Kawhi Leonard won’t be crowned MVP this season.
For the voters, offense always trumps defense. Although Leonard has been on a tear since early March, netting more than one point per possession in each of the five main play types and simultaneously uplifting his teammates, per Synergy Sports, he is no Steph Curry or James Harden, the consensus front-runners for the award. Yet I think he prefers to be out of the limelight.
The way that Leonard, a cornrowed kid from an impoverished Los Angeles neighborhood, toils in stone-faced anonymity is almost comical. His impassivity has become iconic, the hallmark of a style of play completely at odds with the NBA’s culture of flamboyant self-promotion. Gregg Popovich, blessed with a replenishing carousel of superstars, loves that Leonard looks “bored to death” rather than exulting in his every little triumph. Bored, however, doesn’t do it justice; in his four years, a smile — a real, genuine, ear-to-ear smile — has yet to grace his visage. In a league where flashy is the norm, Leonard is a lowercase-m maverick (if only, Mavericks fans…).
With his sinewy build, sprawling hands and forbidding wingspan, Leonard certainly looks the part of the ideal defender. He’s also freakishly athletic. According to Basketball Reference, Leonard leads the league in both defensive rating and steals per game; is in the top-five in steal percentage, total steals and defensive win shares; and is in the top-20 in at least five other major advanced statistical categories — offensive and defensive.
An above-average defender ever since he entered the league in 2011, who has since morphed into an elite on-ball and off-ball guy, Leonard is no slouch on offense either. A comparison with Lebron James, whom Leonard defended ably last year en route to the NBA Finals MVP, is telling: Per NBA.com, Leonard’s effective field goal percentage and player impact estimate are each no more than three percentage points lower than James’, and he even has a higher net rating and rebound percentage than the King. Since March 1, compared with the rest of the league, Leonard is second in offensive rating, sixth in true shooting percentage, eighth in effective field goal percentage and eighth in player impact estimate. Arguably the most impressive aspect of Leonard’s meteoric ascent, though, is that he has racked up all the aforementioned stats and accolades while playing for a communist guru, whose acolytes share the ball like Barcelona.
The Spurs have won 11 in a row, and 19 out of their last 22. By now, Tony Parker, the youngest and most dynamic triumvir of the Spurs’ senescent Big 3, has bequeathed the reins to Leonard. “It’s going to be Kawhi’s team anyway,” Parker said movingly last week after a doubleheader sweep of the Houston Rockets. Groomed for this role by arguably the best coach in NBA history, Leonard, undoubtedly the cagiest member of the Spurs, may need to find himself a voice, but he will be carrying on a storied tradition of leading by example.
Kawhi Leonard is 23 years old. He far outstrips the rest of his age group, except, perhaps, for Kyrie Irving, a wily complement to James’ physicality in Cleveland; even Irving, however, who is an absolutely sublime, if not particularly efficient, offensive player, cedes glaring defensive deficiencies. In other words, the NBA’s best 23-year-olds, in order, are: Leonard, Irving and Phoenix Suns point guard Brandon Knight — the remainder operating at such an inferior level as if in another stratosphere. Given Leonard’s trajectory, his age-mates, including the better ones, may soon no longer be within eyeshot.
Much as we relish personality, Leonard’s apparent boredom is a thing to behold, for we may be witnessing, in 2015, the rise of the anti-celebrity. Soak in his anachronism; we may never see another like him again.