This year’s NBA MVP race is shaping up to be one of the most difficult to call that I have experienced in my lifetime. Westbrook has done the impossible and averaged a triple double while also taking home the scoring crown, James Harden has led his overachieving Rockets with mind-boggling numbers and leading the league in assists and Kawhi Leonard has established himself as a bonafide star on the 61-20 Spurs sitting at number 2 in the West. Over in the East, LeBron James is putting up numbers nobody has in their 14th year in the league and Isaiah Thomas, a 5’9 PG, has proven himself to be one of the most clutch scorers in the league today and his Celtics team won a very tight 3-way battle for the no.1 seed in the Eastern Conference. However, despite so many stand out performers, the MVP race is now down to just 2 horses and the debate rages on as to whether Harden or Westbrook is more deserving.
The NBA’s MVP and recipient of the Maurice Podoloff Trophy is defined simply as the best performing player in the league. This simple definition is a good starting point and, on the face of it at least, this simple definition would lend itself to supporting the Westbrook for MVP brigade. Let’s just get one thing straight, stat padding or not, Russ is averaging a triple double on a team that would not be in the playoffs without him. The Thunder traded away Ibaka last summer and built a supporting cast of role players to support KD and Russ, before KD bolted and left the Thunder looking very thin – light on shooting and lacking players unable to create their own shot. His averages of 31.9 points (1st), 10.4 assists (3rd) and 10.7 rebounds (11th in the league and 1st among all players not playing Power Forward or Center) are historic and, before this season, seemed unimaginable. There used to be a massive deal made when any single player posted a triple double; post multiple in a season and the world was in awe. Only 3 other active players (James Harden at 22 and LeBron James and Draymond Green at 13) have had more than 10 in a single season, and only 2 players in NBA history (Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson) have had more than 20 in one regular season. Regardless of how he did it, the feat should not be played down.
Russell Westbrook is also putting up some other nice numbers that get lost in the triple double hype. He leads the league in Value Over the Replacement Player (VORP) at 12.4 points per 100 possessions and the gap between Westbrook at 1 and Harden at number 2 (8.8 points per 100 possessions). He is also ahead of James Harden in defensive win shares (4.6 compared to 3.6), defensive rating (104 points per 100 possessions allowed by the Thunder with Westbrook on the floor compared to 107 allowed by the Rockets with Harden on the floor) and steals (1.6 to 1.5). There’s more to Westbrook’s case than just the triple doubles and if anyone bothered to look beyond that number you would see there’s a wealth of numbers that support the idea that Russ has outperformed Harden this year.
James Harden, however, is not too far behind statistically. His averages of 29.1 points (2nd), 11.2 assists (1st) and 8.1 rebounds are nothing to scoff at – even with D’Antoni’s system being widely credited with inflating his numbers and team that has been built and crafted around him and his talents. He leads the league in win shares at 15.0 and offensive win shares with 11.5 and is 4th in the NBA in 3 point makes per game with 3.2. He has had some truly amazing performances this year – arguably as many as Westbrook – including a 53 point, 16 rebound and 17 assist game (the first 50-15-15 triple double in NBA History).
Harden is also seen to be a much more efficient player (and conversely Westbrook is seen as an extremely inefficient player), better 3 point shooter and to take better care of the basketball. This is, though, is only partially correct. It’s true that Harden is probably more efficient, but the difference is marginal. His True Shooting% of 61.3% (41st) is much better compared to Westbrook’s 55.4% (181st). Harden does shoot a better FG% (44.0% compared to 42.5%) and 3P% (34.7% compared to 34.3%) but the difference is not enough to justify this perception that Westbrook’s inefficiency is a reason to favour Harden. James Harden also turns the ball over a touch more (5.7 TO per game compared to 5.4) despite the fact that his usage rate is significantly lower. Simply put, if a player turns the ball over more despite having the ball in his hands less then he doesn’t take better care of the ball. Harden is more efficient, yes; but not enough so to swing the pendulum in his favour.
Also, despite being known to hit big shots, Harden has been nowhere near as clutch as you’d expect an MVP to be. His already so-so FG% drops from 44.0% to 35.5% (245th in the NBA) in the last 5 minutes of games being decided by 5 points or less compared to Westbrook whose FG% actually increases to 44.6% in the clutch. Harden’s 3P% also falls to 27.3% compared to Westbrook’s 32.8% and he averages just over half as many points in the clutch (6.2 vs 3.8) as Westbrook. Being clutch is considered to be a hallmark of an MVP and, simply put, Harden has not been as effective as Westbrook has this year. Both have hit big shots, but Russ has unquestionably made more – 84 FGs made in the clutch compared to 31.
There are several people making arguments against choosing Westbrook as the MVP mostly centered on the notion that he stat pads to get his triple doubles. There are a lot of videos on YouTube showing instances where Westbrook either seems to leave a defensive assignment to chase a rebound, lining up at free throws where a forward typically would and collecting boards off missed free throws or where Steven Adams and other players appear to leave the rebounds for him to gather. The fact he’s padding out his rebounding stats to fuel his triple double achievements, many argue, undermines his MVP case as it undermines the value of the individual triple doubles. And true enough, Westbrook’s contested rebounding percentage has fallen from 24.0% last season to 20.2% this year. However, KD made a good point that it’s in OKC’s best interest to have Westbrook grabbing down boards to ignite the fast break or get them into their sets quickly. Also, there is little compelling tape to show how Westbrook being allowed to grab boards is hurting the team. And if the the argument is that it’s in some way bad that he was chasing the triple double record and his teammates were helping him, then its pretty much a non-argument. If it’s not hurting the team, and there’s no evidence to suggest it is (his defensive numbers are still very good), then there is no real argument here. A man should not be penalised for chasing records if it’s not getting in the way of wins and the Thunder’s chances of winning improve dramatically when Russ posts a triple double.
Westbrook shoots a lot of 3 pointers, holds onto the ball for a long time and often goes outside of the flow of the offense to get his points. This creates the perception (rightly in my honest opinion) that he is a bit of a ball hog. But, the case could be made that he dribbles around a lot because his teammates are very much reliant on him to create (and struggle to create their own shot). The Thunder also rank 29th in 3 point shooting at 32.7% and their lack of dependable scoring outside of Westbrook is well documented. He doesn’t trust his teammates and it shows when you watch them play. The Thunder lack scoring, but Westbrook has also demonstrated that he is not the high basketball IQ type player and playmaker that Harden is. Harden’s 11.2 assists are worth more than Westbrook’s; not just numerically but because he finds ways to exploit opportunities in a way that fits the flow of the offense. The excellent job that former Thunder coach Scott Brooks is doing with the Wizards suggests that, while Harden makes the system in Houston, Westbrook breaks it in Oklahoma City. Harden is almost certainly a much smarter and craftier basketball player, shown by the way he constantly teases the league’s best defenders into committing basically the same foul multiple times a game. I’d even go as far as to say that they are similar enough in skill for Harden to be considered the better player. However, the MVP is not given to the best player in the league (or LeBron would have to win it every year).
To summarise, Westbrook and Harden have had phenomenal seasons but, overall, Westbrook has been the better performer. Yes, the Rockets have won more games and wins are what it’s all about really; and yes, Harden is more efficient and probably a better player (offensively at least). But what Russell Westbrook has done this season is not only historic, but it almost belies belief. The fact that he has been a great 2-way player this season, been better in the clutch, done it all and dragged this Thunder team full of role players to the number 6 seed when they were expected to struggle to make the 8th seed at best cannot and should not be downplayed. Russell Westbrook is the MVP.