As the San Antonio Spurs get ready to start their playoff journey, one regular season question remains: Who is the MVP?
Some think that it’s going to come down to Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Kawhi Leonard’s been in the conversation all season, but he’s more of a dark horse candidate than anything else.
But I’m here to tell you that he’s the MVP for this reason: Russell Westbrook and James Harden succeed because the systems that they run are designed for them to dominate the ball and dominate the stats. But Kawhi Leonard has succeeded this season despite the fact that the San Antonio Spurs system under Gregg Popovich is designed to create opportunities for everybody, not just him.
For all the talk of Kawhi being great because he’s a “system player,” not many people understand the system that Popovich runs.
It’s about motion on offense, trading a good shot for a better shot, and individual stats don’t matter.
Let’s look at the assist numbers that people have been blown away by for Harden and Westbrook:
Westbrook averages more than 10 dimes a game. Harden, more than 11. But the Spurs, as a team, average more assists than the Thunder, because the entire point of the Spurs offense isn’t to constantly run the offense through one ball-dominant guard.
And while the Rockets average more assists than the Spurs per game, the Spurs’ assist-to-turnover ratio is better, among the best in the NBA.
It’s actually pretty impressive that Kawhi, as a forward, is averaging 3.5 assists a game when he rarely brings the ball up the floor.
And then there’s Kawhi’s defense.
He single-handedly changes the way that any opposing offense has to run. If Kawhi’s on their best player, suddenly that guy’s standing around on the weak side, barely part of any play. Given how well the Spurs offense plays in terms of sharing the ball and covering on defense, the Spurs will always take a four-on-four defensively, using their size and versatility to cover for Kawhi if he’s been taken out of the play.
Even then, he still finds a way to be a disruptor.
In an era of advanced metrics, we haven’t found a way to properly quantify exactly how good The Klaw is on the defensive side of the ball. But we do know that the Spurs are a whole 10 points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor than with him on the bench.
He doesn’t ignore three-point shooters for rebounds the way Westbrook does. And he isn’t a defensive liability the way Harden is.
Kawhi is great on both sides of the ball in a system built for the whole team, not just him.
This is where the Memphis Grizzlies become trouble. The two teams are very similar in the way they operate. Offensively, everyone can hurt you. Defensively, they make you pay every time the ball is turned over.
The Spurs don’t have a size advantage down on the block the way they do with most other teams, and the Grizzlies have several players that can create their own shots.
It’s the reason that the Spurs lost their first two games against Memphis this season, needed to play almost perfect basketball to beat them the first time, and then finally won a good game against them in overtime in their final matchup.
But as tough as the Grizzlies have played the Spurs this season, there’s a reason that the Spurs are 8-0 in their last eight playoff games against Memphis. And that reason is the guy that deserves this year’s MVP award.
So who have you got in the Spurs’ first round matchup and how many games do you think it will take?