Would Kawhi Leonard have won the MVP award any other year?
By Michael Rehome
Kawhi Leonard finished 2nd in the NBA MVP voting to Stephen Curry, who became the first player to unanimously win the award.
Leonard had a fantastic 2015-16 season, not only in leading the San Antonio Spurs’ offense but also setting the tone on the defense. He was recognized for his defensive talent with the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award.
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Many historically great players never won an MVP Award in their distinguished careers, including Jerry West, Reggie Miller, and Gary Payton. Sometimes it takes a little bit of luck to ensure that an elite performance over a season coincides with a year in which no peers can equal it.
Having said that, just how good was Leonard’s performance last season? Did he have the type of impact for the Spurs that would normally warrant an MVP win had it not been for the remarkable play of Curry?
Analysis of some of his advanced metrics yields interesting results. Player Efficiency Rating, Value Added, Estimated Wins Added, Win Shares, Box Plus/Minus, and Value Over Replacement Player illustrate a player’s impact to his team beyond tangible statistics like points, rebounds, and assists.
MVP literally means “Most Valuable Player,” and the advanced metrics listed above aim to describe the value a player had to his team’s performance on the court.Looking at the last 10 MVP winners before last season, they expectedly had impressive metrics.
The average MVP over the last decade had a 28.21 Player Efficiency Rating, 748.0 Value Added, 24.9 Estimated Wins Added, 16.3 Win Shares, 8.9 Box Plus/Minus, and 7.9 Value Over Replacement Player.
How do Leonard’s numbers from the 2015-16 season stack up compared to those?
He’d rank below the average MVP winner for the past decade in each category. Leonard had a 26.11 Player Efficiency Rating, 554.6 Value Added, 18.5 Estimated Wins Added, 13.7 Win Shares, 8.3 Box Plus/Minus, and 6.2 Value Over Replacement Player.
Clearly he did not have a monumentally transcendent season, or else he would have garnered at least one first place vote for MVP. His performance was certainly noteworthy, and deserving of the praise attached to a 2nd place MVP finish, but historians and scholars won’t one day lament of the cruel injustice of Leonard picking the wrong season to have a truly MVP-like output.
The average metrics of the past decade’s MVPs are somewhat skewed due to some abnormally successful seasons even relative to other MVP winners, particularly Kevin Durant’s monstrous 2013-14 and LeBron James’ dominant seasons in 2008-09 and 2012-13.
Leonard looks more favorable in these comparisons of recent MVP’s when average metric is not used to critique his performance, but instead which individual players he ranks ahead of in each category.
Leonard had a better Box Plus/Minus than Dirk Nowitzki in 2006-07, Derrick Rose in 2010-11, Kobe Bryant in 2007-08, and Steve Nash in 2005-06. He also had a better Value Over
Sep 26, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) poses for photos during media day at the Spurs training facility. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Replacement Player than Rose, Bryant, Nash, and was in a tie with Nowitzki.
Leonard had a better Player Efficiency Rating than Rose, Bryant, and Nash. Leonard had more Win Shares than Rose and Nash. Leonard had more Value Added and Estimated Wins Added than Nash.
The data says that Leonard had a season in 2015-16 that would have been one of the weakest MVP performances of the past 10 years, but certainly not unprecedented.
He beat Nash in all six of the categories, Rose in four of the six, Bryant in three of the six, and equaled or beat Nowitzki in two of the six.
The fact that he was unequivocally the best player on a San Antonio Spurs team that won 67 games also helps his case. Only a dozen NBA teams have ever reached that mark, which puts Leonard in rarified air.
Look for Leonard to keep building on his progress. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if Leonard eventually gets to hoist an regular season MVP trophy to go along with the hardware for his NBA Finals MVP.
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With the luxury of a stable franchise around him that is committed to excellence, Leonard is in prime position to continue his ascension. Observers have learned never to doubt Leonard’s quiet determination to succeed.