The San Antonio Spurs beat the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals this year. It was a short series with the Heat giving up the ghost in five games. In the final three games Miami had no answer for Kawhi Leonard, and because of his efficient play on both ends of the court he won Finals MVP. Had the Heat actually shown up I think the award would have gone to LeBron James, and would have been his third in a row (a feat that has happened three other times in the last 35 years of the NBA).
Even more impressive is that Leonard did it on a team with three other Hall of Fame players (Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili -- who will get there for his national team play, like that Gold Medal he won, in addition to his NBA career). And Kawhi did it in just his third season in the league. If you add up all of his playing time (regular season and playoffs combined) you see that this kid (he's 22) has played a lot, and played a lot early in his career.
How does that stack up against the last 20 winners (which comprise the last 35 years of the award)? Let's take a look.
N.B. Purple cell = lockout year, Pink cell = regular season injuries
Leonard had to deal with a lock out shortened season, and two seasons of regular season injuries after that, but still managed 7,157 total minutes in his first three seasons. That averages out to 2,385.7 minutes per season -- which is above my "you kinda need 2,000 per year to be something good" threshold.
In fact, if you look at the whole list, there are but a few situations where a player received fewer than 2,000 minutes in a season. The complete list of players who did not play 2,000 minutes in non-lockout shortened, or non-injured plagued years are:
- Cedric Maxwell rookie year
- James Worthy rookie year (but if he played in 2 more games he would have made it)
- Kobe Bryant rookie year
- Chauncey Billups fourth year
That's just four times in 98 instances. That seems to support the theory that a quality shared by great players is that they played minutes early in their careers. Does that mean that playing a scrub 2,000+ minutes a season will make them great? No. But it's a great way to guarantee someone will never reach their potential by holding them back. I wonder how many fewer minutes Leonard would have gotten in his second year in the league if he had to sit behind Jazzman for life Randy Foye?
Anyway, this is an interesting investigation on the last 35 winners (20 players) of the Finals MVP award. Only one player averaged fewer than 2,000 minutes per season over their first five seasons -- Billups, who had to deal with both a lock out, and an injury plagued 13 game season during his first five years.
Some players played a lot of minutes per game, and took their teams far into the playoffs -- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar almost averaged 4k minutes per season. I wouldn't say the all-time leader on points scored is over-dipped though. After a while math beats folklore. The guys who play early and often in their career have the best chances to a) help their team win, and b) help themselves maximize their potential.
If you are the Utah Jazz and have been making trades or drafting based upon potential after a while it's in the franchises' best interest to get some returns . . . unless the whole plan was to go young, but never invest in the youth (with minutes), and then say bad things about the youth. In that case then I think we know who the real MVP is.
What Leonard did at such a young age shows us that you don't need to wait a decade into your career before you can be a productive member of the NBA society. You can help your team early in your career -- on your rookie deal even -- if your coach and team mates trust in you. I think that we may be collectively a bit biased because we were spoiled by John Stockton and Karl Malone. We remember them for their long careers, but forget how efficient and useful they were in their green seasons. Guys like Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap will always look much better than Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter if you keep making excuses to keep those guys off of the floor.
Gregg Popovich, another Hall of Famer to be, kept Leonard on the floor, and he got the steal of that draft as a result.