Photo via ESPN
With roughly 20 games remaining in the NBA season, the race for the coveted Most Valuable Player award remains more open than it may seem. Seemingly since opening night, it has felt like a two horse race between Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook and Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden. The former teammates have been recording eye-popping numbers all season, with Westbrook averaging a triple double, a feat that has only ever been achieved once in NBA history, and Harden carrying his team to the third seed in the Western Conference despite a less than elite supporting cast. While these two deserve the front-runner status at this point of the season, they should hardly rest easy, as Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs looks to steal the award out from under Westbrook and Harden during the final games of the regular season.
It is essentially an annual tradition at this point for the general public to overlook the San Antonio Spurs as contenders. The NBA’s most successful franchise over the past two decades is having another stellar season. They sit only 2.5 games behind the Golden State Warriors for the Western Conference’s top seed and may overtake them over the last stretch of the season, as Warrior’s top scorer, Kevin Durant, is out indefinitely with a knee injury.
Coming into the 2016-17 season, Leonard faced the challenging task of assuming the leadership void left in the wake of the retirement of Spurs legend Tim Duncan last season. Leonard has more than fulfilled the lofty expectations placed on him to overtake the role as franchise centerpiece, as he is having his best season in an already decorated career that includes a Finals MVP award and two Defensive Player of the Year awards.
Averaging 26.3 points, 3.4 assists, and 6 rebounds per game, Leonard is posting career highs in both points and assists. He is also recording a career high in PER, an advanced statistic measured by ESPN that tracks a player’s efficiency rating, with a score of 28.68, which ranks second only to Russell Westbrook.
Widely considered to be the most dominant defensive player in the entire NBA, Leonard provides an element to the game that is challenging to measure in statistics and requires a closer examination then simply looking at a stats sheet to appreciate.
His profound effect on a game was on full display during Monday’s win over MVP rival James Harden and the Houston Rockets. With 27 seconds on the clock, trailing 108-107, Leonard hit a deep and contested three point shot to put his team ahead by two. He proceeded to run back on defense, block the potential game tying layup by Harden off of the backboard, grab the rebound, and sink both ensuing foul shots to seal the victory. This unbelievable 13-second stretch of sheer dominance is the perfect condensed example of just how dominant a force Leonard has turned into.
Known for his soft-spoken persona, Leonard has been anything but quiet on the court as of late. Since the start of February, the Spurs have gone 12-1 with Leonard on the floor. Through four games so far in March, Leonard is averaging an absurd 33.8 points, 3.3 steals, 4.5 assists, and 8.5 rebounds per game, all while remaining the premier defender in the entire NBA.
If Leonard maintains his elite level of play, while leading the Spurs to overtaking the Warriors for the Western Conference top seed, it may in fact be him, not Harden or Westbrook, holding the league’s highest individual honor come May.