It seems like such a simple question. Can Kawhi Leonard win this season’s MVP award? According to the odds, it would be an extreme longshot. But, when you look into the way the season is playing out? Well, let’s dig in.
According to ESPNBET, here are the five players with the shortest odds to win MVP: Nikola Jokic (-150), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (+250), Giannis Antetokounmpo (+750), Luka Doncic (+900) and then, finally, there’s Leonard (+5000).
Jokic is the odds-on favorite to win his third MVP in four seasons. Gilgeous-Alexander is considered his closest competitor (at least since the previous favorite, Joel Embiid, got injured). Giannis and Luka are both still in range, although considered unlikely.
So, what about Kawhi? At 50-to-1 odds with two months left in the season, Kawhi is such a longshot to win that he typically doesn’t even get mentioned in the MVP conversation. But, should he be in that conversation?
I say that he should, because he could very reasonably end up as the “best player on the best team” with a case that they aren’t anywhere near that level without him — and that is a case that has been a very good one in previous MVP votes.
What makes an MVP?
While there is no set criteria for being awarded the NBA MVP, typically the voting comes down to a combination of jaw-dropping box score stats, a strong narrative, plus an impact on winning that gains momentum and carries the most weight with the most voters.
Leonard’s box score stats are the least impressive of this group of five. However, I personally feel that the third criterion — impact on winning — is both the most important element to being named MVP as well as being the most difficult one to quantify.
Look, outstanding box score stats are great, but those are more of a measure of the mechanisms a player uses to make their impact rather than a direct measure of the impact itself. It’s the “how” rather than the “how much.”
A player who posts huge point totals (and pretty much little else) is likely someone who makes his biggest impact on the team’s bottom line through scoring alone. Now, if he’s dropping triple-doubles left and right? That shows all-around contributions, including both offensive creation and the ability to gain new possessions on the glass.
But what about the intangibles? The box score doesn’t account for everything that makes up “winning basketball.” There are players who are excellent at defense but may not also be big blocks/steals guys. Defense is ultimately about preventing the opponent from scoring — and there’s no real box score stat for doing that.
There are also players whose ability to knock down shots forces opponents to pay attention to them even when they don’t have the ball, and the end result is that they can create easier looks for their teammates without actually getting an assist — that’s certainly a Stephen Curry-like trait that has no representation in the box score either.
What about players who are simply clutch, giving their team confidence and helping them pull out close games that they might otherwise lose? There’s a reason why, quite often, team winning is weighed so heavily in player evaluation and MVP votes. The thought is that, if a team is winning a lot, then the best player on that team should get more credit for doing the things that led to those wins, even if they weren’t quite captured in the box scores.
Adding up those intangibles
These days, with the rise in analytics, various impact stats have been developed to more quantitatively identify a player’s impact on winning. Scouting software like Second Spectrum can also be used to tease out a player’s mechanism of impact with finer granularity than the box scores.
Still, let’s keep the focus on the bottom line: the MVP is determined by voters and not by a rigorous algorithm weighing out the best available analytics. So, instead of digging into that level of detail, in this space, let’s take a closer look at the outer layers of the onion when it comes to player impact on winning. Arguments that, to paraphrase Denzel Washington in the movie “Philadelphia,” could be explained to any voter like they were six years old.
Leonard has been building a Megatron version of that easily explainable “winning equals value” argument. Since the calendar flipped from November to December, in games that Leonard has played, the Clippers are 25-4 (an 86.2% win percentage) with an average scoring margin of +9.9 PPG. For the entire season, the NBA best in those stats come from the Celtics: 77.4% wins and +9.4 PPG. In the four games over that span where Leonard didn’t play, the Clippers went just 2-2 with a -9.0 PPG scoring margin, with both wins coming over teams deep in the lottery and both losses being of the blowout variety to playoff-bound teams.
The following table compares Leonard to the other top-five MVP contenders, as well as Jayson Tatum (with the eighth-shortest odds at +10,000). Tatum represents the best player on the team with the best record in the NBA:
Let’s unpack this data. Team winning percentage is self-explanatory. Raw plus/minus takes thing a step further. How good is the team when this player is on the court? On/off plus/minus shows how much better the team performs does with the player on the court versus when he is off the court.
What does the data tell us?
The above data uncovers several interesting takeaways:
While Tatum’s Celtics have the highest winning percentage, both Leonard and SGA have higher Raw plus/minus scores than Tatum (with Jokic’s being roughly equivalent). That lends some credence to those other players, at the least, being part of more successful units than Tatum, despite the Celtics’ overall team success.
Tatum also has the lowest On/off plus/minus among this group — much lower than Leonard, Jokic, SGA and Giannis. This indicates that the Celtics still outscore their opponents by 7.9 points (per 100 possessions) with Tatum off the floor. All four of the other teams dramatically outscore their opponents with their star players, but are actually outscored by their opponents with those stars off the floor.
Doncic’s Mavericks have a lower winning percentage than the other teams, but not that far behind the Bucks. However, Doncic’s On/off plus/minus is significantly lower than four of our other listed players. He also has a significantly lower Raw and On/off plus/minus than two other starters on his own team: Kyrie Irving (+5.8 Raw, +8.5 On/off) and Dereck Lively II (+6.0 Raw, +8.2 On/off). Now, to be clear, this isn’t an argument that either Irving or Lively are more impactful than Doncic. Still, taken together, this is some evidence that the Mavericks’ scoring margin changes may not be as tied to Doncic’s presence as, for example, the Thunder’s scoring margin changes are tied to Gilgeous-Alexander, who has both the highest both Raw and On/off plus/minus on the Thunder — the latter by a huge +7.8 margin over his closest teammate.
The bottom line
In terms of futures, this type of impact analysis (even without going majorly in-depth) supports the notion that Leonard’s presence on the court can be correlated with his team’s success at a level similar to those of the top-three MVP frontrunners — and that there is significant separation between that group of four and both Doncic and Tatum.
So, can Leonard actually take home MVP honors? Well, let’s play it forward. If the Clippers keep winning at a greater than 86% clip while outscoring opponents by 10.0 PPG, the way they have for the past 2.5 months with Leonard on the court, then there’s a high likelihood they will finish the season as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference by a reasonably solid margin.
Leonard has some solid narrative on his side as well — as a two-time champion and Finals MVP on a team where his primary support is all ringless, as a two-time Defensive Player of the Year who is currently fourth in the NBA in steals, and as the epitome for “load management” who has been healthy and on the court for the vast majority of the season.
Put it all together, and Leonard has a much better than 50-to-1 chance to win this season’s MVP. While Jokic is very justifiably the favorite (and likely will remain so), if Leonard stays healthy he has a strong chance to join that current top trio in the MVP conversation. With Leonard’s odds currently so extraordinarily long, he’s the unique “extreme longshot candidate in February” that could have a legitimate chance to actually challenge for the award by the end of the season.