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Should Kawhi Leonard be the NBA MVP?

Apr 24, 2016; Memphis, TN, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) during the second half against the Memphis Grizzlies in game four of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at FedExForum. San Antonio Spurs defeated the Memphis Grizzlies 116 - 95. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 24, 2016; Memphis, TN, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) during the second half against the Memphis Grizzlies in game four of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at FedExForum. San Antonio Spurs defeated the Memphis Grizzlies 116 - 95. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
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Kawhi Leonard is having a career-year statistically while playing on the second-best team in the NBA, and is starting in the All-Star Game for the Western Conference. Is Leonard the NBA MVP?

It’s about that time in the NBA season where fans have some clarity.

Clarity as to what teams are a legitimate threat to contend for a championship, and what teams are a legitimate threat to contend for a lottery pick in the upcoming NBA Draft.

Chances are, the teams that are threats to contend for an NBA Championship probably have a player currently in the running to win the NBA MVP.

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The Golden State Warriors are the best team in the NBA with a record of 47-9, which has propelled Kevin Durant into the MVP conversation.

The San Antonio Spurs are the second best team in the NBA with a record of 43-13, large in part due to Kawhi Leonard’s stellar play on both sides of the ball.

The Houston Rockets are the third best team in the NBA at 40-18 because James Harden is nearly averaging a triple double this season. The Cleveland Cavaliers are the fourth best team in the NBA (first in the East) at 39-16, led by LeBron James, who nearly leads the NBA in minutes per game. The Boston Celtics are the fifth best team in the NBA (second in the East) at 37-19, because Isaiah Thomas has been unstoppable in the fourth quarter.

While the Oklahoma City Thunder are not in the top tier this year, they still have a record of 32-25, mainly because Russell Westbrook is averaging a triple double for the season.

Here is the updated Vegas odds for MVP.

Updated #nba MVP odds:4/5 James Harden13/8 Russell Westbrook8/1 Kevin Durant9/1 LeBron James10/1 Kawhi Leonard20/1 Isaiah Thomas

— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 16, 2017

There are many factors that go into determining the MVP. Here are some:

  1. Team Success
  2. Offensive Success
  3. Defensive Success

While I understand that Durant is scoring at a highly efficient rate this season and is on the best team in the NBA, i’ve disqualified him from the MVP conversation. For Vegas to have Durant ahead of James, Leonard, and Thomas is absolute blasphemy.

The Warriors have three other all-stars in addition to Durant, which makes his life easy on the offensive side of the ball. Nobody in their right mind would deny Durant’s greatness on the floor, however, playing with three other all-stars destroys any chance at being the most valuable player.

Why? Take Durant off of the Warriors, and how good are they? Without him, the Warriors had the best regular season record ever at 73-9, and were minutes away from a second championship.

Russell Westbrook & James Harden have 14 games with 35-10-10 this season, more than everyone in the NBA in the previous seven seasons (13).

— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 16, 2017

With that being said, this year’s MVP race comes down to five players:

  1. Russell Westbrook
  2. James Harden
  3. Kawhi Leonard
  4. LeBron James
  5. Isaiah Thomas

Now, let’s break it down by category, and figure out who the real MVP is.

Offensive Statistics

If statistics were the only factor in MVP voting, the race would come down to Westbrook and Harden. Not because Leonard, James, and Thomas haven’t been stellar, but because Westbrook and Harden have been absolutely legendary.

The only person to ever average a triple-double for an entire season was Oscar Robertson back in the 1961-1962 season. That season, Robertson averaged 30.8 ppg, 11.4 apg, and 12.5 rebounds per game.

Granted, it was a completely different time and era.

Either way, a triple-double is a triple double.

Most Triple-Doubles – Before All-Star Break 1961-62 Oscar Robertson 282016-17 Russell Westbrook 27

via @EliasSports

— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 16, 2017

As of today, Westbrook is averaging 31.1 ppg (1st in the NBA), 10.5 rpg (12th in the NBA), and 10.1 assists (3rd in the NBA).

To achieve those kind of numbers as a 6’3″ point guard is truly remarkable. To achieve some of his triple-doubles this season by the third quarter is even more remarkable.

Russell Westbrook Quickest Triple-Doubles This SeasonDec 31 23:26 vs ClippersNov 28 25:19 vs KnicksWednesday 29:00 vs Knicks

— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 16, 2017

On the other hand, Harden isn’t too far off from averaging his own triple-double. To think, the NBA hasn’t seen an NBA player average a triple-double in 55 years. This year, the NBA may produce two players who are averaging a triple-double.

Harden is averaging 29.2 ppg (third in the NBA), 11.3 apg (first in the NBA), and 8.3 rpg (21st in the NBA). Although it’s unlikely Harden will raise his rebounding enough to average the triple-double, it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility.

Most 40-Point Triple-Doubles – Single Season in NBA History2016-17 James Harden 51963-64 Oscar Robertson 5

from @EliasSports

— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 16, 2017

If we had to add a third player in the offensively dominant category, it would be Thomas. The 5’9″ point guard is averaging 29.9 ppg (second in the NBA), along with 6.3 assists.

The most impressive part about his scoring is his ability to do so in the fourth quarter of games, where he leads the NBA with more than 10 points per quarter.

Isaiah Thomas: 25th time with 10 points in the 4th quarter this season, breaking a tie with Russell Westbrook for most in the NBA

— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 16, 2017

If the MVP voting came down to offensive dominance, Westbrook would undoubtedly be the NBA MVP, and Harden would be the runner up. However, the MVP is dictated by more than just offensive performance, so we’ll take a look at defense.

Defensive Statistics

Of all players mentioned, Leonard has the highest defensive rating according to FOX Sports at 102.2, tied for 10th in the NBA. Westbrook comes in at 18th (104.0), Harden comes in at 47th (106.3), followed by James and Thomas.

Leonard leads these players in steals per game, averaging 1.8 per game, eighth in the NBA. Westbrook is 16th in the NBA with 1.6, while Harden is 24th with 1.5. James is 27th with 1.4 per game, followed by Thomas with less than 1.0.

So, basically, the "Kawhi could be MVP" narrative is getting stronger each month…

— Quixem Ramirez (@quixem) February 15, 2017

If stats didn’t paint the picture, Leonard has won defensive player of the year the past two seasons. He is the only player on the MVP list that is asked to guard the opposing team’s best offensive player and carry the scoring load.

The Spurs are first in the NBA in defensive efficiency, followed by the Thunder in seventh, the Rockets in 14th, the Cavaliers in 16th, and the Celtics in 19th.

In terms of allowing points, the Spurs are second at 98.4 per game, followed by the Celtics at 15th, the Cavaliers at 18th, the Thunder at 19th, and the Rockets in 24th.

Zach Lowe: "I just think it's time to stop saying Kawhi belongs in the vague discussion and say maybe he's actually the MVP." pic.twitter.com/SGl3k3PEc8

— Quixem Ramirez (@quixem) February 15, 2017

As of now, with both offense and defense factored in, it’s a three man race: Westbrook, Harden, and Leonard. However, team success and win shares is the final factor, which could bring James and Thomas back into the discussion.

Team Success and Win Shares

I put win shares with team success because the team’s success may be because of these players. Meaning, Durant has the best team success of any of these guys, but like i’ve mentioned above, would they be winning a lot without him? The answer is yes.

Win Shares is an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player. Here’s the results:

  1. Harden – 11.2
  2. Leonard – 9.8
  3. Thomas – 9.3
  4. James – 8.9
  5. Westbrook – 8.2

Harden not only puts up big numbers across the board, but is the single biggest reason for his team’s success this season. Let’s put statistics aside, and look at the current teams.

The Rockets are the third best team in the NBA right now. If you take Harden off of their roster, they might be the third worst team in the NBA. While they have a formidable roster with good role players, Harden is playing without another all-star. Their second leading score is Eric Gordon with 17.2 points per game.

The Thunder, on the other hand, may be even worse. Their second leading score is Victor Oladipo at 16.1 points per game, followed by Enes Kanter, who is now sidelined with an injury. Without Westbrook, this team could also contend for worst team in the West.

Thunder: 21-6 when Westbrook records a triple-double this season (11-19 when he doesn't)

— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 16, 2017

All things considered, both Westbrook and Harden’s supporting cast are equally average. With that being said, Harden has eight more wins and trails the Spurs by 4.0 games.

Leonard is on the second-best team in the NBA. The knock against Leonard is his coach, Gregg Popovich, who is largely considered the best coach in the NBA.

However, if you take a closer look, the Spurs aren’t as great (on paper) as people may think. Their second leading scorer is LaMarcus Aldridge at 17.5, which is eerily similar to Gordon’s totals for the Rockets.

Losing Tim Duncan to retirement and Pau Gasol to injury, Leonard has carried his team just as much as Harden and Westbrook. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the fancy triple-doubles.

Russell Westbrook & James Harden have 14 games with 35-10-10 this season, more than everyone in the NBA in the previous seven seasons (13).

— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 16, 2017

James has his Cavaliers in first place, per usual. If James had Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love playing healthy all season, then it’d probably knock him out of MVP contention.

However, it was announced that Love will miss about six weeks with an apparent injury, to go along with already injured sharpshooter JR Smith. If James leads the league in minutes, while carrying his depleted team to a number one seed, he is definitely back in the conversation.

Lastly, you have Thomas, who is carrying his Celtics to a second seed in the East. His second leading scorer is Avery Bradley with 17.7 points per game, similar to the other teams in this conversation. If Thomas can secure a number one seed over James, his MVP chances will immediately skyrocket.

Final Thoughts – Seeding Matters

To say that “seeding matters’ would be an understatement.

Since the 1988-1989 season, the MVP of the NBA has either been on a team that was a one or two seed. The last time an MVP was a on team lower than a one or two seed? The 1987-1988 season when Michael Jordan won his first MVP award on the three seed Chicago Bulls.

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Moses Malone won three MVP awards back in the late 1970’s, early 1980’s. His first MVP with the Rockets came back in 1978-1979 season, and they were a fourth seed. His second MVP also came with the Rockets, and that team was a sixth seed.

If the season ended today and Westbrook won the MVP award, he’d be the only player on a 7th seed team since 1970 to win the award. History tells us Westbrook needs to secure a top-6 seed to have a fighting chance, and a top-3 seed to have a great chance.

If the season ended today and Harden won the MVP award, he’d be the first player since Jordan back in the 1987-1988 season to win the award as a three seed.

So, if seeding matters that much to NBA MVP voters, Harden and Westbrook are likely eliminated.

If seeding is the highest value when determining the MVP, go ahead and give the award to Durant.

However, as i’ve explained before, his team is talented on levels we’ve never seen in the NBA. If you can take an MVP off a team, and that team is still the best team in that conference, is that really the most valuable player?

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Here’s the bottom line: If you want to factor in seeding, offensive production, defensive production, and team success, then your 2017 NBA MVP is Kawhi Leonard. He is arguably the best two-way player in the league, and has his team in second place in the West, within arms reach of the Warriors.

Granted, there are still plenty of games left in the NBA season, which could sway the MVP race one way or another.

If Westbrook can secure a top-4 seed in the West, he can be the MVP.

If Harden can leap past the Spurs and secure the second seed, Harden is easily the MVP.

If James secures a number one seed in the East with injuries to Love and Smith, he could win his 5th NBA MVP award.

If Thomas leaps James in the final stages of the season to secure a one seed, Thomas elevates his MVP stock exponentially.

So yes, with games left to play, there are still plenty of “ifs.”

However, if the season ended today, the NBA MVP should be Kawhi “The Claw” Leonard.

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