NBA MVP Watch: Kawhi Closes the Gap
Throughout the season, the MVP chase has been dominated by just a handful of names. James Harden and Russell Westbrook are the first names out anyone's mouth, thanks to their eye popping triple-doubles and overall ridiculousness. In our biweekly update, Kevin Durant has dominated our top spot for the last three months. One player, however, who has flown under the radar has been Kawhi Leonard, the San Antonio Spurs' unassuming superstar.
While it has taken some time for him to fully adjust to being the leading man for Gregg Popovich, Leonard has been dominating since the start of the new year. Averaging 28.2 points with a plus 20.0 net rating and a 63.4% true shooting percentage in the last 20 games, the 25-year-old has the Spurs sitting at 43-13 and in a class all to themselves behind the Golden State Warriors.
This week, we will take a closer look at Kawhi and four other superstars who have been making some noise this year.
Every two weeks, we look at the MVP race in the NBA by ranking the top candidates by nERD, our in-house metric. For those of you unfamiliar with nERD, it's a player ranking that measures the total contribution of a player throughout the course of a season based on their efficiency. An average NBA player would earn a 0. Comparable to win shares, this ranking gives an estimate of how many games above or below .500 a league-average team would win with that player as one of their starters.
5. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
nERD Score: 11.7
Team Record: 35-22
Previous Rank: NR
After making an appearance in our top five four weeks ago, Rudy Gobert is back again. Boosted by a run of double-doubles -- five in fact -- before the All-Star break, the Utah Jazz center has taken the spot of MVP watch stalwart Jimmy Butler. By averaging an incredible 14.2 rebounds per game while blocking 2.0 shots per game, the Stifle Tower has been a force on the inside for Utah.
All year long, the Jazz have played light years better with Gobert on the court -- and not just on the defensive end. According to Basketball-Reference.com, when Gobert is on the court, the Jazz own a 9.0 net rating, but when he sits, it plummets to -2.6 -- an 11.6-point swing. That is by far the best differential of any Jazz player or any of our MVP candidates.
4. Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics
nERD Score: 12.8
Team Record: 37-20
Previous Rank: 5
In the five games leading up to the break, Isaiah Thomas scored at least 29 points in every game, averaging 30.8 per night in that span. Over those five games, he made 3.8 three-pointers with 5.5 assists per game while posting a 125.0 offensive rating and a 63.9% true shooting percentage. Most importantly, though, he brought home four wins for the Boston Celtics. If not for a controversial foul call, the Celtics could be riding a five-game streak as winners of 12 of their last 13.
In the one-point loss to the Chicago Bulls, Thomas set a bit of Boston history as he recorded his 41st consecutive game with at least 20 points. His three-month long streak broke a team record set by John Havlicek during the 1971-72 season. Not that it counts, but Thomas even scored 20 points in the All-Star game on Sunday.
If IT2 can average 30.3 points per game in the final 25 games, he can set another Celtics mark by becoming the first Boston player to average 30.0 points in a season.
3. James Harden, Houston Rockets
nERD Score: 13.5
Team Record: 40-18
Previous Rank: 2
In Harden's last three games before the All-Star break, he was playing perhaps the best basketball of anyone in the NBA. He averaged 36.0 points, 9.7 rebounds, 9.3 assists and 5.3 three-pointers per game. The Beard racked up his 15th triple-double of the season with a 38-point, 12-board, 12-dime performance against the Miami Heat, albeit in a losing effort.
Even with the scoring boost, Harden finds himself losing a spot in the MVP ranks due to his carelessness with the basketball. In the last three games, he has two games with at least eight turnovers. In fact, for the season he has 13 games with at least eight turnovers, including four instances of double-digit turnovers. His 19.7% turnover rate is the worst mark ever for a player who also has a usage rate of at least 30%.
2. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
nERD Score: 14.2
Team Record: 43-13
Previous Rank: 3
Leonard's offensive evolution continues. In his last five games, he posted four more 30-plus scoring nights, averaging 30.8 points with 6.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.2 steals, and 2.2 three-pointers per game while shooting 50% from the field in that span.
For the year, he has moved up to seventh in the NBA with 25.9 points per game while coming tantalizingly close to shooting percentages of 50% from the field, 40% from three and 90% from the line -- also known as a 50-40-90 season. Leonard is shooting 48.7% from the field, 39.5% from three, and 89.9% from the stripe. He ranks in the top 15 in offensive rating (121.9) and true shooting percentage (61.9%) while sitting sixth in offensive win shares (6.6).
The one thing that seems to be holding Leonard back from taking over the top spot in the MVP race is his health. After playing in all 31 of the Spurs' games to start the year, the Claw has missed 5 of San Antonio's next 25 games. Whether it be a hand or quad or illness, Leonard needs to be on the court to continue making a dent in the enormous lead Durant has on the rest of the field.
1. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
nERD Score: 16.1
Team Record: 47-9
Previous Rank: 1
In the two weeks since we last checked in on the MVP race, Durant played five games and continued to post fat stat lines with an average of 25.2 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.6 blocks, and 2.0 three-pointers per game in that span. Making those numbers even more impressive is the fact he racked them up in just over 30 minutes per game as all five contests were blowouts -- four for the Warriors and one for the Denver Nuggets.
His line in the last five games is nearly identical to his season-long marks, but he pulled it off in four fewer minutes per game.
In his much-anticipated return to Oklahoma City on February 11th, KD took control of the Dubs' offense by taking a team-high 21 shots while leading the Warriors with 34 points -- his most in a game in nearly a month. He also grabbed 9 boards as he recorded a 130.2 offensive rating with a 70.2% true shooting percentage in Golden State's 16-point win.