This week was full of highlights (the thrilling comeback versus the Denver Nuggets) and lowlights (the Phoenix Suns giving the Thunder a beat-down), but with the playoff seeding set and Russell Westbrook’s chase for 42 triple doubles complete, I’m going to stray from the norm a bit and run through seven reasons why I think Westbrook is the MVP.
SIX REASONS WHY WESTBROOK IS THE MVP
This. More on plays like this later, but in a season full of MVP-worthy moments, it was fitting that Westbrook capped his record setting performance with the first buzzer-beating game-winner of his career. The Brodie is a winner.
Advanced stats. Understandably, the MVP race has narrowed to two candidates: Westbrook and James Harden. While guys like Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry, Lebron James and Kevin Durant may generate some votes, no one realistically thinks anyone other than the two aforementioned guys have a chance at the award. It’s only natural, then, that the two will be compared endlessly in what may be one of the closest MVP races since 2005, when Steve Nash edged Shaquille O’Neal by a paltry 32 points.
The two are somewhat close in traditional stats, Westbrook with more points and rebounds, Harden with more assists. But advanced stats are supposed to be the better measure of individual performance, and a comparison of popularly-used advanced metrics gives Westbrook a clear edge over Harden (stats through April 10). Seems pretty relevant, I think.
Help. One easy way to quantify “value” is to measure how much a single player improves his team. While advanced stats try to measure some of that (see, above), it’s also worth comparing the supporting casts . The easy way to approach this is with stats, and the stats bear out that Harden has measurably more talent surrounding him.
For example, Houston’s bench is one of the top units in the league, scoring 39.2 points per game with a net rating of +3.8. The Thunder’s bench, on the other hand, struggles to score, averaging 35.8 points per game with a net rating of -3.6. Basically, when Harden checks out, the bench either maintains leads or shrinks deficits. When Westbrook checks out, the bench typically loses leads or compounds deficits.
As far as individual talent, Houston has three players (including Harden) in the top 50 in PER. Oklahoma City has two (Westbrook and Kanter). In real plus minus, the Rockets can claim three among the top 50, while the Thunder have only Westbrook in the top 50. For box plus minus, Westbrook checks in at the top and the team doesn’t place another player on the list until spot 99, occupied by Steven Adams. Houston has four guys between 1 and 99.
I hate to knock on the Thunder and their developing talent, but it’s rather apparent that Harden is surrounded by much more skill than Westbrook. The talent gap can easily explain the win disparity (and keep reading for more thoughts on that) between the two clubs, but regardless, the load that Westbrook is carrying night in and night out to help his team win is far greater than Harden. If that’s not value, I don’t know what is.
Triple doubles and history. Breaking a seemingly unbreakable record does not mean Westbrook automatically deserves the MVP award. However, it can’t be ignored that Westbrook broke a record that stood for 55 years. An individual record so unreachable that Wilt Chamberlain was previously second on the single-season list, with 31. In fact, until Magic Johnson had 18 in 1982, no player other than Robertson and Chamberlain had recorded 18 or more triple doubles in a season.
What’s more remarkable is that Westbrook will average a triple-double for the season. Not only did Westbrook show up enough to set a mark that could last for decades, but he did so virtually every game this season.
To keep piling on the accolades, Westbrook played just 34.8 minutes per game, currently the 19th highest mark in the league (and nearly two minutes less than Harden). There were five games this year where Westbrook was two rebounds or assists away from another triple double. It’s not a stretch to say that Westbrook has the ability to hit 50 triple doubles in a single season. Who else could even imagine achieving such a feat? (hint: no one.)
In the clutch. Much has been made of Westbrook’s play in the final five minutes of a game where the spread is just five points or less (aka, “clutch” time). Statistically, Westbrook leads the league in points per game, PIE (the NBA’s player efficiency rating), and usage, and has an impressive +21.7 net rating, while carrying a TS% of 57%. Westbrook also gets better in the clutch, with his FG%, FT%, and his EFG% all higher in the clutch versus the rest of the game. Suffice to say, no one in the NBA does more for his team with the game on the line than Westbrook.
Winning. Now, after Westbrook’s amazing Sunday, which included not only his 42nd triple double of the year, but also the game-winning three from above, Harden took to campaigning. It should absolutely be noted that the Rockets have had an amazing year, far exceeding virtually all expectations. Harden has led the charge with such force that he’s made himself an MVP candidate, while his team has racked up 54 wins and the third seed in the NBA playoffs. That team success prompted Harden to assert that he should be the leader in the MVP race: “I thought winning was what this is about. I’m not going to get into depths, but I thought winning is the most important thing.”
And you know what, he’s absolutely right. Winning should be the most important thing.
But here’s where Harden is mistaken, no one is more responsible for their team’s success than Westbrook. Take Harden off the Rockets, and they probably aren’t very good. Maybe a .500 team at best. Take Westbrook off the Thunder, though? The Thunder might go 0-82 (slight exaggeration). Running through the points made above, every one of the reasons Westbrook should win demonstrates his value to the team and his contributions to winning.
You want to know why Westbrook leads Harden in nearly every major advanced statistic? Because Westbrook has commanded so much of the Thunder’s statistical categories, he, naturally, leads the way in the statistics that attempt to measure individual performance. You want to know why Westbrook’s triple doubles are so important? Because the team wins 79% of the time when he gets a triple double (a 64 win pace, for the record). Or why his clutch stats matter? Because time after time, Westbrook has led his team to victory, virtually by sheer force of will (see his games against the Grizzlies, Mavericks, Magic, and Nuggets as just small samples).
Both Harden and Westbrook have had incredible seasons. The margin between them is shockingly small considering the incredible feats Westbrook has accomplished. But though the margin may be small, it is certainly meaningful. No one in the NBA is doing more to help his team win the Westbrook.
AND ONE MORE MAKES SEVEN
Narrative. This season was always going to be about Westbrook. The excitement of a season of Westbrook-unhinged created buzz around a team that had just lost a generational talent. From the first game, Westbrook demonstrated he wouldn’t be content simply being the best player on the team–he wanted his team to compete at his level every game. The cupboard much more bare with the departures of Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka, Westbrook readily accepted the immense challenge of taking a haphazardly constructed team to the playoffs.
While Durant left a sour taste in the mouths of Thunder fans, and became a source for mockery around the league, Westbrook became the new face of loyalty. With multiple GMs believing Westbrook would want out of the rebuilding project in Oklahoma City, Westbrook rebuffed a chance to ring-chase elsewhere to sign a multi-year extension to stay in Oklahoma City.
Westbrook is the definition of resilient. Overlooked as a college recruit. Backup as a freshman. Considered a reach when drafted. Criticized during his career for standing in the way of Durant. And now, the lone superstar in a land of superteams, achieving the single-greatest statistical feat in NBA history.
Like the storybook end to his 42nd triple double, Westbrook’s season sans-Durant deserves a storybook ending: the 2017 NBA Most Valuable Player Award.