Russell Westbrook is the 2016-2017 NBA MVP and, frankly, that is a defensible decision. The Oklahoma City Thunder guard averaged a triple-double over a full NBA regular season and, given the immense workload that Westbrook carried on a nightly basis, it makes all the sense in the world that he would be the MVP. Even beyond that, Houston Rockets guard James Harden, who would have won the MVP award in any “normal” year, put together a historic campaign that honestly deserved more hardware than he received.
With that on the table, Kawhi Leonard should have won the MVP award. No, really, he should have.
This isn’t that wild of an opinion, especially given the fact that many respected voices in the sport (ahem, Zach Lowe) supported his candidacy. Still, this award pursuit seemingly turned in to a two-horse race at some point and even LeBron James (who was snubbed from the three-man finalist field) wasn’t immune to the blow-back of looking at non-Harden, non-Westbrook candidates.
Leonard, though, was the best defensive player on any reasonable ballot and it wasn’t particularly close. Defense is either wildly underrated (by most casual fans) or wildly overrated (by people who believe it is “half” of the sport) and, thus, it is tough to quantify the impact Leonard makes on that end.
Regardless, he is one of the three best defenders in the sport and both Harden and Westbrook struggle mightily in that area. For the record, it is utterly, well, defensible for both Harden and Westbrook to have defensive issues, simply because they carry incredible workloads offensively. In the end, it still matters.
The defensive lead put forth by Leonard is undoubtedly dwindled when considering the usage and playmaking responsibilities for his top competition. Westbrook’s triple-double season has been dissected in every way possible at this point but it bears repeating that his usage rate was the highest in NBA history and that the Thunder needed him to play that way. As for Harden, his efficiency was solidly greater than Westbrook’s and, when factoring in three-point proficiency, Houston’s all-everything guard actually created more offensive points than Westbrook.
That brings us to Leonard’s offense, which was, in a word, fantastic. No, he does not engineer everything in the way that Westbrook and Harden do but that shouldn’t be a prerequisite. The big, physical forward zoomed beyond the 30 percent mark in usage this season and that was good for eighth in the NBA. In other words, any criticism of Leonard “not doing enough” offensively is, well insane.
The 25-year-old averaged 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game and that doesn’t scream MVP in this landscape. That’s all true. Still, Leonard posted a 27.5 PER (3rd in the NBA) and put up his numbers within the confines of an established system and operating under a lessened workload in terms of minutes.
Again, the argument is not that Leonard did more or even provided more value offensively than Harden or Westbrook. What he did, however, was put together an out-of-this-world offensive season, especially when considering his defensive impact.
As another notch in his favor, Leonard was able to buoy a Spurs team that, quietly, was not very talented. Yes, Leonard benefits greatly from the fact that he “grew up” in a fantastic ecosystem led by Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan and, when evaluating his overall make-up, that should not be discounted. For this year, though, Duncan was gone and the Spurs, while obscenely well-coached, did not mirror the talent up and down the roster of other elite teams. The result? 61 wins and a mark bested only by the dominant Golden State Warriors. That’s rather impressive.
One of the chief reasons that this season’s MVP pursuit received so much analytical coverage and barbershop debate was that it was so complicated and well-played. Any of the three “main” candidates (and LeBron James, who happens to be the best player on the planet) deserved the recognition and the voters couldn’t go wrong. In the end, it comes down to what each individual values on a basketball court.
If you value defense as more than a peripheral portion of the game, Kawhi Leonard is the MVP. He is, for better or worse, that much better than the others defensively while being tremendous offensively. If you want to dive into the offensive statistics and simply marvel at the production of Westbrook and Harden, that makes sense and it is tough to argue definitively against such a belief. Kawhi Leonard is the best two-way player in the NBA today and, even if “two-way” is often misused to comical degrees, it rings true in this debate.
Arguments are fun and Russell Westbrook won the ultimate individual prize. Kawhi Leonard just had an argument and, frankly, so did James Harden.