This is an interesting time in the NBA as a half a dozen legitimate candidate’s battle on almost a nightly basis for supremacy.
The Maurice Podoloff trophy is on track to have a very heated race unlike what has played out in past seasons where one standout player walks through the pile and gets his hands on the very important trophy. Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, before he went down with a groin injury LeBron James, Steph Curry and Paul George are in the upper level of MVP conversation.
The lower level has the likes of Nikola Jokic, Kemba Walker and Kyrie Irving. Unfortunately, poor team results leave the likes Anthony Davis and Bradley Beal completely out of the conversation. No matter how talented players gunning for the big award are, they have benefited from a few lucky balls breaking their way.
Harden was an outsider in the race before Chris Paul, Clint Capela and Eric Gordon got injured leaving Houston Rockets roster completely depleted. With few options to work with, Harden has been on a solo run that has got him scoring points for long game stretches not seen in the NBA since Wilt Chamberlain played.
Antetokounmpo got help from Milwaukee Bucks front office by hiring Mike Budenholzer whose ball movement heavy system creates enough space for Giannis to wreck havoc. LeBron’s injury helps his course as his team-Los Angeles Lakers- have struggled without him. Ditto Curry whose absence early in the season almost had Golden State Warriors go into complete melt down.
However, lost in the MVP conversation is Toronto Raptors Small Forward Kawhi Leonard.
This development isn’t surprising because Leonard barely talks on and off the court to generate any chatter unlike Giannis who swore to get revenge on Mario Hezonja for stepping across him. Harden basically talked himself into the conversation before the injuries piled up and coincided with his historic run.
Far away from small market, Gregg Popovich system San Antonio Spurs, this was supposed to be Kawhi’s time to shine a lot off the court in Toronto’s large market. On the contrary, the same theme that played out with the Spurs is happening with the Raptors. Leonard’s game mirrors his personality, he doesn’t pull off from the center circle shooting range like Curry, or spell binding crossovers like Kyrie or human consuming dunks like Giannis or off the charts no look passes or spectacular points tally like Harden.
His game is firmly bedded in fundamentals and those plays that aren’t captured by stat sheets. Believe or not, Leonard is averaging career highs in points-27.6- and rebounds (7.9) in 36 games in his first season with Raptors after his infamous trade from San Antonio. The Raptors have the second best record in the league and Eastern Conference with 36 wins behind Milwaukee Bucks.
The reason behind the muted MVP chatter is down to Raptors performing DeMar DeRozan’s role in the team before he got shipped off to San Antonio in the trade involving Leonard. DeRozan wasn’t a top six MVP candidate in his days leading the team to win the Eastern Conference last season before disappearing in the playoffs against LeBron and Cleveland Cavaliers. As consistently good as the Raptors have been over the past five years in the regular season improving in team wins during this period, Toronto has underachieved in the playoffs.
This was the main reason behind Manager Masai Ujiri’s shock decision to trade away DeRozan for Kawhi who has an NBA Finals MVP Award on his CV plus the 2014 NBA title. Two Defensive Player of the Year Awards and 2014-2015 Steals leader puts Leonard ahead of DeRozan defensively too. Having such a quality background ties the focus on the value of Leonard’s trade to Raptors success in the postseason. This means for Kawhi to garner MVP votes ahead of next season, he needs to get Toronto through to the NBA Finals this season.
With DeRozan, Raptors made it to two Eastern Conference Finals but failed to win in both instances costing Coach Dwane Casey his job. Making a statement without uttering too many words for Raptors would be leading Toronto to the NBA Finals. Achieving that, doing the unthinkable by beating the Western Conference representative (most likely defending champions Golden State Warriors) in those finals and maintaining his quality play makes him the forerunner in next season’s MVP conversation.
By Yaw Adjei-Mintah
@YawMintYM on Twitter