SAN ANTONIO – Stepping to a microphone at Los Angeles Shrine Auditorium in 1996 to accept the Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance, Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder famously dismissed the very notion of awards for art of any sort.
"I'm going to say something...on behalf of all of us," Vedder told the audience and a few million TV viewers. "I don't know what this means. I don't think it means anything."
Art for art's sake, the famed alt-rocker seemed to say.
For Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs, basketball is art, played strictly for the sake of the game. Now, as the drumbeat for Leonard's insertion into this season's debate about the NBA's Most Valuable Player Award reaches a crescendo worthy of Dave Grohl, the two-time defending Defensive Player of the Year steps far away from the bandstand and avoids the conversation.
"I don't know how they pick or choose it," Leonard said after his tour de force finish in the Spurs' 112-110 win over the Rockets at The AT&T Center. "I'm just playing basketball, trying to make my team the best team right now coming down this last stretch."
That may sound like typical athlete humility, but it's truly how the Spurs and Leonard roll.
"We don't talk about MVP Awards," Gregg Popovich said after Leonard's 39 points, six rebounds, five assists and two blocks led the Spurs to their dramatic, Monday night win over the Houston Rockets opened the Kawhi-for-MVP floodgates. "We don't' talk about any awards. We don't talk about championships. We just play the game. Everybody tries to do what they can to make the team better and whatever records or awards or wins that come, that's the way it is."
"Just playing basketball" on Monday included Leonard's game-changing three-point shot with 25 seconds remaining and blocking a James Harden layup with 19 seconds left to preserve San Antonio's lead. Those plays finished off a fourth period in which he outscored Harden, 17-4, while defending him every second the Rockets star was on the court in the quarter.
Afterwards, Twitter exploded and NBA media outlets quickly filled with suggestions that many media reps who actually vote for MVP should expand what had been a two-man race—Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook or Rockets guard James Harden—to include Leonard.
NBA.com's Fran Blinebury wrote "while Harden and Russell Westbrook have been piling up points and ridiculous stat lines since October, it is Leonard who has been relentlessly and ruthlessly constructing an all-around resume that makes him the most complete player in the game."
SI.com's Andrew Sharp suggested "it's time to stop with the backhanded compliments. Kawhi Leonard isn't just the most complete player in the NBA—he might be the best player, period (and also the MVP)."
Washington Post NBA columnist Tim Bontemps noted "by carrying the Spurs to a thrilling 112-110 victory over the Houston Rockets, Leonard made his official entry into the MVP chase in a way only he was ever going to: with his play on the court."
SB Nation's Tim Cato asserted "Leonard made his on-court (MVP) case in about 10 seconds during Monday's 112-110 win against the Houston Rockets."
As usual, the Spurs dismiss the narrative, continuing a 20-year pattern of diminishing individual honors they deem impertinent to the ultimate goal of winning championships. Never once during the Popovich coaching era that began in 1996 have they engaged in a promotional campaign designed to further the candidacy of a player for any award. As long as Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford remain in charge in San Antonio, there won't be so much as an email citing the statistical accomplishments of Spurs players in attempt to woo votes. Popovich won't have it. He ridicules the lengths to which some teams go to influence voters, recalling when one team sent chemistry sets to voters to emphasize the team chemistry created by its MVP candidate.
"It's not king of the prom," Popovich said. "It's a wonderful award and I believe that people who vote for it vote based on criteria that are logical and appropriate and I don't think they need to be politicked and talked to and stroked to do what they need to do. Some ways, it's the American way, but I think it's absolutely ridiculous. Chemistry sets? That's one of the big ones I remember. Way back when, I got one, too. I put it in the garbage."
Somehow—and without help from team publicists—Tim Duncan won back-to-back MVP Awards in 2001-02 and 2002-03, as well as 15 All-NBA designations and 15 All-Defensive inclusions; Manu Ginobili became a winner of the Sixth Man Award; Tony Parker a four-time All-NBA selection; and Bruce Bowen an eight-time All-Defensive pick. Popovich was named Coach of the Year three times.
Don't doubt there is an extra measure of individual and organizational gratification for having done so without groveling for support.
But neither Popovich nor Leonard can stop others from trumpeting Leonard's case as a legitimate MVP candidate, even in the Year of the Triple Double that has passed him by. Kings assistant coach Elston Turner on Wednesday gave Leonard the ultimate MVP endorsement: a favorable comparison to Michael Jordan.
"I played two years with Michael and defended him in practice every day," said Turner, a solid defender who spent the 1986-87 and 1987-88 seasons with the Chicago Bulls. "I saw how competitive Mike was, literally up close and personal. What I saw him do the other night (vs. Houston), well, that was what Mike was like every second he was on the floor. And now I see the same things in Kawhi that I saw with Michael, especially when you're talking both ends (of the floor). It's that competitive thing, and it doesn't seem to matter if they're up 20 or down 20. It's always the same every time I watch him play.
"And, just like Mike, it seems like he never gets tired. They both have a stamina that other guys just don't have. It's amazing."
Kings general manager Vlade Divac cites the intangible factor he believes separates true MVP candidates from others who merely put up big numbers.
"(Leonard) makes everybody better on the floor, so that makes him an MVP candidate, right?" Divac said. "Isn't that what we say? He is that kind of guy and I like those players a lot.
"I don't think he's going to win it, but it's Westbrook, Harden, Kawhi and LeBron. Absolutely."
And among two-way players, standouts at both ends of the court?
"He's No. 1," Divac said.
Spurs players can't say enough about their MVP candidate teammate, and Ginobili made a compelling statement without uttering a word while Leonard personally took Monday's game away from the Rockets. When Leonard nailed the three-pointer that eventually determined the outcome, Ginobili rose from his seat on the Spurs bench and stared, hard, both hands on his head in disbelief.
For someone who has seen nearly everything in 22-plus years of professional play, the look on his face spoke volumes.
"I was kind of in shock," Ginobili said when asked to explain such astonishment. "Not because he hasn't done it. He has made already quite a few of those. But, the whole situation, the way he played in the fourth quarter. … That shot was crazy because he was contested and off the dribble, a very tough shot to make. And, then getting that block with Harden coming full speed is very hard to do, very hard to do. You've got to be very gifted, and he is."
Even Popovich was amazed by the block, so much so that he made something of a passive-aggressive endorsement of Leonard's MVP candidacy while discussing it.
"The block is what makes him special," Popovich said. "Obviously the three, you know Harden makes threes, Kawhi makes threes … Steph (Curry) makes threes. Everybody does that. But, I don't know who goes to the other end and does what (Kawhi) does; not that many people on a consistent basis, an entire game, game after game. Kawhi wanted it badly and he went and took it."
First-year Spurs center Pau Gasol saw plenty of take-over-the-game moments during six-plus seasons playing alongside Kobe Bryant with the Los Angeles Lakers. Now, he sees similar characteristics from Leonard.
"I hope (the voters) understand," Gasol said. "I hope they see, it's not hard to see if you really watch. I think he's very much deserving of getting the MVP this season. The way he's playing, the way he's contributing on both ends of the floor. He's not the guy that just puts up 30 points and that's it. He makes huge plays defensively so, to me, he's my MVP."
That is as close as anyone associated with the Spurs has come to evident promotion of Leonard's MVP candidacy.
Come late May or early June, we will find out if it means anything.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Stats sourtesy of NBA.com and BasketballReference.com, accurate through March 8.