The NBA presented Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard his second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year Award on Monday morning. He was a clear winner in voting by a panel of 130 media representatives, receiving 84 first-place votes, 40 more than second-place Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors.
The team’s most reluctant public speaker then had to give a speech.
It consisted of 176 words, most of which deflected credit for his personal success as one of the most effective lock-down perimeter defenders in league history.
Leonard thanked the Spurs organization and his family, but mostly thanked his teammates. Eventually, he insisted that “mostly, I just hide behind them in the game, really,” an assertion that stretched both humility and reality to the limits.
Don’t doubt Leonard’s sincerity. He has become the quintessential Spur because he has completely bought into the team-first ethos that has made the franchise the most successful in all of professional sports over the past two decades. Sharing the credit for his individual honor surprised nobody at the brief ceremony at the team’s practice complex.
His coach and the teammates he credits know the truth: The Spurs became the league’s stingiest defense this season because Leonard’s presence optimized the defensive efficiency of everyone on the court with him.
“He’s a team-oriented individual, for sure,” Coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s definitely not full of himself or anything like that. But I’ve got to tell you, I don’t think he knows that those guys are back there or not. He just goes and does what he does. He just plays.
“He’s giving credit to everybody, as he should. He’s a wonderful young man. But the things he does amaze me, night after night, and the fact that he does it at both ends really is something. Then he rebounds on top of it, so he’s a pretty special guy.”
Manu Ginobili paid Leonard the ultimate compliment when he compared him favorably with a former teammate: Spurs defensive ace Bruce Bowen, whose No. 12 jersey was retired by the club in 2012.
“Bruce was remarkable,” Ginobili said. “He did less plays that draw up highlights but he was as consistent as it gets. With Kawhi, the fact that he gets blocks and steals and dunks, that type of play draws more attention. But both are just incredible. And it’s not easy to get a Defensive Player of the Year Award. There are 450 players out there competing every night. What he does – what they did – every night is superb.
“Bruce was a little different because he was not the fastest, the strongest, the longest. He had a task. He knew before a game who he was going to go against. He studied them. He had that challenge. Kawhi is a different type of player but Pop talks a lot about our defensive mindset and what we want to accomplish in every game. Of course, those two are the ones who did it the best.”
Popovich was passive-aggressive assertive in his comparison of the two players.
“Bruce Who?” he said. “What have you done for me lately? Isn’t that the world we live in?”
Veteran point guard Tony Parker answered the Bruce vs. Kawhi question less evasively.
“Bruce is the standard for us, defensively,” he said. “(Kawhi) just aimed higher.”
Leonard’s perfect aim made him just the eighth player to win the award in successive seasons, joining Sidney Moncrief (Milwaukee Bucks, 1982-83 and 1983-84); Dennis Rodman (Detroit Pistons, 1989-90 and 1990-91); Hakeem Olajuwon (Houston Rockets, 1992-93 and 1993-94); Dikembe Mutombo (Atlanta Hawks, 1996-97 and 1997-98); Alonzo Mourning (Miami Heat, 1998-99 and 1999-00); Ben Wallace (Detroit Pistons, 2001-02 and 2002-03 and 2004-05 and 2005-06); and Dwight Howard (Orlando Magic, 2008-09, 2009-10 and 2001-11).
Award sponsor Kia America Motors presents a brand new car to each recipient, who is then allowed to choose a charity to receive the vehicle. Leonard chose the Children’s Bereavement Center of South Texas, whose mission is “to foster healing for grieving youth, their families and the community through peer support programs, counseling, training, education and outreach.”
Leonard lost his father to violence as a teenager. After receiving his trophy he presented the keys to a Kia Sorento CUV to Bereavement Center Executive Director Marian Sokol.
Top image: Spurs Forward Kawhi Leonard warms up before Game 1 of the 2016 NBA Playoffs versus the Memphis Grizzlies on April 17, 2016. Photo by Scott Ball.