The NBA regular season is over and done with, and as the dust settles before the playoffs start this weekend, it’s time to take stock of what looks like the closest MVP race since Steve Nash won his second consecutive award after the 2005-06 season. Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, and LeBron James are in contention for the award, and an impromptu Washington Post straw poll of voters taken a month ago showed Harden with an edge over Westbrook.
Leonard is right there behind Westbrook, and this week, he’s picked up endorsements from some of the most prominent basketball writers in the business, including ESPN’s Zach Lowe and the Post’s Tim Bontemps. While Harden and Westbrook put forth tremendous and nearly inseparable seasons playing the same position, and while James has wrapped up a statistical marvel of a year that nobody really seemed to notice, Leonard seems to have emerged as a different sort of candidate, the choice for voters who are too wised-up to have their votes swayed by statistical marvels.
It’s a weird thing to watch unfold, particularly because justifying a vote for Leonard requires a thorough accounting of all the things he is worse at than the other candidates. In fact, if you were to hand Lowe’s column to a reader who did not know who Lowe was voting for, it could easily be interpreted as a case for Westbrook. The piece includes these passages (emphasis mine):
The ability to manufacture shots, for yourself and your teammates, is the single most valuable skill in the NBA. Harden, Westbrook and James are better at it than Leonard. They also played more minutes than Leonard — 250 more for Westbrook, and 450 for Harden
Again: Replace Westbrook with Schroder, or even Jeff Teague, and this might be a 25- or 30-win team. Replace Leonard with Ariza, and maybe the Spurs approach 50 wins.
Leonard isn’t the best player, or the most dominant scorer. He may not have an extra playoff gear on offense. He probably won’t win a postseason game by scoring 12 points in the final three minutes.
Westbrook’s clutch shooting down the stretch nearly changed my final vote. He led the league in go-ahead or game-tying shots in the last minute of games. He shot 46 percent on a preposterous 100 field-goal attempts in the last three minutes of close games, and the Thunder destroyed teams in high-leverage moments.
Meanwhile, the arguments in Leonard’s favor rest on a few key points: He plays tremendous defense; his team won a million games; he doesn’t turn the ball over; he doesn’t score a lot, but he’s efficient; he has no holes in his game. It’s a case that asks you to reward the polish on Leonard’s game without thinking too hard about where that polish comes from.
Take these paragraphs from Lowe’s column:
Leonard is a system player. Westbrook, Harden and LeBron are the systems. That is kind of true. Leonard doesn’t touch the ball on some San Antonio possessions. He could not handle the creative burden on offense the two leading candidates face every night.
Leonard is more of a possession finisher than do-it-alls like Harden and Westbrook, one reason his turnover rate is miniscule. But he is also both starter and finisher on a lot of those trips. He’ll zip up from the baseline, run a pick-and-roll, kick the ball to Aldridge, cut to the other side, and launch a catch-and-shoot triple when the shot clock winds down.
Leonard is a vital conduit to the Spurs’ offense, but his ability to effectively participate in offensive sets and be discerning with his shot selection says more about his ability to fit into Gregg Popovich’s schemes than it does his singular abilities as a basketball player. Not to say that this is an unimpressive accomplishment! Leonard did have a great offensive season, shooting 38 percent from three on his way to averaging 25.5 points per game, but he doesn’t turn it over for the same reason he doesn’t pick up many assists, which is that the Spurs offense is a well-drilled machine designed to create opportunities for Kawhi to take makable shots. To his credit, he does whatever the Spurs ask of him, and that’s why he is the most essential offensive player on a 61-win team.
But as Lowe himself admits in the excerpt above, Leonard has the luxury of playing within a brilliant system, whereas Harden and Westbrook are tasked with engineering wins through their own individual brilliance every night. If Leonard is to be rewarded for his system-driven efficiency, then Harden and Westbrook should be rewarded for creating their own system out of whole cloth.
The trump card that Kawhi voters all eventually play is Leonard’s much-vaunted (and very good!) perimeter defense. Lowe leans on Leonard’s defensive prowess in his argument, but once again undercuts himself a bit, admitting that individual offense is much more important than individual defense (we agree).
But the pro-defense argument hinges on yet another double standard that favors Kawhi while maligning Westbrook and Harden. Quantifying an individual player’s defensive impact is far more difficult than figuring out his offensive impact, and so Lowe is essentially doing a form of guesswork when he writes:
But even if defense is 25 percent or 30 percent, that is a lot, and Leonard, to be polite, has a Katie Ledecky-level lead on everyone else.
If Leonard is by far the best defender among the candidates and contributes 70 or 80 percent of their value on offense, then he has a legitimate MVP case.
The logic by which Leonard is rewarded for his shutdown defense despite the ineluctable, team-driven nature of defending the basket does not align neatly with dinging Westbrook and Harden for their minor offensive flaws (I’m looking at everyone who wants to yell about turnovers) when they create oodles of points and drive their teams forward with their presence alone.
The central question Lowe’s piece seems to hinge on is: Is it more impressive to be an airtight two-way player whose success is greatly owed to the system he plays in, or an historically dominant offensive player who is so good that a word like “system” is rendered meaningless in his presence? It sure seems like the answer is an obvious one.