LeBron James, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry, and Kevin Durant all were picked ahead of Kawhi Leonard for the 2016/17 MVP in the GM Predictions for the upcoming season. However, last years MVP-Runner up is used to be overlooked.
Leonard really is one of a kind. There is no other player in today’s NBA that can match what Kawhi brings physically and mentally to a NBA game.
At this point in his career, it feels like his dedication is second to none in the league, and that is because he simply plays the game, and goes home.
Kawhi is not worried about being a celebrity, he is not worried about the public eye, he is not worried about his popularity. He seldom celebrates, he does not even acknowledge that there is a camera on him.
He just loves to play basketball, and his play shows it in spades.
Name another player that has gotten this much better in the span of six years in the NBA. Players of LeBron and Durant’s caliber came into the league dripping with talent and were already all star level players in their rookie season.
Kawhi was playing 24 minutes a game and averaging 7.9 points his rookie year. He seemed like a hard nosed defender that just maybe could turn into a “Corner 3 and Defense” clone of Bruce Bowen one day.
Fast forward to his sixth NBA season and Leonard is indisputably a top five NBA player. He transformed himself from a “non-shooting” prospect who fell out of the lottery and was traded on draft day to the best two way player in the world. At just 25 years old, Kawhi Leonard has continued his evolution this season as he has every year of his career. Over the off season he works tirelessly on his game, coming back a completely different player each of the last three season.
Last year, he famously became one of the league’s best three point shooters shooting an astounding 44.3 percent (his previous high being 37.9 percent). The only two players that shot the three better than him last year were sharpshooter J.J. Redick and the best shooter of the generation and unanimous MVP Stephen Curry.
With his shooting stroke perfected, Leonard was able to average 20+ points per game for the first time in his career, even with LaMarcus Aldridge added to the roster.
However, this year already feels completely different. This is not the same Kawhi that was second in MVP voting to only Curry last year, this man has changed. He is in complete control of the offense now, and he understands how the defense is going to react to him.
Due to this, his passing is much improved, he is finding his guys like it is second nature, as if he knows where the are or where they are going to be.
To truly understand how good Leonard is, you have to physically watch him. His effort, his impact on defense, his chemistry within the system, his new sense of leadership, none of that comes up in the stat sheet. However, Leonard’s stats this season, even though it is a small sample size, are incredible.
First off, Kawhi is leading the league in PER (Player Efficiency Rating) at an absurd 38.7 clip, a whole 2.8 more than James Harden in second place. Kawhi is also hovering around the top of wins shares and value over replacement.
Averaging roughly a 28/4/4 split with three steals and over 1.5 three pointer, Kawhi is now a top 10 offensive player along with being the leagues most dominant defender. However the most promising improvement of Leonard’s game has been his ability to get to the line.
In fact, except for the seven players who have yet to miss a free throw (none of which take more than 3.6 per game) Leonard is currently leading the league in FT percentage at 96.4 percent. He has been taking north of nine free throws a game, more than doubling his 4.6 average last year. So far he only missed two free throws to start the season, going 53/55. Drawing fouls and creating contact seem to be this season’s “three pointer” for Kawhi, and the league should be terrified.
Kawhi has been turning heads all around the league. To start the season, Pop has been praising him like he is wearing 21, “He basically tells me what he wants to do now. I mean, he’ll take the ball and send the screener away. He’ll decide if he wants to go one-on-one with no screen, no pick … he is much more demonstrative, looks for his shots more. He knows he’s got a green light, and I think that’s the difference.”
Not just his own coach, other all stars are recognizing Leonard early this season. After the Spurs defeated the Kings in Sacramento’s first home game in the Gold 1 Center, DeMarcus Cousins was almost speechless when asked about Kawhi’s 30 point performance. Even though Kawhi has stated that he has yet to work with Kobe, Cousins said that he saw “Flashes of Kobe,” in Kawhi’s game.
Westbrook, Lillard, Chris Paul, Anthony Davis, and James Harden will all most likely fall short in the wins category to be considered for MVP of the regular season. Curry and Durant are going going to split votes even though they will probably have the best record. LeBron could be considered the front runner to start the season, but he has a loaded roster to lean on and will need to save his body for the playoffs.
As long as the Spurs win near 60 games and secure at least the 2nd seed in the West, Kawhi should be the MVP and the DPOY of the 2016/17 season, and might finally get an MIP while he is at it. From there, the question will only be if he can bring home a second Finals MVP to San Antonio.