- It's time to stop with the backhanded compliments. Kawhi Leonard isn't just the most complete player in the NBA—he might be the best player, period (and also the MVP).
James Harden was getting whatever he wanted. Five minutes into the third quarter against the Spurs on Monday, Harden had 30 points and 10 assists. He was doing that thing he was does where he makes the whole defense look helpless—jogging through pick-and-rolls into layups high off the glass, lofting soft lobs to Clint Capela for alley-oops, and getting wide–open threes for everyone else. The Spurs had no answers. The Rockets were up double digits. It was everything that's made Harden the MVP favorite for the past few months. Then Kawhi Leonard switched onto him.
Harden turned the ball over on three straight possessions—one pass that was deflected by Kawhi, one that was thrown out of bounds, and one that was a Kawhi steal. On offense, the Spurs got a three from Tony Parker, a three from Danny Green, and a layup from David Lee. Kawhi assisted on two of those buckets, and in 70 seconds, a 10-point game was a two-point game.
The story on Tuesday morning will obviously focus on what Leonard did in the fourth quarter (everything), but he changed the whole game in the third, too. As for the fourth quarter Monday, it wasn't that much different than what Leonard did against the Wolves on Saturday—34 points, 19 in the fourth and OT, and ruining Andrew Wiggins's life in the process.
He did similar things to the Pelicans on Friday: 31 points, seven rebounds, six assists, and this steal to push it to OT for the win.
There was also last Wednesday: another 31 points, and another game-winner against Paul George and the Pacers.
Then, last night. Leonard poured in 20 points in the fourth quarter alone, finishing with 39 overall, and a sequence at the end that explains his whole season. On offense, Kawhi is now as reliable in the clutch as anyone in basketball. On defense, he will crush your dreams.
Big picture: he's put the Spurs on his back for the past four months, and they are currently 2.5 games back from the best record in basketball. That's amazing. Now, with two more games against the Warriors and one more against the Cavs, he'll have plenty of chances to prove himself down the stretch.
The Rockets game was telling for a few reasons. First, James Harden was spectacular for most of the night, and showed why he's been worthy of the hype all year. But Kawhi was better than Harden, and he wasn't just better by being more complete, or the better two-way player, or any other backhanded compliment you want to offer.
Limit it to offense: Kawhi wins that argument, too. He went bucket for bucket with Harden and the Rockets, and he won. That's the new feature this year.
Kawhi was shut down in the playoffs at various points over the past few seasons, but now he carries the Spurs offense on an almost-nightly basis. Against the best teams, he gets better. He can bully people into the mid-post and get any shot he wants. When the situation calls for it, he'll float to the perimeter and score from there. There are no good answers for what Kawhi's become. It reminds me of what happened with Steph Curry between 2015 and 2016. Leonard was already an All-NBA player; nobody had thought to imagine what he'd look like if everything hit another level.
People will credit the Spurs' system for some of his success this year—that's already the most popular response to Kawhi's MVP campaign—but the Houston game was instructive in that respect, as well. The Rockets spent most of the night making the Spurs role players look creaky and vulnerable. LaMarcus Aldridge has lost a step, Pau Gasol and Tony Parker have lost several, and guys like Patrick Beverley and Eric Gordon looked like too much for the Spurs to handle.
On the other end, when Houston double-teamed Leonard down the stretch, there weren't many other Spurs options on offense. A Pau Gasol leaner from 18 feet? LaMarcus Aldridge crashing into three defenders? All they had was Kawhi. It turns out, that was enough.
This is turning into one of the closest MVP races ever. Russell Westbrook will likely become the first player to average a triple double since 1962. James Harden will have similar stats to Westbrook (minus a few rebounds), while playing the catalyst for a better team. LeBron James is flirting with averaging a triple double of his own (26, 9, and 8), while defying the aging process, leading the league in minutes, and keeping the Cavs in first place all year.
If the award were given today, Kawhi would lose. Harden and Westbrook have been too spectacular for voters to ignore, and LeBron's season deserves plenty of love in its own right. But there are five weeks left in this season. Watch this Spurs team in close games. They all end the same way.
It's not the system making the player look dominant, but the opposite. He's the defense against every star, and he's the offense whenever things get close. If the Spurs win 65 games, the debate shouldn't even be complicated. Kawhi Leonard is the MVP.