Kawhi Leonard is an outstanding basketball player — one of the greatest in the world.
No one today provides his mix of playmaking, lockdown defense, work ethic, leadership and will to win in the clutch.
And given that he's turning 26 years old in June, Leonard is only going to get better. In a few years, he might lead the San Antonio Spurs to a championship without Tim Duncan.
Yes, Leonard is truly great. He's the one person who gives the Spurs any hope against the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals, slim as that hope might be.
He's just not the 2016-17 NBA MVP, and he never was.
In case that were still up for debate (you know, since the polling closed a month ago), San Antonio's Game 6 blowout of the Houston Rockets with Leonard on the bench served as all the evidence you need.
With Leonard on the sideline, the Spurs played a classic, Spurs-ian game. They moved the ball on offense, finding the open man and punishing the smaller Rockets on the interior. At one point, Houston had 64 total points, while San Antonio had 54 points in the paint alone.
This is no indictment of Leonard, no matter what some might tell you. (If anything, the result showed how valuable James Harden is to the Rockets. When he vanishes while somehow leaving his corporeal form behind, Houston is doomed.) In fact, credit LaMarcus Aldridge for playing within himself and the Spurs' natural offensive flow. He would have looked right at home on the championship-winning teams that beat LeBron James' Miami Heat.
Yet that's the point. The Spurs haven't had that same freedom of movement with Leonard running the offense this season, because he's learning on the job. He's learning quickly, sure, but he's not quite at the elite level as a primary offensive option that so many people think he is.
He's still adding pieces to his game — exploring what it means to be the creator on offense and the destroyer on defense, while trying to strike the balance between the two — and managing to play like one of the NBA's very best players along the way.
You can be incredibly valuable, getting better, and not be the MVP. There's some grey area left in this world, right?
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Because if we can embrace a little nuance, I'd like to argue Leonard isn't the most valuable component of his own team.
That would be San Antonio's vaunted culture, of course. And by that logic, San Antonio's most valuable player is retired: Mr. Tim Duncan.
The Big Fundamental's legacy of sacrifice is the foundation of the Spurs' culture, and that culture enables games like Thursday's elimination of the Rockets. No other team has the gear San Antonio displayed in Game 6, with everyone working toward the ultimate goal.
Moreover, the Spurs showed the importance of rest in eliminating the Rockets. Call it making excuses if you want, but James Harden looked absolutely exhausted in Game 6 — one series after Russell Westbrook looked beat just the same. Houston and Oklahoma City both rode their superstars into the ground this year, while San Antonio rested.
When it came time to give it their all, one team had fuel left in the tank. The other sputtered to the finish line.
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You know all that when you join the Spurs, yet that dedication to doing things the right way didn't just happen. It's all thanks to Duncan. Duncan made it possible by showing up every day and serving as the perfect example of a professional basketball player. He let Gregg Popovich coach him. He let Popovich sit him to keep him fresh. And he let Popovich turn San Antonio into basketball paradise.
Everything that defines being a member of this organization in 2017 traces directly back to Duncan — from the five rings, to Pop's tenure, to, in part, Leonard's growth.
That the Spurs walloped the Rockets by 39 points doesn't make Leonard any less valuable. Without him, San Antonio isn't a conference finalist. He takes a sure playoff team over the top and puts them within arm's reach of greatness.
But Kawhi Leonard, MVP candidate? Get back to us in 2019 on that one.