It’s been a hell of a last two weeks for Russell Westbrook. The Thunder superstar put the finishing touches on one of the most remarkable seasons in NBA history, strapping his team on his back (as if he hasn’t been doing that all year) and single-handedly willing it to victory over Orlando, Dallas and Denver.
That last game also happened to be capped by a 35-foot catch-and-shoot buzzer beater which knocked the Nuggets out of playoff contention, and oh yeah, gave him points 48, 49 and 50 in his record-setting 42nd triple double of the season. Pinch yourself and read that last sentence again to make sure you’re not dreaming. Somehow, some way, this is real. Bestbrook has broken the game of basketball. But he’s not the MVP.
Put down your pitchforks folks, because the case I am about to make shouldn’t be very controversial. In fact, outside of Oklahoma it’s one that’s been discussed quite a bit. For those readers who might just tangentially follow the NBA, let me tell you about somebody named James Harden.
I’m sure you’re at least familiar with the name, as he was once the erstwhile sixth man on the 2011-12 Thunder team that advanced to the NBA Finals. Since being traded to the Houston Rockets one year later however, he has seen his star ascend to the level of his former OKC teammates Westbrook and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Oh, and all he did this year was average 29.1 PPG to go along with 8.1 rebounds and a league-leading 11.2 assists.
I’m being purposefully tongue-in-cheek here because even though Harden is one of the most recognizable players in the league, he is criminally underrated around these parts, and even across the national media landscape after Westbrook’s season-ending supernova.
Up through late March, he was rightly considered to be neck-and-neck with Russell, even slightly favored, in the MVP race. But then Westbrook hits his triple-double mark, which we all knew has been inevitable since January, and suddenly it’s not even a discussion anymore? That’s stupid. And quite frankly, so are triple-doubles.
Everyone needs to stop pretending that triple-doubles are anything other than an arbitrary delineation of statistical achievement that says little to nothing about actual quality of play. Don’t believe me? Player A has 10 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists while Player B has 50 points, 9 rebounds and 9 assists; who had the better game? Obviously the answer is Player B, but alas, he couldn’t even get a double-double, let alone a triple.
This is an extreme example that doesn’t accurately reflect the types of triple-doubles Westbrook was getting this year (he led the NBA in scoring at 31.6 per game) but the point is we shouldn’t discount Harden’s brilliance just because he didn’t grab two additional boards a game.
“Ok,” you’re saying, “now you’re just strawmanning this thing. Westbrook should win because he had the best season, not just because of the triple-doubles.” Unfortunately, that’s where his argument becomes less than airtight. There is virtually no statistical evidence that Westbrook had a better offensive year than James Harden, who put up raw numbers that were about 98 percent as impressive while doing it all much more efficiently.
It’s not just an illusion that Russ takes a lot of ill-advised, low percentage shots, but a fact borne out in his true shooting percentage (which combines and weights two-point, three-point and free throw attempts) that was nearly 60 points lower than Harden’s.
If you want to look at more advanced numbers to prove your case, you will still find things inconclusive: on the one hand, you have Harden leading the NBA in Win Shares and producing more points per possession on the pick-and-roll, while on the other you have Westbrook scoring like Michael Jordan in crunch time and the Thunder going from one of the highest scoring teams in the league to the very bottom when he sits out.
Amazingly, the factor that may be the tiebreaker in this case is defense. Historically, looking at things from the other side of the ball would give Westbrook a big edge. He came into the league lauded as one of its finest point guard defenders while Harden has become synonymous with slow-footed, apathetic D.
But look past the reputations and you will see that Westbrook has become one of the least impactful defensive players in basketball, contesting fewer shots than any other player in the league who logs as many minutes and ball-watching to an appalling degree.
Watch any Thunder game and you will notice a disturbing pattern: Westbrook may use his size and athleticism to body opponents early in the shot clock but it’s never long before he leaves his man and scrambles towards the basket for an opportunity to pad his rebounding numbers.
Harden, meanwhile, has made meaningful improvements both in the eye test and in defensive stats like RPM and Defensive Win Shares. He’ll probably never be elite on that end but he’s at least worked his way up to average, and that, combined with his greater efficiency, is enough for me to give him the edge over Westbrook.
Of course, Westbrook’s performance and the load he has shouldered (a record 41.7 percent usage rate) make him a worthy candidate and I can’t be mad if and when he wins. Same goes for Kawhi Leonard, the best two-way player in basketball, and LeBron James, who quietly averaged career highs in rebounds and assists while scoring 2 6 PPG on 55 percent shooting. We have been blessed with the number of all-time great performances we’ve witnessed this season, and it’s something we may never seen again.
Here’s a quick recap of my other award picks: Rookie of the Year was Joel Embiid’s to lose until the dynamic big man was knocked out with a knee injury in late February. He ended his season having only played 31 games, so I’ll give it to the Bucks’ Malcolm Brogdon instead, the most consistent of an otherwise uninspiring rookie class.
It should be a two-way battle for Defensive Player of the Year between Rudy Gobert and Draymond Green. The former had one of the finest rim protecting seasons in recent memory and operates with fewer elite teammates, so he gets my vote.
Eric Gordon’s shot faded as the season progressed but nobody else stood out enough to take Sixth Man of the Year away from him.
As much as I would like to award Most Improved Player to my future best man Isaiah Thomas, Giannis Antetokounmpo deserves it after making the leap from high-upside starter to legitimate top-10 player.
There are a million choices for Coach of the Year but Erik Spoelstra’s bringing the Miami Heat back to .500 after an 11–30 start needs recognition.