The 1 thing missing in Kawhi Leonard's career

A Kia MVP trophy would complete the legacy Clippers' star has already forged

There are places on this planet where anyone with sensibilities should not bother going. Those include: the baddest part of town, Disney World without two credit cards and to your nearest Popeye’s restaurant expecting “fast” food. And yet Doc Rivers, coach of the LA Clippers and among the league’s more perceptive people, went to a certain forbidden place anyway.

He compared someone besides LeBron James to Michael Jordan. In this case, it was Kawhi Leonard.

Last May, Rivers raved about Kawhi (who was then with the Raptors), saying he’s “the most like Jordan we’ve ever seen.” For that lapse into basketball blasphemy, Rivers was socked with some of the harshest punishment ever. No, not the $50,000 fine levied by the NBA for tampering charges — Kawhi was a looming free agent at the time and the Clippers had oodles of salary cap space — but laughter from certain corners in the basketball world.

Rivers chose to clarify the other day by saying he was merely comparing their physical resemblance and that everyone else misinterpreted the whole thing. There are other similarities, though, such as Kawhi’s refreshing insistence on employing the post-up game and embracing the mid-range jumper when analytics strongly advise players to abandon both.

“There is no body types more like Michael Jordan’s than Kawhi because I said his hands and his length,” Rivers said. “That (controversy) took a whole life.”

That settles it. But to stay on topic for a moment: For Kawhi to even be in the conversation with Jordan and other legends depends on whether Kawhi earns the ultimate honor that’s annually bestowed on the game’s greatest player. Doesn’t Leonard need a Kia MVP award — Jordan has five — to be classified as a generational talent?

It’s the only pat on the back elusive to Leonard, who has yet to raise that trophy, shed tears and give thanks to those who paved the way (which is the standard reaction and scenario on NBA Awards night). Yes, this is the gift the basketball gods can give to the player who has almost everything else, provided, of course, Kawhi actually earns it with a spectacular regular season.

A reasonable debate says the Bill Russell Trophy, better known as the NBA Finals MVP, is the real MVP (with all due respect to Kevin Durant’s mom). That’s because the Finals MVP — other than Jerry West in 1969 — takes home that and the NBA championship trophy. Kawhi has not one, but two Finals MVPs … and with different teams, making it all the more impressive. Should he win another with the Clippers, he’d become the first player to pull off three with three.

There’s almost no debate that, from April until now, Kawhi has dibs on the best player in the NBA. He went scorched earth through the playoffs last spring, then erased Golden State on the Warriors’ own floor in The Finals. Already this season, he’s averaging 29.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 2.3 steals per game.

But it comes as a major disappointment — there’s no other way to classify it, really — that Kawhi is skipping Wednesday’s game against the reigning MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, because of the scourge known as load management. The Clippers host the Blazers on Thursday and for the second time this season, Kawhi will not play the first game of a back-to-back.

Fairly or not, the MVP award is far-reaching and richly defining to one’s legacy. To place it into context, while Kawhi won a dramatic duel against Giannis in the 2019 playoffs, the MVP score is Giannis 1, Kawhi 0.

In the 2019-20 NBA.com GM Survey, Giannis received 52% of the vote for MVP (to Leonard’s 10%). While there were perhaps some circumstances that swayed some of that vote — Kawhi will eventually partner with Paul George, who will unburden his co-star with the load when he gets healthy while Giannis is a singular star with the Bucks — the perception that Giannis is the better force and all-around talent is commonly held.

Speaking of MVP circumstances, Kawhi hasn’t had many on his side during his career to date. He was late developing into a star, he played seven of his first eight seasons in a Spurs system that emphasizes team play, and until very lately lacked the offensive pop necessary for serious MVP consideration. Last season, he finished ninth in MVP voting.

His postseason body of work is superior to his regular seasons, and again, there’s no shame in that. Had he made both free throws with 19 seconds left in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals, he’d have three championships and possibly three Finals MVPs because his defense on LeBron James in that series was stellar. Instead, he missed the first free throw, and then Ray Allen hit his famous shot.

This season is Kawhi’s best chance to win the “lesser” MVP award. For starters, he’s at his absolute peak as a player. His body is strong and healthy. His ability to score, especially off the dribble, is almost unmatched right now in the league. His defense remains elite as Kawhi is adept once again at stripping his man clean of the ball in the open floor and providing help on the perimeter and in the paint. Finally, his overall numbers, so far, are superior across the board.

It also doesn’t hurt that, for the first time, Kawhi plays in a large market. The Clippers, by virtue of their status as title favorites, will get maximum glare all season. Should they finish at or near the top in the prickly Western Conference, it would be more impressive than Giannis elevating the Bucks to the top in the East.

Kawhi’s three main drawbacks in his MVP quest are as follows:

1. George will command a portion of the offense from Kawhi and impact things once he returns. Remember: George finished third in MVP voting last season. Kawhi’s scoring average could take a hit. Voters are a strange bunch as they often “penalize” an MVP candidate who must share the load, although that never stopped Jordan (Scottie Pippen) or LeBron (Dwyane Wade) from winning MVPs in the past.

2. With load management all the rage, it’s possible Kawhi may miss a dozen games or more. Counting the Bucks game, he has already missed two of the Clippers’ first eight games for rest reasons. This comes after a preseason in which he played limited minutes. The Clippers are all about the championship this season and if that means being overly cautious with Kawhi, so be it. Plus, managing his minutes paid off for the Raptors last spring.

3. The MVP competition is spicy. Besides Giannis, there’s LeBron, Anthony Davis, James Harden and Joel Embiid, among others, in the mix. All are off to solid starts and could have their teams in the 50-or 60-win range.

At 28, Leonard has multiple chances left to get his first MVP. He just needs to convince the basketball community that he is, indeed, the best player in the NBA. Up until this point, that hasn’t been the case, mainly because of LeBron, Kevin Durant and now, Antetokounmpo. With a push from his 2019 Finals run, along with a hot start this season, Kawhi owns pole position on the award for the first time in his career.

He’s also following the right blueprint by copying a six-time winner. If you can’t be Jordan, it makes sense to play a similar game and come as close as possible.

“He’s one of the guys that everyone looks up to from a competitive standpoint and how he approached every game,” Leonard said. “You try to nitpick what you can take from him and take it into yourself.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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