The 2017 MVP race has been one of the more exciting in recent memory, if only because for the first time in a few years, the winner isn’t extremely obvious halfway through the season. James Harden would probably win if voters chose today, though Russell Westbrook (averaging a triple-double) and Kevin Durant (playing exceptionally well on the best team in the NBA) are right on his heels. Tuesday night, another superstar cemented his place in the discussion: Kawhi Leonard.
The Spurs forward—and former Finals MVP—had an extraordinary month of January, which he capped off with a 36-point performance in a 108–94 win over the Thunder on Tuesday. In the first month of the new year, Leonard increased his accuracy from the field and his points per game from December. The rising field goal percentage is particularly impressive, considering the uber-efficient Leonard was already shooting 49% while taking over five threes per game.
Westbrook has received a lot of MVP talk so far this season, and rightfully so, though a lot of the chatter centers around the fact Russ is averaging a triple double. But Westbrook’s usage rate is also ridiculously high, and his efficiency is taking hits as the season continues. Westbrook entered Tuesday shooting only 39% from the field in January, and he connected on only seven of his 17 shot attempts against the Spurs.
Leonard, meanwhile, has the ability to dominate the game on both ends of the court, something the top three MVP candidates have lacked consistency in throughout their careers. Leonard’s defensive metrics have slipped slightly this season, but he’s also taken on a larger burden on both sides of the ball, particularly considering the defensive shortcomings in San Antonio’s frontcourt. While Tim Duncan wasn’t playing at an MVP level last season, there is something to be said about the Spurs’ continued greatness after the loss of their franchise star, and those roads lead back to Kawhi.
Leonard’s offensive evolution is particularly a joy to watch. As our Ben Golliver points out, Kawhi has increased is points per game average in every season of his career—putting him on pace to reach a 53.4 average at age 33. (Okay, fine, that won’t happen.) The full range of Leonard’s offensive talents was on display Tuesday, particularly in the fourth quarter, when he shredded the Thunder’s defense to put the game away. On one possession, Leonard isolated near the right elbow, completely lost his defender with a vicious crossover, then finished at the rim with a difficult reverse layup. Shortly after the layup, Leonard hit a deep, contested three from the top of the key. And soon after the three, Leonard got a switch on a pick-and-roll and drove right at Steven Adams before dunking in his face. That’s the full repertoire of an offensive superstar.
Of course, Kawhi is doing all of this with the typical lack of hype—of which I’m as guilty as anyone. But while people clamor over Harden, Westbrook, or even Isaiah Thomas, Leonard has his team in second place in the NBA, with the second-best net rating, and top-four marks in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
Again, Harden is the likely frontrunner for the MVP award as the calendar flips to February. At the very least, Leonard should be a shoo-in to finish in the top five of voting at the end of the season. And if he keeps up his current pace, the decision for who’s No. 1 will only become more difficult to make.