Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo are leading MVP candidates on the two best teams in the Eastern Conference. Does the Toronto Raptors star have the edge over Giannis?
Past the halfway point of the NBA regular season and there are two clear MVP candidates in the Eastern Conference: Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. They’re both amazing players and vital to the success of their respective teams, the Toronto Raptors, and Milwaukee Bucks.
However, who has the edge as the best player in the East? There can only be one. Let’s find out by breaking down their qualifications in three different categories.
As you would expect, both Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo are putting up fantastic individual numbers this season.
Despite precautionary rest mandated by the Raptors’ medical staff, Leonard is putting up career numbers, scoring 27.9 points, dishing out over 3 assists and grabbing nearly 8 rebounds per game. He’s doing all this with ultra-efficiency, shooting a blistering 50.3 percent from the field and encroaching on the vaunted 50-40-90 club.
Leonard has been his usual disruptive force on the defensive end too, tallying nearly 2 steals per game and regularly guarding opposing team’s best player in crucial moments. He’s shown no ill effects from his mysterious injury that cost him all but nine games last season and is playing the best basketball of his career.
Likewise, The Greek Freak is scoring at a high rate at 26.6 points per game, grabbing nearly 13 rebounds and averaging a career high in assists.
Giannis’ three-point shooting though has regressed this season, at just a smidgen under 20 percent. To be fair, he isn’t required to really shoot from distance as he’s almost always surrounded by four capable shooters.
While they differ in terms of playing style (with Kawhi being more perimeter-oriented and Giannis terrifying opponents on the inside), their impact on the game is undeniable. However, Leonard has the edge in terms of individual performance as he’s taken a more visible step forward.
A key part of any MVP candidacy is the success of the player’s team. As any true fan knows, you can put up great numbers without it translating to wins; this phenomenon is commonly called stat-padding.
Obviously, this isn’t true for either Giannis or Kawhi as the Bucks and the Raptors sit first and second in a highly competitive Eastern Conference (at least from one through five).
As Max Ciarmela of CBC Sports notes, the Raptors have owned the best record in the NBA for stretches of this season and Leonard has a legitimate chance to lead the Raptors to the first 60-win regular season in franchise history.
Fuelled by a revamped offensive scheme, Giannis is pacing the Bucks among the elite after years of mediocrity; the team leads the league in point differential. Some might argue that it’s the system and a few key signings, not the player that’s making the difference (given that Giannis’ stat line is eerily similar to last season).
Storylines can make or break a player’s MVP candidacy each and every year. Has the player won before? Is he overcoming any significant odds or accomplishing historic feats never before seen in NBA history? These subplots add intrigue and frame a player’s performance.
This is only natural, seeing as humans are voting for these awards and everybody loves a good story. It’s also why you rarely see the same player win this award in back-to-back seasons.
Limiting ourselves to just the Eastern Conference, Giannis and Kawhi have their own compelling narrative. They’ve never won the award and are bonafide superstars, having improved year-over-year from the time they entered the league.
Leonard has the drama surrounding his mysterious quad injury and unsavory exit from his former team, the San Antonio Spurs. As a result, there’s media speculation about where he’ll play next season— no one knows for sure whether he’ll resign with the Raptors or move back south of the border. It’s a bit negative.
Giannis has received a lot of positive coverage from the U.S. media, who’ve pegged him as a runaway favorite thus far. When you hear something enough times, you tend to believe it’s true.
So outside of having played more games, Giannis has an advantage here because more people are talking about him— his story is more out there and with good vibes.
Final Verdict: Kawhi Leonard
So who is the Eastern Conference MVP so far? Each player is equally deserving and you can make the argument for either one.
However, since I’m bias and the one writing this article, I’ll choose Kawhi Leonard. The Milwaukee Bucks’ system is much more responsible for their success this season than anything Giannis is doing individually this year. Despite ridiculous statements otherwise early in his career, Kawhi Leonard transcends any system and can win anywhere.
Whether or not either of these players wins league MVP is a separate discussion in itself.