Kawhi Leonard Is a Legitimate MVP Candidate

While most of the focus is on the triple-doubles of Russell Westbrook and James Harden, Leonard's all-around game has made him one of the NBA's most valuable players.

Triple-doubles seem to be the talk of the NBA this year. After all, the league just recently broke the record for triple-doubles in a season, previously set in the 1988-89 season.

Russell Westbrook has 30 such games himself, while James Harden has posted 15 and LeBron James owns 7. As for the San Antonio Spurs' Kawhi Leonard, he has exactly zero triple-doubles.

I'm quite positive that he nor his team care about that one bit. Leonard has been playing his own statistically dominant game. He leads the league with eight games of 30-plus points, 2-plus threes and at least 60% shooting from the floor.

As for his Spurs, with 20 games remaining, they're now just 2.5 games back of the 1 seed out West. They're an NBA best 9-1 in their last 10 games, inching closer to overtaking the Golden State Warriors for homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs.

Why are we just now throwing Leonard's name into the MVP conversation?

An MVP Moment

Well, this sure grabbed our full attention.

Like NCAA football has its Heisman moment, this was Leonard's defining MVP sequence if there ever was one.

After the game, Spurs' coach Gregg Popovich hinted at the same, saying that he sees all the threes around the league -- most notably from MVP candidates -- but not many players could do what Kawhi did and what he continues to do on a nightly basis on the defensive end. And there's no denying it -- Pop is right.

A Defensive Edge

By measure of defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) and defensive win shares (an estimate of the number of wins a player contributes while on defense), Leonard owns the edge over of the other top MVP frontrunners.

Player Defensive Rating Defensive Win Shares
Russell Westbrook 104 3.5
James Harden 107 2.9
LeBron James 108 2.4
Kawhi Leonard 101 3.7

It's helpful, but it doesn't require going next level to see just how elite Leonard's defense is. His 2.0 steals and 0.7 blocks per-36 minutes rank first among these four players by a decent margin. He also holds opposing players to 44.5% shooting from the floor for the season.

This type of defensive efficiency plays a big factor in Leonard's overall efficiency and supremacy in advanced numbers.

An Advanced Metric Monster

In 33.7 minutes, Leonard is averaging 26.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.9 steals a game. His points and assists numbers are the best of his career, and his other stats aren't far behind. He's come a long way in five seasons and at 25 years old, Kawhi has sculpted himself into one of the best players in the game.

If you think your eyes deceive you -- given the extraterrestrial nature of Leonard's athletic build -- don't worry, the numbers say the same thing. According to Basketball Reference, Leonard ranks in the top five in five major categories: win shares per 48 minutes (WS/48), win shares, player efficiency rating (PER), box plus-minus (BPM) and value over replacement player (VORP).

Advanced Metrics WS/48 WS PER BPM VORP
Kawhi Leonard .281 11.3 28.6 8.3 5.0
NBA Rank 1st 3rd 2nd 4th T-5th

It might come as a surprise, but Harden is the only other player of the four to also rank in the top five in each of these same categories.

Leonard separates himself in our very own nERD metric, which measures a player's total contribution over the course of a season, based on efficiency. His mark of 16.6 is tied with Kevin Durant for the best in the league, and that number tells us that a league-average team would be 16.6 games above .500 with Leonard as one of their starters.

That is the height to which Leonard has taken his game. It's MVP caliber. It's what makes him a great bet at +1,600, trailing Harden, Westbrook and James in Bovada's March 6th odds.

There is no denying it -- the numbers tell us that not only is Kawhi a serious candidate, he could be even higher on the short list of four. He's the best two-way player in the game, hands down.