Stephen Curry this, Stephen Curry that — we’ve all read and heard everything there is to be written and said about the superstar point guard’s historic season for the Golden State Warriors. Steph deserves every word of praise, too; he’s making high-volume scoring more efficient than anyone though it could be, and his team is obviously killing it.
But lest we think only one player can make history per season, there’s a two-way monster clowning any and all comers about 1,700 miles southeast of Oracle Arena: Kawhi “The Claw” Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs.
It’s been a long, gradual process, but 24-year-old Kawhi has finally arrived as a no-doubt-about-it MVP candidate. He’s the best perimeter defender in the league and the top offensive player on a team with the second-best point differential in NBA history (behind none other than Steph’s 2015-16 Warriors). If Curry didn’t exist or were playing like he did last season, Leonard would deserve front-runner status.
Now, Kawhi’s basic stat line doesn’t look that great. Casual fans may scoff at the assertion that a guy averaging “just” 20.8 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists would be worthy of the league’s top individual honor, and it makes sense, because MVP voters don’t usually go for lines like that.
But there’s so much more to Kawhi than basic stats, and that’s why advanced statistics (plus anecdotal evidence to support them) are important to understanding his impact. Let’s look at four specific areas.
Turnovers (or lack thereof)
There’s sort of an unwritten expectation in the NBA that if you average more than 20 points per game, you’ll also turn the ball over more than two times per contest. This rule of thumb has played out in history, as 92.4 percent (830-of-898) of 20-point scorers in league history have given the ball to the opponent more than twice per game.
Kawhi isn’t even close (1.2 turnovers per game) to that turnover mark, despite putting up 20.8 points per game. In fact, his turnovers per game are the fewest among 20-point scorers in league history. Although Gregg Popovich and his Spurs teammates do a great job of putting Kawhi in advantageous positions, it takes a lot of talent to be so stingy with the ball.
Leonard’s broad, strong shoulders, long arms and huge mitts contribute to this, as it’s nearly impossible to strip him on the way to the rack . He makes judicious passes in the half-court offense, treating each possession as if it were his most prized one.
He went on a semi-unbelievable three-week streak in November without committing a live-ball turnover (the worst kind of turnover, since it often results in transition opportunities for the opposing team):
Kawhi Leonard with his first live-ball turnover (on a very questionable no-call) since Nov. 2. Had scored 185 points since then.
— Jared Johnson (@jaredtjohnson21) November 24, 2015
When Leonard’s turnover percentage is compared with the rest of Basketball-Reference’s top 10 MVP candidates, it looks completely out of place:
The next time you’re debating the value of Leonard versus guys like Russell Westbrook, it’s important to consider this turnover differential as one point that’s in Kawhi’s favor. Sure, Westbrook crams the stat sheet like no one else in the league currently can, but the fact that he gives the ball to the other team 3.3 more times per game than Leonard (often resulting in easy transition points for the opponent) is significant.
People got excited three seasons ago when Kevin Durant became the sixth player in NBA history to record a 50/40/90 (field goal percentage/three-point percentage/free throw percentage) season while qualifying for all three leaderboards. It was especially impressive because he did so while scoring 28.1 points per game, which meant a lot of accurate shooting in the face of concerted defensive efforts by his counterparts.
Kawhi’s volume isn’t quite KD-high (blame the Spurs’ spread-it-around offense and Leonard still growing into his expanding offensive skill set), but he’s within striking distance of starting a new group: the 50-50-90 club.
At the moment, his shooting slash is at 50.7/48.0/88.3. Even if he just maintains those numbers for the rest of the season, he’ll be the only guy in history to hit all three marks. That hyperlinked list does include a few more names, but none of them qualify in all three percentages according the NBA’s current standards.
Kawhi’s doing this while taking more than 40 percent of his field goal attempts from the dreaded mid-range area (10 feet to the three-point line). He’s shooting a ho-hum 42.1 percent from that area. But those are often his most contested looks and he uses that threat to draw a double team or explode past his man for a higher percentage look at the rim.
What’s better than efficient scoring? Efficient scoring that’s also consistent.
Kawhi’s season (and career) high in scoring is only 32. That’s his only game above 27 in 2015-16. He’s guaranteed about 16 every night, but he’s going to give you somewhere in that 20-22 range most outings, even if the Spurs win the game before the fourth quarter starts.
He’s also had just one game all season where he accumulated more field goal attempts (eight) than points (seven). And he had a pretty good excuse in that game against the Toronto Raptors, as he was recovering from the flu and a questionable play heading into the game.
That single game with more shots than points stacks up nicely with the rest of my personal top five MVP candidates thus far (not necessarily in my preferred order, by the way):
Of course, offense is the the preferred end of the floor for all four of the other guys.
Not for Kawhi.
Leonard won the Defensive Player of the Year award last year, so he’s already well-respected on that end. And though it didn’t seem possible, he’s taken another slight step forward this season with increased knowledge of angles and even better anticipation.
This may be super, super hot-takey, but is there a chance he’s the best perimeter defender in NBA history?
If Basketball-Reference’s defensive rating has any say, it’s not a crazy opinion at all. No point guard, shooting guard or small forward in NBA history has posted a defensive rating lower than Leonard’s 2015-16 mark (90.8). Oh yeah, Kawhi also paces the league in that same big man-dominated stat this season and has the best number since Ben Wallace (87.48) and current teammate Tim Duncan (88.50) shut down their opponents in 2003-04.
There needs to be some sort of hashtag to raise awareness for fantasy basketball players around the world. Maybe something like #dontstartsmallforwardsplayingthespurs? It’s super straightforward, but how else will people know?
Some deep research certainly validates the hashtag. Here’s how opposing starting small forwards have fared against the Spurs when Kawhi plays, compared to how those same Spurs opponents have done in all other games:
Kawhi doesn’t usually guard the starting small forward all game, often switching to either the point guard or shooting guard (depending on who’s doing more offensive damage) later in the contest after he’s effectively sapped the 3s confidence and taken him out of the game.
So much of his defensive work is off the ball that it becomes very easy for his marks to lose their intensity after a little while:
Pray for Andrew Wiggins pic.twitter.com/6ZJS8rigyy
— Mike Prada (@MikePradaSBN) December 29, 2015
The defense dashboard at NBA.com also likes Kawhi’s shutdown ability. It shows that his opponents shoot significantly worse from every main area on the court against him.
When they even get a chance to shoot, that is.
You know you’re doing something right when most of the major one-number advanced stats place you as a top four player in the league:
Sure, Leonard does get a slight bump in most of those metrics playing with arguably the greatest coach ever and and possibly four future Hall of Fame players, but it’s worth noting that he’s still leading the team in a ton of categories by wide margins. Gregg Popovich also limits Kawhi’s minutes and touches to keep him fresh, plus the Spurs play one of the league’s slowest paces, which both hurt Leonard’s volume stats.
He isn’t an offensive creator or playmaker to the level of the four guys in MVP contention with him, but he’s extremely efficient at shooting and taking care of the ball and is the best defender of the group by a considerable margin.
I shouldn’t even have to say this anymore, but he’s definitely not just a “system player.” Kawhi is having one of the most unique superstar seasons in NBA history.
Yes, he’s a superstar. Get used to it.