LeBron James may be the best player in the universe, but the MVP conversation is all about the future. After James won four Podoloffs in a five-year span, the past five trophies have been handed out to relative newcomers. This week, as part of The Ringer’s Star Track: The Next Generation series, our staff zeroes in on five players who haven’t won an MVP but very well could in 2018-19.
Danny Chau: Kawhi Leonard guards his own intentions with the same diligence seen in his on-court defense. There’s little to glean from Leonard’s vacant face. His broad, glassy eyes betray only the sense that he’d rather be elsewhere—or that he’s already elsewhere. His answers at the media day podium, seated next to Raptors GM Masai Ujiri and teammate Danny Green, were noncommittal. He was excited to play for Toronto (“I want to play here,” he confirmed), but demurred when asked whether he thought he could make a home in the city. “By winning games,” he said, “this is how you get star-caliber players to want to come here and play.”
The Raptors now have one such player. Now, it’s just a matter of keeping him. Leonard is arguably the most talented player to have ever donned a Raptors uniform in his prime (Vince Carter is 1B; Hakeem Olajuwon is the most talented player, full stop). Ujiri’s gambit may have already paid off: He pulled off the biggest star acquisition in franchise history and fostered an environment that can best accommodate the team’s new focal point. Toronto may never be home for Leonard, but the Raptors have done what they can to make his transition as comfortable as possible. No matter what happens next summer, one season in heaven is better than zero.
Jonathan Tjarks: It’s hard to remember how good Leonard was before he hurt his ankle in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference finals and went MIA for most of the next 18 months. He was the best player on a 61-win team that season, averaging 25.5 points on 48.5 percent shooting, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.8 steals per game. Kawhi turned 27 in June, and there isn’t much he needs to add to his game. He just needs to show he can get back to where he was.
His biggest challenge in Toronto may be off the court, where he has to develop a relationship with a moody point guard (Kyle Lowry), click with a first-time head coach (Nick Nurse), and make the young players around him better. The Raptors have the pieces around Kawhi to be a title contender, but they don’t have the veteran leadership the Spurs had when they won it all in 2014. Kawhi has to set the tone in the locker room, which would be difficult for him even without the free-agency rumors circling him all season.
Zach Kram: In 2016-17, Leonard drove 11.3 times per game, tied with LeBron James for the second-most among non-guards. (First place was swingman Jimmy Butler, whom NBA.com/Stats categorizes as a forward.) The former Spur was trending upward before he missed all but nine games in 2017-18: Starting in 2013-14, his drives per game rose from 3.8 (fewer than Josh McRoberts that season) to 6.5 to 7.5 to 11.3, reflecting his growth on offense in San Antonio’s democratic system.
Beyond juicing his overall scoring numbers, Leonard’s amplified aggression boosted his assists and free throw attempts, helping him become a more multifaceted offensive contributor. Leonard was already the NBA’s premier 3-and-D wing, but by expanding his skill set every season, he became a 25-points-per-game scorer and MVP candidate. He could have even more opportunity to drive this season: The Raptors tallied the second-most drives of any team in 2017-18.
Haley O’Shaughnessy: A healthy Leonard (+1,000) is just as likely to win the MVP as Anthony Davis or Giannis Antetokounmpo. However, because of the mysterious right quad injury and the ensuing drama that derailed last season in San Antonio, Toronto’s new wing enters 2018-19 as more of a dark horse. Leonard needs to return to 2016-17 Klaw form to be in the conversation. Because of the speculation last spring that he was ready to go and just didn’t want to play with the Spurs any longer, I’m willing to bet on a comeback. If he does pull it off, and it translates to a second-place Eastern Conference finish for the Raptors, Leonard could be the best MVP bet payoff in quite some time. (For context, the only winner over the past five years that opened at higher odds than +450 was James Harden last season, +800.)
Justin Verrier: On paper, swapping Leonard into DeMar DeRozan’s spot in the starting lineup makes the Raptors better in virtually every way; in August, ESPN’s Kevin Pelton projected them to win the East again with Leonard penciled in for only 65 games played. If Leonard cracks the 70-game barrier, as he did the two seasons prior to his tumultuous finale with the Spurs, the Raptors could, on paper, set a new franchise wins record for a second season in a row.
But we’ve seen Toronto’s one-year rental plan play out before, and regardless of how well a player fits, the transition is never seamless. Dwight Howard played through a back injury to log 76 games in his lone season for the Lakers, but a core predestined to make a Finals run just barely limped into the playoffs. Paul George played pretty well next to Russell Westbrook, and ultimately decided to stick with OKC for the long run; but the pilot season of their partnership was disappointing, to say the least. The Raptors are still deep after making their star trade, which is a luxury neither Howard nor George had with their new teams. But in a league that espouses continuity—particularly on defense, where Leonard can help the most—it’s hard to imagine a team winning a conference after turning the lion’s share of its shots over to a player who may not want to be there in the first place.
Kevin O’Connor: The key for Leonard to vault back into the MVP race is simple: stay healthy. But as I’ve written before, increasing Leonard’s usage wouldn’t necessarily make him a better player, but it would lead to higher-volume stats, which would lead to more attention from voters.
San Antonio helped Leonard blossom, but its systematic restrictions that promote ball movement didn’t lead to big scoring or passing numbers. Circumstances could be similar in Toronto. Nurse was the force behind Toronto’s improved passing last season.
But Leonard has shown he can do more if asked to, like in the 2017 Western Conference semifinals against the Rockets. In that series, Leonard averaged 23.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 5.8 assists—right after a first-round series against the Grizzlies in which he dropped 31.2 points per game. The ability is there. The question is whether it’s best for the Raptors to give him that chance or run a more equal-opportunity system.