A one-year-wonder up north, an overwhelming force down south, and the responsibility of upholding a dynasty midwest. Where did it all go wrong for Kawhi Leonard and why couldn’t he capture an MVP award despite his sheer greatness?
Even the most superficial of sports fans could recognize the name Kawhi Leonard, as unique and meaningful as it is, in casual conversation. The 29-year-old LA native currently tearing up the court for his (other) home team has been a staple among the league’s best for the last 6-8 years.
The Klaw, a nickname he earned from his notoriously large hands and the defensive capabilities he has with them, is arguably the best two-way player in basketball. Over his nine-year career, Leonard has won two NBA championships, two Defensive Player of the Year awards, and two NBA Finals MVPs; all while sporting his favorite number which, you guessed it, is two. Not to mention Kawhi is the first and one of two NBA players in NBA history to have won the Finals MVP award in both conferences (the other being LeBron James).
Kawhi is also a 5-time All-Star, 6-time All-Defensive Team member, 4-time All-NBA, and the 2019-20 All-Star Game MVP. The point is clear. Board Man has a hall-of-fame level resume with still more to go in the tank. However, one key accolade is very obviously missing from his collection.
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Ever since he won his first ring and Finals MVP award in 2014, the media has put a target on Kawhi’s back as one of the league’s best and a player to watch out for on both ends of the court. His defensive capabilities are near incomparable to any other player while his offense has progressed immensely in recent years.
In five of the last six season’s Leonard has averaged at least 20 points and five rebounds shooting 45 percent from the field at the bare minimum. So why has such a valuable player like Kawhi won so many awards except for the one made specifically to measure player’s value to their team and the league?
Quite possibly the biggest headscratcher in all of this is the sheer amount of success all of the teams in which Kawhi has played for have had. Kawhi Leonard as a player has appeared in over 500 games throughout his career and has won over 70 percent of them. This is almost unheard of among active players especially in comparison to others at Kawhi’s level.
To put it into perspective, James Harden, a top 10 player in the NBA with an MVP under his belt, has played in almost 900 games yet has a career win percentage of 67 percent. And regular-season wins are great, but Kawhi also has an extensive history in the playoffs appearing in the postseason all but one year of his career. Throughout those campaigns, Leonard has made it to three NBA Finals and five NBA Conference Finals.
So we get it, he’s a phenomenal player, he gets his team wins, he performs great in the playoffs, and he’s won just about every award in the book, but why not MVP? To answer this we need to analyze Kawhi’s history with all three of the NBA teams he’s played for and his teammates across those stints.
Kawhi Leonard’s early years
To start off, Kawhi Leonard was introduced to the NBA through the San Antonio Spurs, one of the most dominant dynasties in basketball history spanning from as early as 1999 to the late 2010s.
On the Spurs, Kawhi started out as a decent bench player grabbing rebounds and supporting the team’s starters on defense when necessary. And who were his fellow teammates running the ship at the time? Just one of the best power forwards and the greatest San Antonio Spur of all-time in Tim Duncan. Not to mention All-Star’s Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili who both are among the best the Spurs have ever had.
San Antonio’s big three was a force to be reckoned with. By the time Kawhi had entered the league the Spurs had already won three championships in the last 10 years and made it to the playoffs every year since 1998. The Spurs were fluid and efficient playing the game their own way with the trick being within their game plan and strategy. And how did San Antonio conjure up such a brilliant and successful playstyle that won them so many games and championships? Simply by having the greatest NBA coach to ever live: Gregg Popovich.
Coach Popovich is credited immensely for not just Kawhi, but the players Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili became. Under his tutelage, Kawhi was able to slowly yet surely join the ranks of his hall-of-fame teammates and become a solid defender with a lot of energy and endurance at a young age his counterparts lacked.
Kawhi Leonard’s ascension
By Leonard’s fourth season he was averaging 21 points a game with just under seven rebounds shooting over 50 percent from the field. He also had already grabbed his first Finals MVP, DPOY award, and ring in 2014 with the Spurs as well as becoming the 2014-15 steals champion. It was clear Pop’s methods were working and working remarkably.
By the end of the 2015-16 season, Leonard grabbed yet another DPOY award and had become the center stage for the Spurs as Duncan announced his retirement the following Summer while Parker and Ginobili continued to age out of their primes and take steps back towards more role-player positions. It was very clearly Kawhi’s team going forward, and nobody had any better qualifications than the up-and-coming 25-year-old to continue the Spurs dynasty for years to come. Kawhi was simply blowing away the expectations of him at such a young age that there was no telling what he would be capable of doing for the Spurs down the road.
The team had also just recently signed All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge to provide support in the paint for Kawhi. The team looked near unbeatable and the future could not have looked any brighter. So where did it all go wrong? and how did Kawhi not land that MVP trophy with such a perfect situation built around him?
The 2016-17 season is one of the most unforgettable years NBA fans have seen within the past two decades. Superstar Kevin Durant had his debut year with the juggernaut Golden State Warriors coming off a historic 73-9 season. The Dubs were the new talk of the town in the West and most fans saw Kawhi’s Spurs as the only real chance of stopping them. At the season’s conclusion, the Warriors sat atop the west 67-15 while the Spurs were the 2nd seed going 61-21.
After those two powerhouses, the next highest record was six games below with the Houston Rockets at 55-27; it was clear the Spurs and Warriors were in a league of their own. The Spurs arguably could’ve gotten past the Warriors, both in the record and in the playoffs, had they been the same team they won the championship with the year prior, but the addition of Kevin Durant simply made it unfair and unstoppable.
Not to mention it totally rained on the parade of the Spurs feat of their second 60-plus win season in a row and 5th highest record in Spurs history. If you take the Warriors out of the equation, the Spurs were the best team, with the best record, without any seemingly unfair advantages resulting from free agency. It is a surefire campaign for a player to win MVP in any season…except for this one.
Before the season even began, and the moment KD announced his leave from the Oklahoma City Thunder, the media hopped onto the scene and painted the narrative that Russell Westbrook would win the award this year as a means of vengeance against his old teammate for deserting OKC following a Western Conference Finals loss only to sign with the team that beat them.
And that is essentially exactly what happened. Despite the fact that the Thunder played underwhelmingly all season grabbing just the 6th seed in the west and ultimately losing in the first round of the playoffs, the NBA still voted Westbrook as the MVP. Russ had a historic season, being the first to average a triple-double in over 50 years and breaking the record for most triple-doubles in a season whilst averaging over 30 a game, but a big part of being the Most Valuable Player is not just in the individual statistics and accolades.
A crucial component of the MVP award, one that has stood as a notable influence in the voting each and every season (except in this one) is the team’s success. Westbrook is the only player to have won the MVP award on a team that was as low as the 6th seed.
Kawhi Leonard not only got robbed of a chance to win a ring by a genuinely unbeatable team but lost out on an MVP due to the narratives sports figures and journalists put into place and shove down the throats of viewers all season long on social media.
In 2017 Kawhi Leonard averaged 25, 5.8, and 3.5 shooting 48 percent from the field and 38 percent from 3. His Spurs team, with him as the clear No. 1 option both on offense and defense, logged 61 wins and a Western Conference Finals berth against a team nobody on the face of the Earth could’ve beaten at the time. To make matters worse, Kawhi suffered a quad injury in his series against Golden State which would not only keep him out for a vast majority of the following season but also would serve as the catalyst that slowly ripped apart relations between Kawhi and both his beloved coach and the Spurs organization as a whole.
Enter 2018 where the Spurs, led by an aging LaMarcus Aldridge had a swift first-round exit in the playoffs with Kawhi nowhere to be found. Leonard, who became unmanageably disgruntled, forced his way out of San Antonio the following Summer, taking with him any hopes Spurs fans had of their favorite superstar carrying on the dynasty Tim Duncan left behind.
The passing of the torch did not go as planned for the Spurs and even today they are still feeling the effects of it. The Spurs sent Leonard packing to Toronto where Kawhi’s future and play were uncertain. However, nobody knew it at the time, but Leonard was about to shock the world and go on one of the most magical runs an individual player has ever had with a brand new team.
Toronto Raptors fans were livid with the Kawhi trade at first as it sent away franchise favorite DeMar DeRozan. Obviously with a resume as impressive as Kawhi the demand for value in exchange for him is going to be great, even with the uncertainties that came with it (both in terms of injuries and willingness to play). Things could not have gone better for the North in 2019, as Kawhi cemented himself as the leader of the leaderless guiding the Raptors to 58 wins on the season and capturing his second title, first for the Raptors franchise, and second Finals MVP. In doing so Kawhi averaged a career-high 26 points and seven rebounds.
Leonard made history in 2019, both as an individual player and for the Toronto Raptors franchise, yet once again he was brushed aside for the MVP award due to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s rise onto the stage. Giannis’s 27 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, and 57 percent shooting from the field were beyond impressive as well as his entire Milwaukee Bucks team. The Bucks from top to bottom were stacked and, before Kawhi really got started with the Raptors, were predicted to make it out of the East.
Despite what the media once again tried to tell everyone every everyday what was going to happen, every team that the NBA world expected to snap the Raptors winning streak and send them back to reality was torn apart and made a mockery of. From Kawhi’s series-winning shot against the 76ers to the ultimate defeat of the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, Kawhi took on everybody and dismantled each and every team until ultimately defeating the same Warriors team that undermined his days as the top Spur.
His play was outstanding, his feats were unimaginable, and yet no MVP award to walk away from it with. While it’s worth mentioning the MVP award itself doesn’t factor in the playoffs, Leonard’s regular season with the Raptors was as equally impressive as Giannis’s with the Bucks solely because of the near-equal success of the two yet Kawhi’s was so unexpected. Many wondered if Kawhi would stay with the Raptors and run it back for next year, but the Klaw had other plans in mind.
In the 2019 offseason, Kawhi Leonard once again shocked the world and not only signed with the deep-rostered LA Clippers, but brought along with him All-Star and 2019 MVP candidate Paul George. We’re now caught up to the present day where Kawhi and PG both are leading their incredibly stacked Clippers to an abundance of wins night in and night out. So great, another successful team under the command of an even more experienced and developed Kawhi Leonard. He’ll surely win an MVP on the Clippers, right? Wrong.
The LA Clippers before the dynamic duo’s arrival was already a deep and impressive team. They didn’t have the success they do now, but before they had any stars they were still remaining competitive and even made it to the playoffs. The sheer amount of solid role players the Clippers have that would be starters on almost any other team is astounding…and the number just keeps growing. Couple the arsenal of talent with an almost equally talented Paul George, and there’s really little to no room left for Kawhi to stand out. His team is simply too deep and too independent on any sole star to name anyone on the roster the most valuable player in the league.
So, to put it bluntly, the Clippers’ problem is that they have too many great players for any to shine above the rest and win an MVP award. So for now, the story of Kawhi’s MVP chase remains dormant until either a dramatic shift in the Clippers roster occurs or the Klaw leaves in free agency.
And that’s all she wrote so far, Kawhi Leonard is a top-five player in the NBA right now and has been for the past several years. Yet being in the company of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Steph Curry without an MVP award seems just a tad unexpected and out of the ordinary. With so many chances to have acquired at least one throughout his career, it is sad to see Kawhi, as great of a player as he is, not get recognized in one of the award categories that fits him the best.
Of course, the people that know Kawhi know he isn’t too concerned with awards and ultimately just wants to win it all with his team, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he shouldn’t have won the award already or isn’t going to. At 29 years of age, Kawhi Leonard still has a lot of game left in him, but his time is only diminishing. Hopefully one day an opportunity will present itself that doesn’t accompany any obstacles by both the media or his fellow superstars.