NBA MVP Watch: Kawhi vs. the King

By: Dan Grant

Over the next several weeks, we’ll be laying out the various candidates for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award for the 2016-17 season. It’s one of the most interesting races in years, hearkening back to the 1990 race in which Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan went head-to-head all season long. This year, there are four viable candidates, with others lurking. We’ll dedicate a full piece to each. Today, we’ll break down the final two candidates, and figure out which belongs on the podium with James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

I’m not going to lie. This was supposed to be a column about Kevin Durant.

I’d already broken down early MVP cases for The Beard here and Furious Stylez here. I knew Durant was going to be my third candidate, and I intended to use today’s death match to determine my final candidate. Alas!

In his first season with Golden State, Durant was transcendent. Career best efficiency numbers and relatively newfound superlative defense, combined with his preternatural scoring ability to help make this edition of the Dubs look even more devastating the team that set the all time wins record with 73, just a season ago.

But then, just shy of a month ago, disaster struck.

Just like that, what had evolved into one of the all-time closest three man races for MVP lost a horse. In his shadow, two more legitimate contenders have emerged. Some would argue they’re lesser candidates than James Harden and Russell Westbrook, but I’m not so sure that’s the case. In fact, I’d say that’s flat-out wrong.

They’re certainly different players, and I am still of the mind that when it comes down to it, the two guards will be listed one and two on the ballot. That’s how the voting will go. But that doesn’t have anything to do with how the voting should go, necessarily.

Say, for arguments sake, that you weren’t of that mind. Say you found Harden and Westbrook’s turnover rates appalling, their team success middling, and their defense lacking. Could you, in theory, make a legitimate case for Kawhi Leonard or LeBron James?

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Cleveland Cavaliers

I think you can! I mean, people certainly have. I’m not purporting to be breaking new ground here.

The most fun part about it is that they both play the same position, so they’re easily comparable.

So let’s break it down.

Who’s your third MVP candidate? Kawhi? Or the King?

The Case for Kawhi

All statistics are from Basketball Reference, unless otherwise stated.

Per Game Statistics: 48.3/38.3/89.4 (FG%/3P%/FT%), 33.7 minutes, 26.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.8 blocks

On Court Effectiveness: 121 ORtg, 102 DRtg

Value: 11.8 win shares, 7.8 Box Plus/Minus (6.5 offensive, 1.3 defensive)

The case for Leonard is a pretty easy one to make. He’s the best player on the team with by far the best record of any of the four viable MVP candidates. Done and done, right?

The Spurs have already won 54 games and will likely finish with 61-63 wins, depending on how much they rest down the stretch. Leonard has been the clear leader throughout, leading the team in their first season without retired franchise cornerstone Tim Duncan. Many expected Duncan’s absence would create a vacuum in San Antonio, and that they might finally take a step back after an unbelievable two decades of success. Leonard’s continued ascent has ensured they don’t miss a beat.

This means more than you might think. Since the NBA-ABA merger, the MVP has only been awarded to a player from a third seed once (Jordan in ’87, on a team with the second best record in the NBA). It’s never been given to a player on a lower seed. Winning has traditionally mattered to voters. Right now, Harden’s Houston Rockets are locked into the third seed in the West and seem likely to stay there. Westbrook’s Thunder currently sit sixth in the West, and could theoretically finish anywhere from seventh to fourth. Leonard’s second seeded Spurs are locked into that spot, and have a real chance to overtake the Durant-less Warriors for first, if they push for it.

Kawhi had a moment a couple weeks back as well, something that will certainly stick in the head of MVP voters.

Leonard’s defensive numbers are down across the board this year. He’s averaging less steals and blocks than a year ago, and the advanced numbers say he’s bringing less defensive value than he did the past couple of seasons. But as the clip above shows, he’s still capable of breathtaking defensive plays, and there still isn’t a more physically gifted defender in the league.

Consider also, the fact that the Spurs most used lineup this year is the five man unit of Leonard-Pau Gasol-Tony Parker-Danny Green-LaMarcus Aldridge. They’ve played 373 minutes together over just 29 games, due to a variety of injuries.

Read those names again.

Gasol has long been an underrated rim protector, but at age 36, he’s well past his prime. Aldridge is average at best, while Parker has been actively bad on defense for half a decade or longer. Green is hard to evaluate because he’s been a Spur for his whole career, but he’s at least active and in his athletic prime. And this, this is the number one defense in the NBA, per defensive rating. The emergence of Dewayne Dedmon has certainly helped immensely, but he’s played just 17.1 minutes per game this season.

Kawhi is the lodestone. None of it works without him.

The drop off is particularly understandable, when you consider how much his role has expanded on offense. Of all those previous players mentioned, only Gasol has a positive offensive box plus/minus (+0.7). This is a team with the sixth best offensive rating in the NBA. Two seasons ago, Kawhi averaged 16.5 points per game. He leaped to 21.2 last season, and currently sits at 26.1. That kind of offensive growth is remarkable, particularly in a player who is the two-time defending Defensive Player of the Year.

In another year, the 25 year old Leonard would be an MVP front-runner. This year? He might run into a the buzz saw of two record-setting guards, and one of the greatest ever to play the game.

Let’s take a look at his competition for the last spot on the podium.

The Case for The King

Per Game Statistics: 54.3/38.5/67.6, 37.1 minutes, 26.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.6 blocks

On-Court Effectiveness: 118 ORtg, 108 DRtg

Value: 10.8 win shares, 8.4 Box Plus/Minus (6.7 offensive, 1.7 defensive)

LeBron James’ Cavaliers are in first place in the Eastern Conference, but have struggled the past couple months, and are just 7-8 since the All-Star Break with a straight up bad net rating of -0.9.

They beat the Utah Jazz on March 16th, but before that, you have to go all the way back to a February 6th overtime win in Washington to find a Cleveland victory over a team in the top half of either playoff bracket.Before that and you’re looking at the Celtics on December 29th. Those are some big gaps!

The Cavaliers combined record against the other seven teams in the top of the bracket sat at 8-1 after that Celtics victory. Now? It’s 10-7. Make that 10-9 if you throw in the red-hot Miami Heat, the best team in the Eastern Conference since the calendar turned to 2017.

Not an auspicious start for LeBron’s MVP campaign section, is it?

Here’s the thing: despite all that, they’re still in first place! Didn’t we learn long ago to stop doubting the Cavaliers?

Sure, they’re only on pace for 54 wins right now, and the Celtics, now just a game behind them, are closer than they’d like. But they’ve had a significant injury to an All-Star player in Kevin Love (who’s now back in limited capacity) and since LeBron’s return to Cleveland, they’ve had a habit of coasting and then cranking up the defense come playoff time, a la the Shaqobe Lakers of the late 90’s and early 2000’s.

With that said, their Defensive Rating is 29th since the All-Star Break, at an ugly 112.6. For reference, the teams that surround them are the Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings, Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks, or as I like to call them: TNBBYASWACBI, or ‘The NBA’s beer bottle you accidentally swigged with a cigarette butt inside’. We’ll work on the whole brevity thing later.

Like Kawhi in San Antonio, LeBron is the be all and end all for this Cleveland team. Unlike Kawhi, it’s not going to be easy for me to shock you with unbelievable statistics about LeBron friggin’ James. He’s one of the five best players to ever play the game of basketball.

Still, let me try. Here are some quick(ish) LeBron facts:

  • At age 32, James is averaging 37.6 minutes per game this season, his highest total since returning to Cleveland. He’s 14th in the league in overall minutes right now, but ranks second in minutes per game to the Toronto Raptors Kyle Lowry. This is a player that’s played in six consecutive NBA Finals and is likely to make a seventh this spring. People bitch about him resting, but no wonder he needs a day off once in a while.
  • His usage rate is 30.0%, lower than Irving’s 30.9%, and his own lowest since his sophomore season in 2004-05. Even with that unprecedented deference on offense, James leads the Cavaliers in points, assists, and steals (both total and per game), and ranks third in rebounds. And despite the negative defensive numbers, the Cavaliers remain a top 5 offense.
  • He also leads the team in effective field goal percentage at 59.3%, which places him eighth in the NBA in that category, and third among forwards behind Kevin Durant (59.4%) and Otto Porter (61.5%). For comparison’s sake, Leonard’s number is 53.9%, which puts him 38th in the NBA, sandwiched neatly between Andre Drummond and Trevor Booker.
  • He’s averaging a career high 8.8 assists per game this season. Kyrie Irving isn’t a traditional ball-distributing point guard, and until the addition of Deron Williams a few weeks ago, the Cavs didn’t really have a back-up that contributed anything meaningful. James has served as the primary creator for his team all season long. It’s not a small discrepancy either. As of this writing, he has exactly 200 more total assists than Irving on the season.
  • That 8.8 number will be the all-time single season record for assists by a forward, if it holds up. The current record holder? James himself, with 8.6 per game in 2009-10. Only sixteen times in NBA history has a forward averaged 7.0 assists in a game or more. Larry Bird owns three of those seasons, Draymond Green and John Havlicek each own two, and Grant Hill did it a single time. The other eight? They all belong to LeBron.

The Verdict

What it really comes down to for me personally is an inherently unanswerable question. Do you value the key cog in a well-oiled machine? Or do you want the best player on the planet carrying one of his heaviest offensive loads, and conserving his body for another title run, even if he’s just slightly past his prime?

Leonard is a transcendent talent who is just reaching the peak of his powers. James is a historical freak of nature, a player who’s never been seriously injured, has never slowed down and at this point only cares about winning titles.

Do we penalize LeBron for not breaking his back on every defensive possession? Can we, given the three men he’s competing against? He’s also a four time MVP who should probably have six already.

Voter fatigue is a real thing where James is concerned. As the highlight package in his section shows, LeBron hasn’t had a ‘moment’ this season like Leonard’s crazy sequence versus the Rockets. But does he need one? He consistently makes insanely intelligent and athletic basketball plays, to the point that we’re not amazed by his brilliance anymore. That’s not his fault. LeBron makes four or five plays every game that would be the best play of an average players career. Are we judging him too harshly when we judge him against his own past performance? Against this?

It all depends what the MVP award means to you. This Matt Moore article is wonderful, and should help you at least ask the (17!!!) most difficult questions, if not answer them.

It’s impossible to decide right now. Goddammit, they’re both still in! It’s truly a four man race.

Our final MVP watch column will run in two weeks. It’ll be a four corners humdinger of a royal rumble. The grand-daddy of them all!

And yes, I promise it will end with a prediction, finally.



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