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The Case For Kawhi Leonard, MVP

Russell Westbrook has his triple-doubles, James Harden is probably the quintessential modern NBA player and LeBron James is having a typically MVP-worthy season. But among this year’s top candidates for the Maurice Podoloff Trophy,1 only San Antonio Spurs swingman Kawhi Leonard can say he’s good at everything there is to do on the basketball court.

Last season, I wrote about how rare it was to find an NBA player — particularly one so good at shooting the basketball — whose other all-around skills were as well-developed as Leonard’s. Since then, all Leonard has done is mature into a breakout superstar, setting new career highs in scoring, usage rate, assist rate and a bunch of other (mostly offensive) categories. But, astonishingly enough, Leonard has held onto the distinction of being the league’s most complete player, despite his big uptick in scoring.

Leonard is universally regarded as one of the league’s top perimeter stoppers, thanks to his combination of size (he’s 6-foot-7), athleticism, basketball IQ and massive hands. He has ranked among the top handful of pick-and-roll defenders in the game each of the past two seasons, and ballhandlers rarely try to size him up on isolations anymore. Overall, Leonard perennially qualifies as one of the NBA’s best at suppressing opposing shooting percentages and lowering opponents’ offensive efficiency while on the court. (There’s also a good case to be made that plus/minus is underrating Leonard’s defensive impact this season, since — like a great cornerback in football — opponents aren’t even giving him a chance to affect the game anymore.)

This is the second entry in our series making the case for five NBA MVP candidates. We’ve also made the case for James Harden and the case for Lebron James. Still to come: Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook. Also, check out our NBA predictions.

But Leonard also supplements his great D with a deadeye shooting stroke, strong rebounding skills,2 reliable ballhandling and, now, elite scoring. Starting from 11.9 points per game in 2012-13 (his first season as a full-time starter), Leonard has grown by leaps and bounds on offense, to the point that he’s now pouring in 25.7 a night — a stunning metamorphosis from a mere role player in the Spurs’ offense to head honcho. After this latest development to his game, it’s damn near impossible to find a player in the league today who does a wider variety of things at a higher level than Leonard does.

With the help of Basketball-Reference.com, I pulled eight major rate statistics for this season that encompass the range of skills an NBA player can possess — true shooting percentage, usage rate, assist rate, turnover rate, offensive and defensive rebounding percentages, steal percentage and block percentage. I got a ninth — defensive Real Plus-Minus — from ESPN.3 Among players who’ve logged at least 1,500 minutes this season, Leonard is the only one who ranks among the top half of the league in all nine statistical categories:

OFFENSE VALUE PERCENTILE
Usage 31.2% 96th
True shooting 61.1% 90th
Turnovers 9.0% 82nd
Assists 19.1% 71st
Offensive rebounds 3.8% 59th
Defense Value Percentile
Steals 2.7% 96th
Blocks 1.8% 73rd
Defensive Real Plus-Minus +0.9 71st
Defensive rebounds 15.8% 62nd
Kawhi Leonard was better than average at everything this season

Percentile ranking in each category is among NBA players with 1,500 or more minutes in the 2016-17 season. Through April 8.

Sources: Basketball-Reference.com, ESPN

All of Leonard’s MVP competitors, by contrast, have at least one statistical hole in their respective games. James turns the ball over too much; Stephen Curry doesn’t rebound; Westbrook and Harden play below-average defense, both by block rate and overall defensive RPM.

So, statistically speaking, Leonard is the most well-rounded of all the 2016-17 MVP candidates. Just as important — among teams with an MVP-caliber player, the Spurs may be the one whose chances of winning a championship most benefit from its superstar.

For all Westbrook’s singular, superhuman fury this season, the Thunder won’t crack 50 wins. And the odds of a team of that caliber winning a championship are next to nonexistent, according to a regression I ran between regular-season team win shares and championships since the NBA expanded its playoffs to 16 teams in 1984. Ditto James, whose 51-win Cavs would be one of the least successful regular-season champions if they were to defend the title. Even Harden’s Rockets, with 54 wins, are in the zone where a title is relatively unlikely. (Only an 8 percent chance, by the same regression.) At the other end of the spectrum, the Warriors — with their 66 wins — would have a good chance of winning the championship even if they had to replace Curry or Durant with an average player. (Sub out either of those stars’ win shares — 12.5 for Curry and 11.7 for Durant — with an average number, and the Warriors’ odds of capturing the title stay strong, north of 20 percent.)

But for the 61-win Spurs, Leonard’s production is in a sweet spot, making the difference between a healthy shot at a ring and none at all. Without Leonard’s 13.6 win shares — third-most in the league — San Antonio’s chances of winning it all drop from solid (19 percent) to remote (3 percent). In other words, because Leonard led the Spurs to an elite record without the benefit of another superstar teammate, his production might have had the highest leverage of any MVP candidate’s.

Other players had better individual numbers than Leonard did, but nobody had a better all-around season. And the Spurs’ championship outlook would be dismal without him. For our purposes, each of those distinctions is enough for Leonard to meet a very reasonable definition of what makes a player “most valuable” to his team.

Footnotes

  1. Yes, that’s what the NBA calls the hunk of hardware it gives the most valuable player. Podoloff was the first NBA president, serving from 1949 to 1963, and he oversaw some the league’s crucial early developments, including the 1954 adoption of the shot clock at the urging of Syracuse Nationals owner Danny Biasone.

  2. Relative to comparable players over the term of Leonard’s entire career.

  3. All nine statistics are current as of April 8.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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