At the free throw line in Game 5 of the 2014 NBA finals, LeBron James reached the charity stripe during a pinnacle final stretch of the first half with his Miami Heat down by six, when the King saw forward Kawhi Leonard step onto the substitution mat and check into the game. After seeing Leonard rejoin the court, James expressed what could only be described as frustration as he shrugged and lamented an explicit comment.
In the modern NBA, with defense becoming more and more a rarer commodity around the league, Leonard’s imposing presence virtually eliminates half the court for the opposing offense. His long wingspan and quick footwork scares head coaches and general managers around the league.
Of course, Kawhi’s defensive prowess is hardly a revelation of this season as the small forward from San Diego State whom some labeled one-dimensional into the draft now owns the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year for two years in a row while making a serious case for another already this early in the season.
Yet, unlike the past two years, Kawhi’s performances this year have been indicative of Leonard’s dominance, not only on defense, but also as the primary scorer and bucket machine for a team coming off a historic 67-win season in which Leonard led the team to the largest point differential in NBA history.
In the first contest for the San Antonio Spurs this season — an immediate championship-caliber clash against the superteam Warriors — Kawhi calmly and coolly dropped a game-leading 35 points in addition to shutting down a star-studded, hyped Golden State offense without blinking an eye.
After the game, a notoriously quippy Gregg Popovich satirically responded to a question regarding his star forward, “If you watch the game, he was pretty good.”
Since game 1, Leonard owns a 28.4 points per game season average, contrasting his 14.7 career average and exemplifying the step he took over this past offseason for San Antonio. While the Spurs always knew the talent in their small forward, the transformed offensive production has hardly ever been replicated throughout history.
Other candidates just won’t have the same resume that I predict for Kawhi in this upcoming season, if the small forward can continue his bucket-getting ways. While Kawhi’s first week numbers may be inflated due to the sample size of the first weeks, Leonard evidently seems more relaxed and willing to take more shots throughout games thus far, making me think that the his numbers will continue to rift from career-scoring numbers thus far.
LeBron James and Kyrie Irving seem to be fellow superstars in the discussion for MVP seasons this year, but with most analysts and team officials around the league expecting James to rest, the King may once again see another NBA icon take home the coveted regular season trophy.
Irving, on the other hand, seems to be in the same boat as the Golden State Warriors, all of whom have counterparts or fellow teammates eliminate the statistics that push a superstar towards the MVP trophy. Irving’s duo with LeBron — similar to the Warriors’ top-four of Durant, Curry, Draymond, and Klay — will sacrifice enough statistics in selfless offenses and heavy ball movement, ultimately forfeiting the MVP.
Damian Lillard on the Portland Trail Blazers also provides another hot pick for NBA analysts and hipsters, but while I remain a big fan of Lillard both on and off the court, his team’s performance in the weaker Western Conference ultimately leaves the Oakland point guard with a significantly smaller chance to claim the coveted trophy. As for an all-star, that should a no-brainer in February.
In addition to all that Kawhi has done to improve his game offensively, the quiet leader in Kawhi continues the Spurs legacy that has made the franchise continually championship relevant for two decades. For the longest time, Popovich adamantly stated that Duncan’s retirement would mark the end of the head coach’s historic career, yet while the first-ballot Hall of Fame power forward quietly retired this summer, Popovich continues at the helm of San Antonio.
I think it’s safe to say that Leonard’s excessive talent and electric play on the court certainly didn’t negatively impact Popovich’s decision to not retire.
For Kawhi, this year’s elevation enters Leonard into the most elite tier of players in the association, and his consistent 30-point performances so far have definitely opened eyes in and out of the NBA. With that in mind, in addition to renewing a championship legacy with a new generation in the Spurs organization, Kawhi’s well on his way to exchanging his defense player of the year award for the MVP.
If you agree that defense wins
championships MVP awards, contact Lorenzo Rosas at enzor9 ‘at’ stanford.edu.