All season long the big debate on major media networks with respect to this season’s NBA MVP was all about Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Some people believed you had to give it to Russ for absurdly averaging a triple double (really cool feat but super over-valued stat in my opinion, but that’s a different discussion for another day) while others believed it should go to Harden for having one of the best offensive guard seasons ever while being the focal point of a 55 win team that set the single season NBA 3-point record. Given that Russ closed as a -850 favorite on Oddshark, seems that pulling an Oscar Robertson was enough to sway the voters onto the superhuman down in OKC’s side, which would make him the MVP with the lowest win total since Moses Malone. Meanwhile, Kawhi and the 61 win Spurs were just an after thought as is typical for the perennial contenders in San Antonio.
The narrative seemed to change once the first round of the playoffs wrapped up, when Harden’s Rockets handily beat the Oklahoma City Westbrooks in 5 games. Many of the analysts (or as I like to call them revisionist history and recency bias experts) who voted for Russ began to question whether they made the right call or should have actually crowned the bearded wonder as the league’s most valuable player.
However, that narrative was rather short-lived as the Rockets were taken out in a 6-game series that ended in a 39-point blowout at the hands of a Kawhi-less Spurs team while Lebron continued to mow through the competition averaging a casual 34.4, 9.1 & 7.1 on 55.7% shooting and 46.8% from beyond the arc in the Cavs now annual 8-game sweep through the first 2 rounds. This, compiled with the King being left out of the top 3 in MVP voting for the first time since 2008, caused the public and media opinion to sway over to the side that Lebron was the MVP all along and we have simply become numb and placated towards his continued dominance.
While I do agree most people have under-appreciated Lebron’s perennial dominance of the league during his ongoing 14 year career due to its longevity and he has definitely lost some MVP races he deserved for this exact reason (like 2011), the 2016-2017 season is not one of those examples. He did not give his 110% effort on defense and clearly took his foot off the gas pedal in the second half of the season. I’m not disputing that he still played at an All-NBA level and that it was the right long-term move to not push his limits in the regular season. It’s kind of hard to criticize Lebron’s decisions with the way he’s cruised through the playoffs (with 1 blemish) so far. However, Lebron is in fact not who should have won this year’s premier regular season award.
This season’s deserving regular season MVP award winner is 2-time reigning DPOY Kawhi Leonard. What he did with the San Antonio Spurs this year was incredible. Getting a team to 61 wins as the squad’s only All-Star & All-NBA player is an extremely difficult thing to do and a pretty rare feat. In fact, when looking at every 60-win team since the turn of the century:
Of the 27 teams to reach 60 wins since 2000, only 6 teams (5 if you exclude this year’s Spurs) have had just 1 single All-Star on the Roster. Of those 5 non-2017 seasons, there were only 2 instances where that 1 All-Star wasn’t crowned MVP; the 2014 Spurs, who are widely considered one of if not the most selfless & complete teams of all-time, and the 2006 Mavs, a year where many people think Dirk or Kobe should have won the MVP over actual winner Steve Nash. Kawhi doesn’t deserve to be added to this group of 2. He was the only player in the NBA that was a top 10 difference maker on both offense and defense. As if his back to back defensive player of the year awards didn’t already make it clear, Kawhi was already one of the league’s premier point stoppers and without a doubt the league’s best perimeter defender.
This year however, while setting career highs in scoring, usage rate, assist rate, free throw percentage as well as several other stats, Leonard became one of the NBA’s biggest offensive forces. Sure his offense probably wasn’t quite on par with Russ & Harden, but it was still elite and his defensive game was head and shoulders and skyscrapers above the other 2 superstar guards. He shuts his opponents down using his combination of size (7’3″ wingspan), elite-level quickness and athleticism, unbelievably high basketball IQ as well as his hands that are larger than a basketball’s diameter to shut down his opponents on the perimeter, in transition, in isolation, on the pick-and-roll, you name it and the silent assassin is shutting it down. This year it got to the point that opposing teams often gave up entirely on even trying to go in his direction when looking for a bucket. This low usage rate on defense is actually largely to blame for Kawhi’s decreased defensive metrics, because anyone who watched the Spurs will know Leonard is still very much an elite defender.
There really is no debate as to who the most complete player in the NBA is. Kawhi is the only player to rank in the top half of the NBA in true shooting percentage, defensive plus/minus, usage rate, assist rate, turnover rate, steal percentage, block percentage and both offensive AND defensive rebounding!! Between having the most well-rounded team and being the only all-star on the team with the second best record in the league, there really is no doubt in my mind the somehow under-appreciated Kawhi Leonard should be the NBA MVP of the 2016-2017 season. It really is a shame he went down with an ankle injury against the Warriors, it legitimately seemed like Kawhi and the Spurs had a chance to shock the world.