ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR
Kawhi Leonard never bats an eye.
Down 16 points to the Houston Rockets last Monday, Leonard rallied his team back to a one-point deficit with 30 seconds remaining. After receiving a high ball screen, Leonard ranged to his left, rose above Nene Hilario and drained a three. On the other end of the floor, Leonard pinned a James Harden layup on the backboard, denying his fellow MVP candidate the go-ahead bucket.
In about 10 seconds of basketball action, Leonard solidified his standing as the NBA’s most valuable player.
Leonard finished that game with 39 points –– 30 coming in the second half. The stat falls in line with what Leonard has done all season, as the sixth year forward is averaging a career-high 26.2 points per game. He’s the NBA’s most efficient pick-and-roll ball handler, his 28.5 PER rates second in the NBA and he’s the NBA’s leader in win shares per 48 minutes (.277).
He also happens to be the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
While Harden and the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook have dominated the MVP conversation, Leonard has quietly amassed an MVP-caliber season of his own. Through five games in March, Leonard is averaging 30.8 points per game and 7.2 rebounds per game. His season-long field goal percentage and offensive efficiency rating both significantly outrank Westbrook’s and Harden’s.
Defensively, Leonard separates himself from the pack. His defensive rating (101.5) is seventh best in the NBA and top among perimeter players. The Spurs’ defense performs better as a unit when Leonard is actually off the floor.
But as CBS Sports’ Matt Moore and many others have detailed, that is because teams have decided to put Leonard’s man in a corner and effectively play four-on-four basketball against the Spurs. It’s the same treatment NFL offenses give elite defensive backs when they ignore one side of the field. Teams thrive playing against the rest of the Spurs, who are lacking Tim Duncan’s rim protection for the first time in 19 seasons. The Spurs’ defensive system, which mainly switches on pick and rolls, operates most effectively with five men involved.
Don’t forget Leonard is probably the only man on the planet that can keep LeBron James in check in a seven game series. He has a Finals MVP award to show for it.
If that’s not enough, comprehend this: Kawhi Leonard has more career steals than fouls.
With a record of 51-14, his Spurs are on pace for 64 wins and are just a half game behind the Golden State Warriors for first in the western conference. Harden’s Rockets lie 6.5 games behind the Spurs, while the Westbrook-led Thunder sit in sixth place, 15 games back of the Spurs.
Westbrook is averaging a triple-double this season, while leading the league in scoring. Harden leads the league in assists per game and is also third in scoring. Both are deserving candidates, but Leonard’s place in the conversation has been ignored for too long. The discrepancy between Westbrook and Harden’s offensive production and Leonard’s is not great enough to deny his defensive excellence.
In those ten seconds, Leonard showcased both facets of his greatness. And in those ten seconds, the silent superstar just might have made the winning MVP case.