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Kawhi Leonard’s MVP “narrative”

Some say Kawhi lacks a good enough story line to be MVP, so here it is.

NBA: Houston Rockets at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

For a most of the season, the race for NBA MVP has mainly been a battle between triple-double machine Russell Westbrook and a rejuvenated, Kardashian-free James Harden. Because voters have to fill out five slots, players like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant and Isaiah Thomas have received mentions but are typically not listed as favorites for various reasons (too much star help, lack of defense, etc).

That changed after Monday night’s win vs. the Houston Rockets, when Leonard had perhaps the best regular-season game of his career and produced what many would define as his “MVP moment”:

...and the headlines about how he had vaulted himself into the discussion with Westbrook and Harden came roaring in.

Still, both before and after that game, the case against his MVP candidacy for detractors has been that he lacks a narrative. While his numbers and effort on both ends of the court are impressive, he allegedly lacks a story line that makes him an inspirational pick. He’s not Westbrook willing what would otherwise be a lottery team to a playoff spot despite losing Durant to free agency, or Harden rediscovering his mojo after a lackadaisical 2016 season while also bringing Mike D’Antoni’s system (and career) back to life, or even LeBron simply continuing to be the best player on the planet.

SB Nation’s Zito Madu probably encapsulated this notion the best in last week’s “Limited Upside NBA Podcast”. (Skip ahead to the 49 min mark.) He defines Leonard as a “hipster” pick, which he refers to as a player who is credible but will only be chosen by people who have some reason to hate Westbrook and/or Harden. Madu also said the case against Leonard is he’s seen as a system player playing for a Hall of Fame coach, and he doesn’t have a good story. That point of view probably didn’t change with Monday’s performance since it didn’t change any “story lines” (except maybe the system player part, which is old and disproven at this point).

In podcasts since that game, there have been much more logical discussions about seriously (not just figuratively) including Leonard in the MVP race. I highly encourage Tuesday’s “Drive and Kick” podcast over at SB Nation and SI’s “Open Floor” podcast for more thorough, thought-out discussions of his MVP chances. Still, even when fairly discussing the case against each candidate, Leonard’s disadvantage remains the same: the lack of narrative, so I’m here to help out with that.

First of all, Leonard’s career trajectory is something to behold. After coming out of San Diego State lacking a good shooting stroke and most scouting reports listing his ceiling as a glorified defender, Leonard has risen from a complimentary role player to Finals MVP, Two-time Defensive Player of the Year, scoring juggernaut, and far and away best player on one of the best teams in the league. Just look how his numbers have improved season-by-season:

Kawhi Leonard Season-by-Season

2011-12 64 39 24 7.9 15.9 3.1 6.3 0.493 0.6 1.7 0.376 1.1 1.4 0.773
2012-13 58 57 31.2 11.9 18.3 4.5 9.1 0.494 1.1 3 0.374 1.8 2.2 0.825
2013-14 66 65 29.1 12.8 21.1 5.1 9.8 0.522 1 2.8 0.379 1.5 1.9 0.802
2014-15 64 64 31.8 16.5 25 6.2 12.8 0.479 1 3 0.349 3.2 3.9 0.802
2015-16 72 72 33.1 21.2 30.7 7.7 15.1 0.506 1.8 4 0.443 4.1 4.6 0.874
2016-17 57 57 33.7 26.3 37.4 8.8 18 0.487 2 5.2 0.385 6.8 7.6 0.896
Career 381 354 30.5 16.1 25.4 5.9 11.8 0.497 1.3 3.3 0.39 3 3.6 0.85

Next, while considering Leonard’s never-ending work ethic and season-by-season improvement, just look at where the Spurs are now: chasing the best record in the league and a serious threat to win the championship. Now hearken back to Tim Duncan’s prime and the dread about what would become of this team once Big Fun retired. If anyone claims that back in 2007 (or heck, 2011) they knew this is where the Spurs would be after the best player in franchise history retired, they’re lying. Leonard isn’t just a good player keeping the team afloat until the future comes along, he is the the future.

Not only that, but he’s a big reason Gregg Popovich is still the Spurs coach after often claiming he would follow Duncan out the door. Pop has stated that he is enjoying the new challenge of coaching up fresh, young players and building new schemes around them, and you can bet Leonard’s Duncan-like willingness to be coached has a lot to do with that. You’d best believe that if Pop wasn’t enjoying himself, he wouldn’t still be here.

Finally, if you need some emotional backbone to go with Kawhi’s MVP narrative, look at all he has been through. Like Duncan, who lost his mother to cancer at age 14, Leonard also had to endure tragedy to get where he is today. In 2008, when Kawhi was just 16 years old, his father, Mark, was senselessly shot and killed at the car wash he owned in Compton, CA. To this day the murderer and motive have never been determined. That makes it all the more difficult to find closure, but Kawhi has persevered to make his father proud. If you really need to get your emotions flowing to get yourself to vote for Kawhi as MVP, read about his first game following this horrific tragedy. (Warning: you just might cry.)

So there you have it, voters: the multiple story lines you can run with to justify voting Kawhi Leonard for MVP, if that’s what it takes in your mind. Of course, this is not to say that he is the one and only deserving candidate and that we should all be infuriated if he’s not chosen. Between him, Harden, Westbrook or LeBron, there really is no wrong answer. All are deserving and justified options, and it mostly depends on one’s opinion of what “most valuable player” actually means.

However, if your only reason to not vote for Kawhi is simply that he lacks a “narrative”, then you’re just being lazy.