter and time grows shorter, Kawhi’s percentage goes up.

His defensive prowess is known if more difficult to quantify.  The Spurs as a team are generally disciplined and well-versed in their defensive principles.  Popovich demands effort and attention to detail.  Danny Green is one of the best defensive wings in the league, Dewayne Dedmon—who started nearly the last half of the season—has served as a fine rim protector, and LaMarcus Aldridge has looked much improved on that end.

Still, with the departure of Duncan and seven new players, the Spurs figured to slip in defensive rating.  Instead, they have the number one defense again.  Despite what the on/off numbers suggest—namely that the Spurs actually defend better with Kawhi off the court—it’s obvious he has a lot to do with that success.

A window I like to point to is that first week in March, the one that ended with that go-ahead three and game-saving block against Harden and the Rockets on national TV.  Everyone is familiar with that sequence which landed Kawhi on the 24-hour SportsCenter cycle and launched him fully into the MVP conversation, but Kawhi had been playing that way the entire week, when little more than the eyes of Texas were upon him.  In many ways it’s the perfect microcosm of his season.

Over that four-game stretch, from March 1 to March 6, Kawhi averaged 33.7 points, 8.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and three steals per game and shot 49 percent from the field.  The Spurs went 4-0, twice coming back from 16-point deficits, twice winning by way of overtime.

Kawhi started the week leading a comeback against the Indiana Pacers, scoring all nine of the Spurs’ points in the final five minutes and capping the victory with a game-winning turnaround over Paul George.

As the Spurs traveled to New Orleans to face the new-look frontcourt duo of the Pelicans Kawhi went off for 20 points on 8-12 shooting in the first half.  After halftime, however, he struggled from the floor.  He went 2-of-9 for seven points through the fourth quarter and overtime, but came up with two crucial steals and three assists in the final 5:41 to help complete the comeback.

All he did against the Wolves was score 34 points, grab ten rebounds, dish five assists, and snatch six steals (including six points, one rebound, one assist and one steal in overtime).

Then came the Rockets game.  Before his last minute heroics, Kawhi poured in 17 points in the fourth quarter while hassling Harden to four points on 1-of-5 shooting in the same frame.  According to Danny Green, Kawhi refused to relinquish the matchup with Harden when Green asked if he wanted a break.

Most impressive in my opinion is probably the New Orleans performance.  There aren’t too many players who can still have such a positive impact on a game when struggling to score.  He simply manufactures extra possessions by ripping them away from the opponent—to the tune of 1.8 steals per game on average.

Kawhi is the lone All-Star on a 61-win team.  He is 7-2 in games against fellow MVP candidates, 8-3 if games against Golden State are included.  Most of those wins include signature Kawhi plays on both ends of the floor.  He averaged 28.8 points in those 11 games with his lowest output being 19 twice.  One was a March 9 appearance in OKC that was shortened by concussion.  The other was his latest meeting with the streaking Warriors who held Harden and Westbrook to similarly low-scoring performances on worse percentages in that span.  He holds his own against the NBA’s elite and on occasion outplays them.

In short, Kawhi Leonard is good at everything, and only getting better.  Ask him to get a stop and he can do that.  Ask him to get a bucket; he can do that, too.  From defensive specialist to three-and-D, post-up to pick-and-roll proficiency, Kawhi has lined up and knocked down target after target like John Wick at a carnival.

Only one conceivably remains.  Can Kawhi use the attention he now requires as a top-10 scorer to make his teammates better?  One fair criticism is that he is not the playmaker his fellow MVP candidates are.  In a way, it is the last frontier for Kawhi.

While he stacks up well with his peers in nearly every field, and generally towers over them as a defender, assists are the one category where the greatest disparity in their favor exists.  Kawhi is averaging just 3.5 assists per game this year though that number has steadily risen all season.  He’s basically averaged four per game since the calendar turned to February.  Regardless, it’s nowhere near the 11.2 averaged by Harden, 10.4 by Westbrook, or 8.7 by LeBron.

Obviously Kawhi is not LeBron, one of the most creative passers of his generation and right with Larry Bird as best playmaking small forwards the game has seen.  Nor does he play point guard like Harden and Westbrook, though he does figure prominently in the Spurs’ offense.

LeBron is Ali, both floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee, orchestrating the offense from the top of the key, the elbow, the block.  It doesn’t matter; he can do it all.  Westbrook explodes—off of ball screens, in transition, probably even standing still—putting 1,000 pounds of pressure per second on the defense and forcing collapse.  Harden slinks around picks, elusive but strong, the threat of giving up a few freebies always there to keep the defense off balance as he surveys the floor, reads the angles, and either lofts lobs or fires precision passes through the seams.  Kawhi is unlike any of them, but he’s steadily becoming a quality playmaker in his own right.

After just 13.7 percent of his plays came as a pick-and-roll ball handler last year, he saw that frequency increase to 24.6 percent in 2017.  Not only did he maintain his stellar 1.02 points per possession with greater volume, but he also showed substantial growth as a passer in those situations.

 

 

Above is a compilation of clips of Kawhi hitting the roll-man.  He can make the classic pocket pass no problem.  In keeping with his fundamental style of play, he sometimes employs the use of a jump stop, drawing the contest from the defender before slipping a pass to the roller.  He can pass on the move, too.  He’s become adept at using a slight hesitation in the same way as the jump stop, pulling the defense to him while stringing out the play and giving his roll-man time to find and fill the open lane.

We also see him slipping the pass by the oncoming trap, setting up Aldridge with midrange shots in pick-and-pop action, and throwing the skip pass to the corner three when he notices help defense reacting to the roller.

Now we have clips of Kawhi kicking the ball out to shooters.  He has a variety of ways to get to the paint, whether via picks, handoffs, straight line drives or traditional post-up.  He’s doesn’t floor with blow-by speed but when he gets going downhill, as he does when pushing transition after a grabbing a defensive rebound, he’s strong enough to be formidable.  He’ll also attack if he catches the defense flatfooted.  Other times Kawhi uses his improved handle, often crossing over to either set up or reject a screen and get his defender leaning.

But he doesn’t need to get tricky.  One of Kawhi’s greatest advantages is his body and he likes to use it to create leverage and draw the gravity of the defense.  He doesn’t need to bother getting by his defender when he can usually just turn his back to whoever is guarding him with the same effect.  Watch at 1:01 how he just backs Tony “First Team” Allen into the paint before kicking to Aldridge for the open three.  He shows great awareness of where his teammates are and how to put them in position to succeed.  He also shows a propensity to keep moving and make himself available as an outlet.

Lastly we have a few drop-off passes.  The growth, as with every other facet of his game, has been exponential.  Early in Kawhi’s career there wasn’t much to go on regarding his potential as a playmaker.  Now there is.  He’s not at the level of his MVP-candidate peers to be sure, but any assumption that he does not have court vision or cannot create is at this point patently false.

It remains to be seen how much Kawhi will be asked to handle the ball and initiate offense in future seasons.  The immediate future, however, is much clearer, as opponents are unlikely to allow Kawhi to play one-on-one in the playoffs.  He will be asked to handle double-teams and traps, challenged to set up his teammates and find some way to remain effective despite the added attention.

In recent weeks Kawhi has undergone tests in dealing with such defensive strategy, administered by the young Timberwolves and future first-round opponent Grizzlies.  The Golden State Warriors second-ranked defense provided the stiffest challenge to date in their March 19 visit to San Antonio.  It was not near one of Leonard’s best games of the season; he had a rare bad shooting night and made a few off-target passes.  On review, he actually did a fair job getting the ball out quickly but there is plenty for Kawhi, his teammates, and staff to chew on when they study it.

A couple of picks and a couple of switches to start the game but mostly a whole lot of nothing goes on until Kawhi catches the ball with eight seconds on the shot clock.  He still gets Danny Green a nice look from three.

I like this side pick-and-roll/pop.  The spacing is pretty good with Green clearing out early.  Kawhi makes the right decision out of the trap.

Kawhi actually draws the attention of the entire Warrior defense as he begins to drive but the spacing is pretty poor.  The ball should actually go to Ginobili, who is open across the court but Livingston obscures the passing lane a little bit and Ginobili backs off for some reason instead of being on the three-point line ready to catch and shoot.  The whole play is a little chaotic and out of place, so of course Aldridge makes the three.

The spacing here is better.  At least Kawhi has an entire side of the floor to work with.  He ends up with a tough step-back but that’s actually in his wheelhouse.  I’d take that shot from him.  He also does a nice job staying in the play and getting an open look for Parker.  It just doesn’t fall.

Late clock situation to begin with.  Just five seconds remain once Kawhi controls the ball but Dedmon sets a quick screen and Kawhi peels through three layers of Golden State defense.  With two seconds left Kawhi actually has three open options: Parker in the short corner, Green just above the opposite elbow extended, and Aldridge under the basket.  Unfortunately his pass to Aldridge is low and the clock expires without a shot attempt.

This is great timing on the double by Steph Curry.  Patty Mills is trying to clear out to give Kawhi room to work but Curry leaves him just as he’s nearly out of bounds under the basket and not much of a threat.  It’s just a situation where both Patty and Kawhi need to be aware that it could be coming, especially from a team like the Warriors whose guards are always looking to provide a timely dig if not outright double.  Patty either needs to clear out sooner or be ready to duck back into the lane for the pass once his defender leaves.  Kawhi has to have his head up and know where the double is coming from so he can identify the open man.  Had he continued there’s a chance he could have slipped the baseline pass to Patty, but Curry did a nice job making Kawhi pick up the ball.  Pau Gasol is obviously open but the passing angle is no good.  He’d probably be better off shading jut a little to Kawhi’s side of the floor and setting up for a three there, or potentially cutting into the middle.

It’s a bit awkward as he mishandles the ball but Kawhi does a nice job navigating away from the help and creating a nice look for Aldridge here.

As he comes off the stagger screen Kawhi correctly identifies Dedmon as the open man, but Zaza Pachulia does a nice job getting big and bothering Kawhi into a high pass.  The better option here might be to throw a quick outlet over to Aldridge who has a better angle to get the ball in to Dedmon.  If you recall, that was the first step in this famous play from the 2014 Western Conference Finals.  From there Dedmon will be left with the options of trying to finish over Draymond Green’s help or passing out to Parker.  Plays like this are why it’s nice to have a good passing roll-man.  David Lee has really impressed in that area this year, Gasol has the chops, Dedmon has shown promise.  Davis Bertans and Kyle Anderson have potential as small ball fours, but I’m probably going too mad scientist now.

They still contest it like madmen but the Warriors are probably happy giving up this long two.  I doubt it’s a coincidence that most of the shots they’ve been willing to allow fall under that classification.  It’s still a nice drive and kick from Kawhi.

Another promising drive from Kawhi.  Unfortunately for him, Andre Iguodala’s basketball IQ is off the charts.  Iggy anticipates the baseline pass and slides down to cut it off.  Kawhi probably should have taken another dribble before picking the ball up.  Maybe that would have given him either the power to attempt a finish at the rim or the time to realize he didn’t have a pass to the corner open, but it’s a tough call.  He’s got Gasol open behind him if he can get it there but that’s no guarantee.  I’m not sure if Green was waiting to set another screen that got subverted when Kawhi split the PnR coverage but his proximity to the paint doesn’t help matters.  Overall that’s just damn good defense.

Again, credit to the Warriors for incredible defense but it takes entirely too long to get Kawhi the ball here.  When he does get it he’s able to manufacture a decent look for Aldridge but it takes an extraordinary amount of effort and maneuvering on his part.

There is room for improvement.  The playoff crucible awaits, and it will ask a lot of Kawhi and the Spurs.  The playoffs have a way of revealing any existing flaws, scratching beneath the surface to a place the regular season never quite reaches.  Maybe Kawhi’s greatest skill is his ability to take those flaws and weaponize them in a way few can.  Considering he may already be the most valuable player, that’s pretty scary.

Conventional wisdom says he has to top out somewhere.  One year Kawhi will return from a summer in the gym without having improved by leaps and bounds, discernibly no different from the player he was the season before.  Maybe then perception will have a chance to catch up to reality for the fans who seem to want to keep Kawhi in box he’s long since outgrown.  But one thing I’ve learned in six years of watching him defy expectation on a basketball court is never to assume what Kawhi can’t do.  One could miss out on a lot waiting around for him to plateau.

So stop wasting time.  The 2017 MVP race was one for the ages.  It was kind enough to give us at least three worthy candidates.  There’s no reason we can’t appreciate them all.


Sarah Cilea

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