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Kawhi Leonard is a legit MVP candidate

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Kawhi Leonard is playing like an NBA MVP candidate. It's time we treat him like one.

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

In case you hadn't noticed, Kawhi Leonard is playing really good basketball right now. For the most part, I had already accepted this new Kawhi. A nightly scoring threat that also doubled as the best perimeter defender in the league? Yeah, that sounded something Leonard could be. But, I was concerned about whether he could keep this production up.

I figured at some point his ultra-efficient scoring would come come back to Earth. Being a constant offensive threat is one thing. But sporting a 60+ TS%? Shooting the highest percentage from 3-point land in the NBA? Absolutely dominating from midrange? That all seemed like it would regress somewhat.

Lo and behold, we're almost through December, and Leonard is still putting up insane numbers. Numbers so ridiculous that when you plug them into the Player Season Finder on basketball-reference.com to see the players that have put up stats like this before him, all you get is names like Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, David Robinson, and Magic Johnson.

There should be no more doubt that what we are seeing is the real Kawhi Leonard. He is the best perimeter defender in the league, and he's also flirting with a 40/50/90 year from the field. He is a go-to scorer who is still improving on his late-game heroics. He is all but guaranteed a spot on this year's All-Star team.

And he deserves consideration for this year's league MVP award.

Of course, right now, the far-and-away leader for the MVP trophy is Steph Curry. He's dousing the Golden State Warriors' opposition with such vigor that it's arguable whether he's supplanted LeBron James as the best player in the league. (When you consider how good LeBron has been for the past 5 or 6 years. It's terrifying.) There's no denying that this is Curry's award to lose right now. He won it last year, and he's playing even better so far this season.

But once you get past Curry, the battle for second place is less clear. Of course, there's Leonard. As of now, I'd be willing to put two other players in the discussion with him: LeBron, and another player from that dominant Warriors team: Draymond Green.

James is probably still the best player in the league even though he's a little bit past his prime athletically, and he's taken a tiny dip in production in his second year back with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Though he's shooting a better overall FG% than last year, his overall scoring efficiency has dropped. According to his shot chart via vorped.com, LeBron is averaging a poor 30.4% from midrange. He's having a career-worst season from beyond the arc, making just 25.7% from deep. Defensively, he's not what he used to be. He still defends hard and is more than capable when the team needs it, but at this point in his career he has to save his legs to help out on offense.

With all that said, he's still LeBron freaking James. He's getting a fourth-best in the league 26.3 points per game on a 55.7 TS%, a pretty remarkable number considering the amount of points he's scoring and his outside shooting woes. He's also still one of the best distributors in the game, with an AST% of 34.1.

When talking about the breakout stars of this season, Draymond Green is right there with Leonard. He was extremely valuable for the Warriors last season, but has taken his game to a whole new level. The aspect of his game that jumps off the stat sheet is his versatility. He averages 14.6 points per game, 9 rebounds, and 7.1 assists, in addition to 1.5 blocks and 1.2 steals. Green is the most versatile defender in the league, able to guard all 5 positions effectively, able to sit down and slide his feet versus guards and still be physical with 7-footers.

Offensively, his usage isn't extremely high, but his effectiveness is off the charts. He's become a much improved 3-point shooter, going from a respectable 33.7% to becoming a legitimate threat from deep at 38.7%. He's also a brilliant passer, especially as a roll man in pick-and-roll. Whenever the Warriors go to their "Death Ball" lineup with Green at the 5, what makes that lineup so death-y is his ability to receive the ball from Curry (who gets blitzed by 2 defenders in pick-and-roll, leaving the rest of his team with a 4-on-3 opportunity) and make the right read to either pass or score.

Obviously, Leonard, James, and Green are all ridiculously talented players; and are all very deserving of MVP hype this year. It is my opinion, though, that Leonard has the best case out of the three (and after Curry, of course).

The difference for me lies in Leonard's defensive playmaking. Leonard averages more steals and blocks than both James and Green, and holds higher combined steal and block percentages. He's important to the Spurs not just because of his ability to check league-leading scorers, but also because his defense creates scoring opportunities.

A lot of players that rack up a lot of steals or blocks have a tendency to gamble on passes, or sell out on pump-fakes, which can get them up burned and cost their team points. Leonard is able to do both of these things at a high rate without hurting his team's defense. His unique combination of length and basketball IQ make it so that he's always in good defensive position. When he jumps a pass, he uses his wingspan and large hands to knock the ball away, corral it, and get a dunk on the other end. When he's trying to block a shot, he's smart enough to know when to time his jump to get a hand on the ball while keeping it in play.

No matter how you slice his numbers, Leonard is a game-changer. And although Steph Curry might be running away with the MVP award this year, Leonard is putting the league on notice that he's in the realm of players that can compete for the honor. What's more important for the Spurs is that he's putting the team on his back on a nightly basis. If Leonard plays up to this standard throughout, the Spurs have a shot to still be playing in June. And if that happens, Kawhi Leonard might win a different kind of MVP, one he's already won before.

MVP OF THE GAME

Kawhi Leonard - 20 points on 8-19 shooting, 7 boards, 4 assists, 5 steals, 3 blocks

The man is amazing, and it feels like every few games he comes close to recording a 5x5. He didn't score extremely well, but he did enough to keep the Spurs in the game down to the final minute.

NUMBERS ON THE BOARD

  • 46.7: Houston's 3-points FG% on the night. The Rockets hit 7 out of their 15 attempts, and that proved to be the difference in the game. The two biggest ones came from James Harden in the final 4 minutes, both on the right wing with a Spurs defender in his grill.
  • 16.6: The combined shooting percentage of Tony Parker and Patty Mills. Usually when one of the two has a bad game, the other will pick it up, but that wasn't the case in this game, as they combined to go 2-12 from the field.
  • 5: The number of free throw attempts for Harden on the night. Harden leads the league in free throw attempts, averaging 10.9 per game. The Spurs held him to half of that. He draws fouls by showing the ball a lot in the lane, and San Antonio did a good job of not taking the bait and hacking away at it. They also stayed grounded and maintained verticality in the lane, making it hard for the officials to blow their whistles and send Harden to the charity stripe.

GAME NOTES

  • San Antonio really did a great job defending Harden. I already mentioned how they kept him from getting to the line. That, combined with Danny Green's hard-working defense, made for a very inefficient night for the Harden. Although he went 7-21 on the night, he still amped up his game in the 4th quarter, scoring 8 of his 20 in the final period, including those two back-breaking 3-pointers. Even when he was having an off night, he got his when necessary. Fear the Beard, indeed.
  • The Spurs missed some open looks, but you really have to give Houston a lot of credit for how they defended San Antonio throughout the game. They held one of the most efficient offenses in the league to 84 points on 40.9% from the field. Patrick Beverley harassed Parker for the entire game, Trevor Ariza kept Leonard from scoring in the final minutes, and the duo of Dwight Howard and Clint Capela protected the rim well. With 13 seconds remaining with the Spurs down 4, the Rockets defended a final ATO perfectly. San Antonio tried to get Aldridge the ball off a downscreen, and the screener's defender read it, and denied Aldridge the ball. From there, the Spurs had to jack up a bad shot, and the game was effectively over.
  • Even in a losing effort, it was cool to see the Spurs go to Tim Duncan on the block with the game on the line. Parker couldn't make a shot, and Leonard was being hounded by Ariza, so they throw it to Old Man Riverwalk. Duncan had 6 in the 4th quarter, doing his best to keep San Antonio within striking distance. Maybe it shouldn't be, but it's always amazing to see that he's still got it after all these years.
  • I'm starting to dislike the Spurs use of the Hack-A strategy. I generally like it if the opposing team is making a run and San Antonio needs to slow the game down. However, it seems that in recent games, the Spurs use it whenever a bad foul shooter comes on the floor. This kills any pace or game flow, making it harder for San Antonio to get into their offense. In this game versus the Rockets, the score and flow of the game was pretty even when Popovich called for the Hack-A-Howard, but it was winnable. I understand the gamble of trying to make a bad foul-shooter beat you, but San Antonio also has the best defense in the league by a mile, and the best defensive impact player. I'd rather they just rely on their strengths and keep the game moving.

TWEET GAME