Monday, May 01, 2017

Russell Westbrook Is the Friggin' MVP

In the first round of the 2017 playoffs, the Houston Rockets eliminated the Oklahoma Thunder in 5 games.

So what?  Russell Westbrook is still my choice for MVP.

We’re talking about the regular season MVP here.  Heck, he friggin’ averaged a triple-double for an entire season, the first time someone ever did so since Oscar Robertson did it during 1961-62 season (and doing so in today’s pace and context is much harder than as it was decades ago).  On top of that, he’s the scoring champion.  He’s top 3 in assists per game.  He’s top 10 in rebounds per game (when was the last time a guard averaged in double figures with rebounds?  Also, he’s the first player 6'3 or under to average at least 10 rebounds). He has the most triple-doubles in a season.
And he clinched the record in an epic fashion...
...scoring 50 points, plus a spectacular deep, buzzer-beating, game winning trey!
He has most 50-point and 40-point triple doubles in a season.  He has the most points (57) made in a triple-double game.  He’s the first and only player that hasn’t missed a field goal (6-of-6) and free throw (also 6-of-6) in a triple-double game.  He’s the first player to have at least one triple-double against 27 of the 29 teams in a season (he wasn’t able to do so against the Chicago Bulls and the Portland Trailblazers).  He’s the first player to have multiple streaks of more than five triple-doubles in one season.  He’s the first player get seven triple-doubles in a row since Michael Jordan in 1989; just two short of tying Wilt Chamberlain for the NBA record of most consecutive triple-doubles (nine in 1968).  Also, those triple-doubles were pretty necessary for his team’s success as they record a 32-9 record whenever he accomplished the feat.

Funny that before the start of the season, I kind of predicted this happening when I made this status post on Facebook (a satirical forecast for the Warriors):
It was intended as a joke, but I just knew he was going to go Super Saiyan this season, with Kevin Durant gone.

Still, even if put the first round series between the Rockets and Thunder into consideration, it only reinforces the case that Westbrook is far more deserving of the award than Harden.  Whenever Westbrook sat, his team got thoroughly annihilated in almost a blink of an eye.  Whenever Harden sat, his team kept functioning like a well-oiled machine.  To put that in numbers, whenever Westbrook was on the floor, the Thunder were outscoring the Rockets by 4.9 points per 100 possessions, but whenever he was on the bench, the team was being outscored by 51.3 points per 100 possessions!  In comparison, whenever Harden was on the floor, the Rockets were outscoring the Thunder by 1.8 points per 100 possessions, but it’s 18.2 points per 100 possessions whenever he’s on the bench!  In a sense, the Rockets were even better without Harden (that’s not necessarily true in the overall context though).
This simply reflects what was the reality during the regular season.  Rockets were winning even with Harden on the bench (plus-6.3 when Harden was on the floor, and plus-2.8 when he was on the bench), but the Thunder were losing when Westbrook was on the bench (plus-3.3 when Westbrook was on the floor, and negative-8.9 when he was on the bench).   In other words, the Thunder is garbage without Westbrook.  But a Thunder with Westbrook could arguably have been just as good as a Harden-less Rockets.

Without Westbrook, the Thunder definitely wouldn’t be in the playoffs.  They would have competed with the Lakers and the Suns for last in the West.  Meanwhile, even without Harden, Mike D’Antoni seems to have the right personnel to make his system work for Houston.  This was seen during the latter part of the season, against the Suns, when Harden was rested for his wrist injury, and Patrick Beverley filled the role in a more-than-decent capacity (26 points, 9 assists, 8 rebounds).

When the two players are compared side by side beyond basic per-game stats (Wesbrook’s 31.6 points, 10.4 assists, 10.7 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 0.4 blocks, 5.4 turnovers, 43% FG vs. Harden’s 29.1 points, 11.2 assists, 8.1 rebounds, 1.5 steals, 0.5 blocks, 5.7 turnovers, 44% FG), it only further shows that Westbrook is more impactful.  Westbrook has a better Player Efficiency Rating (league-best 30.6 vs. Harden’s 27.3).  He has grabbed more available rebounds (17.1% vs. Harden’s 12.1%).  And Harden may be the assist leader, but Westbrook assisted more to his teammate’s points than Harden did (league-best 57.3 % of the time vs. Harden’s 50.7 %).

Sure, Harden was able to get his points more efficiently (he has a 61.3% True Shooting vs. Westbrook’s 55.4% True Shooting), but I will argue that it’s because Westbrook, with the kind of help he has (a bad Westbrook shot has more chance of going in than an open shot from most of his teammates), couldn’t afford to be prudent, as he needs to be recklessly aggressive for his team to have an edge.  Meanwhile, Harden has three-point specialists/capable scorers Lou Williams, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, and Trevor Ariza as teammates, providing him the luxury to pick his shots.  Plus, he always gets all those free-throws because he has that shrewd, bullshit free-throw-baiting move.
Ingenious but annoying. 

Both understandably turned the ball over at a regular basis (their turnovers-per-game are basically comparable) considering their roles for their teams.  But upon deeper analysis, while Westbrook turned the ball over 15.9 % of the time, it’s something pretty acceptable due to his unprecedented 47.1 % usage rate, since, again, the Thunder is unable to produce without running the offense exclusively through him.  Meanwhile, Harden, even with a significantly lower usage rate than Westbrook (just 34.2%) was turning the ball over at a bad 19.5% rate.

It’s pretty clear that Westbrook is far more valuable to his team than Harden is to his.  And it’s not hard to imagine that if the two switched places, Westbrook would have had a more gargantuan, historical season than what he already got while running D’Antoni’s system and having all those dead-eye shooters around him.  On the other hand, I don’t think Harden can drag a Thunder team of Andr√© Robersons and Enes Kanters into the playoffs.

Indeed, Harden has had an MVP-level season, too.  But so did LeBron James (as usual from him, and this season, he had career bests in assists and rebounds per game) and Kawhi Leonard (who I personally think is more deserving of the MVP award than Harden).  And, to an extent, John Wall, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Isaiah Thomas, too.  If this had been any other season, any of those guys could have won it.  But this had been a season when Russell Westbrook was out-of-this-world.  At this point, with genuine honesty, I couldn’t fathom anybody voting for someone other than Wesbrook.  Curry won the first unanimous MVP last year, and rightfully so.  But, in my opinion, Westbrook has had a season that has been far more deserving of a unanimous MVP.
Westbrook is the reason the Thunder remained relevant even though it lost someone like Durant.  Tickets are still selling out because everyone wants to see him.  He’s a significant reason why it’s exciting to be, not only a Thunder fan, but an NBA fan right now; we’ve been able to witness history in our lifetime.

Moreover, Westbrook has been relatively humble about it.  He wasn’t going out making it all about him, though he arguably has the right to do so.  He was always talking how the “team” and “winning games” are all what’s matter to him.  Granted that, deep inside, he might actually want that MVP over team success and was just being a “politician” about it (I doubt it; he seemed sincere); still, he has said the right things – likable and admirable things – throughout the season.  (Meanwhile, Harden and people in his organization like Rockets GM Daryl Morey had been practically begging for MVP votes.  Pathetic.)

In 2006, the MVP award was given to Steve Nash when Kobe Bryant had to score at least 35 points a game in order to drag a terrible joke-of-a-Laker-team into the playoffs.  Seriously, that team had sub-NBA players like Smush Parker and Kwame Brown in its starting lineup.  Kobe’s efforts to make the Lakers qualify for the playoffs were nothing short of superhuman (that was also the season he had to score 81 points just to win a game against the Raptors).  Yet, the MVP was laughably given to Nash just because his team has a better record than Kobe’s.  In a way, though the two scenarios aren’t exactly identical – Kobe’s averaging 35.4 points a game isn’t as impressive as Westbrook’s triple-double season, and Westbrook’s Thunder team isn’t as atrocious as Kobe’s 2005-06 Laker team – Westbrook is now in position where Kobe had been.  And my fear is that MVP voters would screw the former just as they did the latter.  I really hope they make the right call this time around.

But even if voters somehow stupidly vote otherwise, this will always be true in principle: Russell Westbrook is the friggin’ 2016-17 regular season MVP!!!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree RW deserves MVP, but just barely over Harden. Factoring shooting efficiency, I'd argue Harden's stats are better. Harden has always been an efficient shooter, whereas RW has always been an inefficient shooter. So, the reason you give for RW's supposed worse shooting efficiency isn't applicable.

I disagree RW would've had a better statistical season with D'antoni. I'd actually expect his overall #'s to be worse. He'd certainly score less with better offensive teammates, possibly assist slightly more, probably rebound slightly worse. He is a phenomenal rebounder, but watch what OKC does when boxing out. RW is often not guarding anyone, while his 4 other teammates box out often not going very hard for the rebound. This allows RW free run at the rebound. Part of this is smart since RW can then initiate a fastbreak right away without waiting for a pass; however, this greatly skews his rebounding ability. He's the best rebounding guard in the league with Harden 2nd, but not by the margin the #'s suggest.

If you look back at some of the best individual seasons, they occurred on suspect offensive teams where the main guy can just go off and shoot as much as he wanted to.

Leonard also has a case, but James really doesn't. He couldn't even secure the #1 seed in the East. BOS is a terrible #1 seed, too. CLE greatly underachieved during the regular season, and guys like RW/Harden certainly played better.

The problem with OKC wasn't their starters. Taking RW/Harden out of the equation, OKC's starters actually outplayed HOU's starters. The problem for OKC was that their bench was terrible, and while HOU only played 3 bench players, all 3 of them are very good reserves and were the difference in the series. RW is a smaller player, and isn't able to play enough minutes. He's only once played 35mpg in the regular season, while never reaching 39mpg in the playoffs. Kobe routinely averaged 43-44mpg in the playoffs, including 12 playoffs of 39mpg+, 9 playoffs of 40mpg+, and 6 playoffs of 43mpg+.

RW is certainly more valuable to his team than Harden is to HOU or anyone else is to their respective team; however, that hardly means he's MVP of the league. That just primarily means he's one of the top players in the league who happens to have the worst cast, though I don't see his cast as being that poor. They're a lot better cast than Kobe had in the mid-2000s. HOU probably makes the playoffs without Harden, though I'm not sold that. However, they'd be swept as a 7 or 8 seed if they did.

Beverley played one game without Harden against a terrible PHO team was tanking and putting out D-leaguers, can't make much of that game. We saw how inconsistent he is on offense in the 1st round.