It casually came up during Sunday’s Knicks-Warriors telecast. There was a break in the action and ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy started debating the merits of the two leading MVP candidates. And by the end of it, he wasn’t advocating for Russell Westbrook or James Harden to win the NBA’s top individual award, as just about everyone else has so far.
"Is he a legit MVP candidate? I don’t know how you can’t seriously consider him. Is he the MVP? Now’s not the time for that debate."
Instead, Van Gundy took the opportunity to praise Kawhi Leonard and the nondescript way he’s been killing it for the Spurs, positioning San Antonio right at the heels of the Warriors in the race for the top spot out West. And when you start looking at the numbers, you wonder how much longer we can legitimately not include Leonard as a serious candidate with Russ, Harden, and even LeBron James—all worthy MVPs, for sure—because what he’s doing deserves a hell of a lot more attention, if not outright exaltation, than what he's received 61 games into the season.
ESPN’s Marc Stein did a great deep dive Sunday, pointing out how Leonard has been every bit as impressive as Mr. Triple Double, the Beard, and King James over the last few months:
Across the season's second Trimester, Leonard averaged 27.3 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, while also chipping in 5.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.5 steals and 1 block per game.
He also happened to string together the four highest-scoring games of his career during that slice of schedule: 41 points, 38 points and two 36-point outings. Prior to Trimester 2, Leonard had never scored more than 35 points in an NBA game.
Dig even deeper and you'll find that Leonard, over a 16-game stretch starting Jan. 10 and leading into All-Star Weekend, reached the 30-point plateau 11 times. He had registered only 12 30-point games in his career before that hot streak.
And, oh yeah, he’s still one of the elite defenders in the game, having won Defensive Player of the Year honors the past two seasons, and rates seventh in Defensive Win Shares—impressive considering all the guys ahead of him are 6’10” or taller.
Stein also pointed out that the Spurs are only two games behind the Warriors in the West despite Pau Gasol not having the impact expected and LaMarcus Aldridge averaging the fewest points of his career since his rookie season.
Keeping with how the Spurs typically conduct business, Leonard has been balling way under the radar. Is he a legit MVP candidate? I don’t know how you can’t seriously consider him. Is he the MVP? Now’s not the time for that debate. There’s too much of the season left to go as the Spurs take aim at the Warriors, Westbrook triple-doubles on the reg while shooting a worse percentage from the field than Allen Iverson did during The Answer's MVP campaign, Harden averages career highs in points and assists, and LeBron does LeBron things. We’ll save the great debate for the end of the month. Today, we’re just saying Leonard deserves his proper place in all future MVP discussions.