In the first of a series of posts, I’m going to look at players not named Westbrook or Harden having outstanding seasons that are going a little unnoticed. As we reach the halfway point of the regular season, it’s clear that there are two players in particular having other-worldly, seasons for the ages. What I want to do is highlight the guys flying under the radar, but still having career-defining seasons.
Westbrook and Harden
For every fashion statement, chest bump, primal scream or wrecking-ball performance we’ve come to expect from Russell Westbrook, this season his calling card has been the triple-doubles that he’s handing out an almost nightly basis. Many thought it was impossible, but he’s actually still on pace to be the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double across a whole season.
James Harden took the criticism that he and the Houston Rockets received last year hard. The team retooled in the offseason, picking up a new Coach in Mike D’Antoni and implementing a new system they believed would get the best of Harden’s unique skill set. With Harden now leading the league in both double-doubles and assists (he’s second behind Westbrook in triple-doubles), Harden has found a new lease of life in his role as both facilitator and primary scorer for the Rockets. Alongside Westbrook (presuming his production doesn’t fall off) this season, and Oscar Robertson, these will be the only players to ever (EVER!) average at least 25 ppg, 5 rpg and 10 apg for a season.
Now I don’t want to take away anything from what these two players (and former teammates, but that’s a whole other discussion) are achieving this season. Both are truly enjoying historic campaigns. But the combination of their gaudy numbers, their status in the league and their marketability as players, means that the performances of a number of other players are a little overlooked with regard to coverage this season. In terms of comparisons from the players I talk about in this series, I’m actually going to remove Westbrook and Harden altogether – that is the nature of how outrageous their numbers are.
It might seem strange positioning Leonard as having an “under the radar” season, seeing as he finished as the runner up in the MVP voting behind Steph Curry last year. Taking up the mantle directly from Tim Duncan however, Leonard is quietly and understatedly cementing his place as one of the undisputed best players in the league, even if no one seems to notice.
The frame of mind to have when you ever look at Spurs players is to consider that they’re playing for a coach and in a system that ultimately favours ball movement and team play to generate offence a lot more than most other teams. The stars of the team tend to get fewer shots, and so to just look at points per game for example can be misleading. That said, it seems like Kawhi’s development as an offensive player is actually earning the trust of Popovich, to the point where the Spurs will actually run isolation plays for Leonard several times a game.
Having entered the league as a blue collar defensive specialist, the transformation in Leonard’s offensive game and shooting touch, to where he is now, is nothing short of miraculous. The team now looks for Kawhi far more than ever before, with him averaging a career high 17 shots a game, and scoring at a team high 25.5 ppg. He has sacrificed no efficiency in his scoring, and having gone from a “non-shooter” several years ago, he’s actually flirting with becoming a member of the 50/40/90 club (50% from the field, 40% from three, 90% from the free throw line) – a mark of the truly elite shooters in the NBA
Leonard has not shirked his role as defensive anchor either. Still utilised to guard the other team’s top perimeter threat on a nightly basis; he drives the Spurs’ success on both sides of the ball. While there is a large amount of conjecture, of course, based on a combination of the numbers and the fabled “eye-test”, I personally view Leonard as the top perimeter defender in the league. Many other teams now deliberately hide their top offensive players by positioning them against other team’s weakest offensive threat, so they can maximise their effort levels on offence. This makes Leonard’s efficiency even more impressive when you consider he’s not afforded this luxury, and is going all-out on both sides of the ball.
If we look at Leonard’s peers in the MVP race last season, LeBron James and Steph Curry, neither compare with “The Claw” when it comes to defensive impact or consistency. James is an elite defender on individual possessions and when an important game is on the line, but has reached the stage of his career where he knowingly picks his spots.
Having been targeted by the Cavs in the finals last season, Curry looks to have worked hard on becoming a better defender. He will likely never reach elite status however in a league that increasingly favours pick and roll based offence, and the potential for unfavourable match-up switches that this brings.
But saying all that, the fact that Kawhi’s defensive game is not even really my focus here is the entire point I’m making. Even aside from the fact he’s arguably the best perimeter defender in the NBA, his offensive game is now also elite. Entering this season, Leonard had only scored 30 points or more seven times in his career. He is now scoring in line with his MVP peers, both in scoring volume and efficiency. Kawhi has 14 games so far this season with at least 30 points, including his last six games, punctuated by a career-high, 41 point outburst in a road win against James’ Cavaliers. For frame of reference, James has 9, and Curry has 11 games with over 30 points this season.
Leonard’s scoring puts him in elite company within the Spurs franchise history too. He’s matched the franchise record for consecutive 30 point games set by Mike Mitchell in 1986, and overtaken Tim Duncan’s best streak of 4. His total 30 point games so far, match David Robinson’s total from the first half of his 1995 MVP season. And, on a per game basis, Leonard is averaging 25.5 ppg, the exact same figure as Tim Duncan in his 2002 MVP campaign.
It may come as something of a surprise therefore, when you consider the fact he’s reached all time highs in offensive output, is arguably the best perimeter defender in the NBA and the Spurs are currently 34-9, trailing the Warriors by only 3 games with an inferior roster… that Leonard is still somehow only eighth in the MVP rankings.
I guess, sometimes it’s the quiet ones you have to watch.