Why Kawhi Leonard Is Still Overlooked

Feb 27, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) dribbles the ball during the third quarter against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 27, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) dribbles the ball during the third quarter against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports /

There’s no denying that San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard has improved offensively, but he’s still being overlooked in the MVP race.

Unless you’ve lived under a rock since the start of the 2015-16 NBA season you know that Stephen Curry has run away with the league’s Most Valuable Player Award and the Golden State Warriors are on course to win another championship.

Hardcore fans of the game also know that the San Antonio Spurs aren’t far behind them in the standings, sitting only four games back of the Western Conference-leading Warriors.

The best player on that Spurs team? It’s no longer Tim Duncan, Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili.

His name is Kawhi Leonard.

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I’ll be the first to admit that when Leonard won his 2014 NBA Finals MVP I was skeptical regarding his future in the league. Did he have enough of an offensive game to become the superstar that many saw begin to emerge in the playoffs? Does he have a killer instinct worthy of a top-five player coronation?

To be honest I still have a few questions about that last point, but there’s no denying his improvement on offense this season. Leonard is putting up some crazy efficient numbers on a team that’s keeping pace with a squad that’s having potentially the greatest season ever.

2015-16 ★17578.216.0.5112.04.2.4884.34.9.8827.

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Generated 3/2/2016.

In just one season Leonard has drastically improved his shooting efficiency from every spot on the floor while only upping his field goal and free throw attempts by less than two per game.

He doesn’t shoot threes as often as Curry and his free throw attempts are rather low for as dominant of a scorer as Leonard has been, but he’s also working on a 50-50-90 season, which would be the peak of any player’s scoring effectiveness.

So how is Leonard doing all of this without upping the number of shots he’s taken like a Curry or LeBron James?

It all starts with the system that coach Gregg Popovich has in place for San Antonio. Leonard doesn’t have to do more than he’s required because of the emphasis on sharing the basketball and getting multiple shot attempts for everyone on the floor not just the star players.

This means that Leonard’s not responsible for consistently creating his own shot while on offense. He’s more than capable with an improved handle and willingness to drive to the basket, but 45 percent of his 2-point shots and 97 percent of his 3-point shots have been assisted on this season per Basketball-Reference.

Popovich has allowed his best players to thrive without exerting too much energy and always putting their bodies on the line every possession. He also makes sure his players get the rest that they need to compete in the postseason, but that’s another topic for another day.

So statistically it shows that Leonard’s knocked in shots at an incredible rate and a good amount of those looks come from crisp passes within the flow of the Spurs’ offense. But his game can’t completely be a product of San Antonio’s philosophies can it?

That’s where the eye test comes in and we get to take a look at why he’s as successful as he is. It turns out that Leonard’s basketball IQ is through the roof after playing for Popovich and it shows in his patience on offense.

The video is a highlight package from the Spurs’ recent win over the Utah Jazz in which Leonard went for 29 points on 10-of-15 shooting from the field. Notice how throughout the game the number of tough shot attempts he takes (fades out of the post or over and around multiple defenders) are very limited.

In fact a lot of his attempts come from in or around the post area where he posts-up on Gordon Hayward and looks for easy buckets one-on-one. Being able to post his man up is a huge tool for him to have when it comes to scoring efficiently because it allows him to free himself up more on the perimeter.

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Defenses have to take in to account his ability to drive to the rim or post up so it makes it difficult for teams to simply plan around his improved outside shot.

When San Antonio runs small-ball packages built around utilizing Leonard at the 4 he’s able to give the team multiple looks in terms of playing wide or having another guy to throw the ball to down low. His versatility throws teams off and allows the Spurs to experiment with a number of lineups that could come in handy against Golden State down the road.

Defensively he’s still the same player we’ve come to know and love. He gives his all each trip down the floor and locks up his man to the point where sometimes they can’t even get shots off to the point that they have to pass the ball away on multiple possessions. That’s a scary thought considering he’s almost always guarding a star perimeter scorer.

Curry deserves all the attention he’s getting because he’s having a historic season and looks like he’s unstoppable. But don’t sleep on the season Leonard’s having for San Antonio.

His all-around game combined with his increased basketball IQ and willingness to take good shots and not force anything on offense make him just as valuable of a player as anyone else in the league.

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Curry’s first on my ballot, but there’s no question Leonard is second.