The Case for Kawhi Leonard as Defensive Player of the Year

Despite missing 18 games, Kawhi Leonard, by many measures, has been the best defender in the NBA.

Flying under the radar just a year after winning the Finals MVP would be an arduous task for any normal NBA superstar, but this is pretty much business as usual for the NBA’s most valuable inconspicuous player, Kawhi Leonard.

While Kawhi’s media-persona is usually quiet, his on-court tenacity exudes a kind of confidence that people in the forum of public speaking wish they could channel. But for some strange reason, Leonard’s legendary status amongst advanced scouting reports has failed to translate into tangible accolades for the fourth-year pro.

While Kawhi can boast about his Finals MVP and an NBA All-Defensive Second Team nod in 2014, those small spoils seem like a bit of an understatement for one of the top 15 players in the entire NBA, according to our player power rankings.

Part of Kawhi’s lack of All-Star appearances has to do with the stacked field amongst the other forwards in the Western Conference, his slow development of finding his comfort zone on offense, the Spurs’ team-oriented system, and the overall lack of respect that most observers of the game have on the defensive side of the ball.

I get it. Putting the ball in the basket puts fans in arena seats, and anyone who is good at stopping the show is going to naturally be devalued. Kawhi Leonard is here to usher in a new perspective.

With a 7’3” wingspan, and hands that are 9.75” long, Kawhi Leonard was born to shut down your favorite hooper, and it’s about time that he received the recognition that he deserves.

The Case for Kawhi

The easily accessible NBA defensive stats would lead you to believe that Kawhi Leonard is the best pick-pocket west of the Mississippi river. Leonard led the NBA in steals with 2.3 thefts per contest this season. Despite having missed 18 games this season due to a variety of ailments, Leonard finished tied for fifth in total steals at 148. Those are nice numbers, but let us delve a little further into the stat sheet to see exactly where Leonard’s impact is quantifiable.

According to Defensive Rating, the San Antonio Spurs (102.0) have the second most efficient defense in the entire NBA behind the Golden State Warriors (101.4), and Kawhi’s presence has a lot to do with that. Leonard led the NBA in Defensive Rating at 96.4, and the Spurs defense allows 6.00 fewer points per 100 possessions when Leonard is on the floor than when Leonard is off the floor.

On January 16th, the Spurs were 24-16 and in the 7 seed in the jam-packed Western Conference playoff race. Then, Kawhi Leonard came back, and this team started to resemble the well-oiled machine that dismantled Pat Riley’s Miami Heat dynasty in the 2014 Finals despite ultimately winding up with the 6 seed in the Western Conference.

Even though the path is tough, it appears as if they are poised to make another championship run with Leonard leading the charge.

Leonard Versus Draymond Green

The closest competition Leonard will have in his quest for Defensive Player of the Year will likely be third year Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green. How, then, do their defensive metrics and stats compare?

PlayerDef RtgDRPMStealsBlocksDefensive Win Shares
Kawhi Leonard96.
Draymond Green97.24.601.61.35.2

Green added more Defensive Win Shares this season, but Green did play in 15 more games (79) than Leonard did (64).

When Leonard guards opposing small forwards, though, he allows a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 12.6 (the league average is 15.0), and when he plays against power forwards, that PER is 12.9. When Green's opponent counterpart is a small forward, he gives up a PER of 13.5 and a PER of 13.2 when guarding power forwards.

Another caveat when comparing Leonard to Green is that Leonard does often times has to defend opposing team's point guards. Green has an adequate point guard defender in Stephen Curry, who ranks as the fifth best point guard in the NBA in terms of Defensive Real Plus Minus with a score of 1.15. Leonard is constantly overcompensating for the turnstile defense that is allowed by Tony Parker who has a Defensive Real Plus-Minus -3.60.

Leonard's length and foot quickness on defense allows him to pick up his opponents further away from the basket, and his relentlessness on his ball denials are a large factor as to why his opponents aren't able to get up that many shots against him.

Kawhi only allows 9.1 field goal attempts per game compared to Draymond Green's 14.0 field goal attempts. While Kawhi gives up a higher percentage of makes (43.9 percent) than Draymond (38.3 percent), Leonard only gives up 4.0 field goal makes per game compared to the 5.5 field goal makes Green gives up on a nightly basis.

In essence Leonard is working hard on a nightly basis to make sure his opponents don't get up many shots on him, let alone clean looks at the basket.

On the basketball court, Kawhi has built a reputation as a silent assassin of a defensive terror, undaunted by assignment. Off the court, he remains one of the most meek and mysterious potential superstars this league has ever seen.

As the old adage goes, "Offense sells tickets, and defense wins championships." Well, Kawhi has already used his defensive prowess to achieve the latter. Hopefully, his accolades and recognition do not stop there.