NBA MVP Watch: Kawhi Leads the Way
The NBA season and MVP race has come full circle.
In our very first edition of the MVP Watch this season, Kawhi Leonard was sitting all alone at the top. While it may have taken an injury to Kevin Durant, the Claw finds himself back in the top spot five-plus months and 70 or so games later.
For this final edition of the NBA MVP Watch, we will take a closer look at the resume of Leonard and four other candidates for the NBA's top individual player honors, based on their ranking in nERD.
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.
Without further ado, let's take a look at some the players who shined the brightest in the association this year.
5. Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics
nERD Score: 16.0
Team Record: 50-27
Previous Rank: 4
While not a true "breakout" season in the strictest definition of the word, Isaiah Thomas has established himself as an NBA star during the 2016-17 campaign. He has taken his offensive game to new heights, posting career highs in points per game (29.1) and all three shooting percentages -- 46.3% from the floor, 38.3% from three, and 91.1% from the line.
Even as he received more touches -- a career-best 33.9% usage rate -- Thomas became increasingly more efficient, committing just 2.8 turnovers per game. His 10.4% turnover percentage combined with his usage rate puts him into rare company. The point guard is also poised to finish high in the advanced metrics ranks, as he currently sits second in offensive win shares (10.5), offensive box plus/minus (8.9), and fifth in nERD.
His dominating performance hasn't been for naught either as the Boston Celtics are currently tied with the Cleveland Cavaliers for first place in the Eastern Conference with five games to go, including a big showdown of the clubs on Wednesday night.
4. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
nERD Score: 16.8
Team Record: 64-14
Previous Rank: 1
Even without playing for over a month, Kevin Durant remains in our top four. That fact alone should give you pause. The league-leader in win shares per 48 minutes (.278), Durant is still top three in true shooting percentage (.651) and ranks behind only ex-teammate Russell Westbrook in player efficiency rating (27.7). The Golden State Warriors have been at their best with Durant on the floor this season, too.
At 64-14, the Warriors have won 82% of their games. Take away the 15-5 record in the games Durant has been sidelined this year, and the Dubs' winning percentage with KD jumps to 87%. Only the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls and last year's Golden State team posted a higher winning rate.
With only four games remaining in the regular season, KD is trying to make a push to play over the final week to get in tune for the postseason. He is targeting a return on Saturday versus the New Orleans Pelicans.
3. James Harden, Houston Rockets
nERD Score: 16.9
Team Record: 52-25
Previous Rank: 3
Triple-doubles are nice and flashy. James Harden has 20 of them, but the fact that the Houston Rockets' megastar has increased his scoring average (29.2 points per game) while taking fewer shots -- 19.0 compared to 19.7 per game last year -- speaks to the level of efficiency and play the Beard has taken his game to this season. Not to mention shattering previous career highs in assists per game (11.2) while seeing only a modest increase in usage rate (34.3%).
Harden's exceptional play has orchestrated an 11-game improvement -- so far -- by the Rockets. They have gone from fourth place in the Southwest Division last season to the third-best record in the entire NBA. Even as the season winds down, Harden keeps chugging along.
Over the last four weeks, Harden leads the Association with 30.1 points per game. He has also racked up five of those triple-doubles, including back-to-back 40-point ones on March 17 and 18.
2. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
nERD Score: 17.4
Team Record: 48-30
Previous Rank: 5
Rudy Gobert's defensive performance this season should make him a shoo-in for Defensive Player of the Year. He's the league leader in blocks per game (2.7) and defensive win shares (5.7), while also ranking second in defensive rating (98.8). This is all impressive, but the key to Gobert's surge in the MVP ranks has been his offensive play.
As he posted a career-high 14.0 points per game, the Utah Jazz center leads the NBA with a true shooting percentage of .683 while also sitting at the top of the Association with a 129.5 offensive rating. Only one other player -- Kevin Durant -- ranks in the top 10 in both efficiency metrics, with Gobert nearly leading the league in both.
Over his last 10 games, the Stifle Tower has amped up his scoring by averaging 20.1 points. He dropped 20 or more points five times and against the New York Knicks on March 22, Gobert set a new career high with 35 points and managed to add 15 boards 4 blocks. No big deal.
1. Kawhi Leonard
nERD Score: 18.9
Team Record: 60-17
Previous Rank: 1
Leonard, the two-time defending Defensive Player of the Year, is looking to add more hardware to his mantle. If the decision was left up to advanced metrics --particularly our nERD rating -- the San Antonio Spurs' star would easily take home the Maurice Podoloff Trophy this season.
Despite being asked to take more responsibility in the Spurs' offense, Leonard has maintained his elite defensive game, ranking in the top 10 in defensive rating and steals, all while being used as the primary defender on opposing teams' top scorer. All that expended energy defensively has not held back his offensive game from blossoming.
Posting career highs in points per game (26.0), assists (3.6), three-pointers (2.0), assist percentage (18.8%), and usage rate (31.2%), Leonard is the Spurs' do-it-all player, in the vein of a LeBron James. Leonard is the only player in the NBA to rank in the top six in both offensive (8.6) and defensive win shares (4.6) and is second in win shares per 48 minutes (.267).
San Antonio has won 60 games this season, and are on pace for the second-best season in franchise history despite losing future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan and the declining play of LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili. They have Leonard to thank for that.