Russell Westbrook should win the 2017 NBA MVP. You aren’t supposed to average a triple-double. You aren’t supposed to be the first player under 6’4” to average double-digit rebounds over a season. You aren’t supposed to break Oscar Robertson’s record for the most triple-doubles in a season. You aren’t supposed to keep winning after you lose the second best player in the world. You aren’t supposed to do any of the previously listed feats while running at 100 miles per hour throughout the entire game – okay that’s a slight hyperbole, but not by much.
Following a 50-point, 16-rebound, 10- assist effort against the Denver Nuggets on Sunday, Russ has seemingly swayed all of the MVP momentum in his direction – Vegas has him at 1/6 to win it. Not to mention that Brodie led his Thunder back from 14 points down with six minutes left in the game and sunk the game-winning three pointer from 35 feet out, so there’s that as well.
The Thunder are now sitting at 46-34 on the season, and by advanced metrics they’d be approximately 6-74 without Westbrook – again, hyperbole, but probably not by much. In a season in which Westbrook has been bombarded by constant criticisms on his play and questions about Kevin Durant, OKC’s lead man has somehow channeled all of the negativity into sheer force and energy on the court. And that has put the Thunder in a position that not many could have predicted entering the season.
In a year with multiple worthy candidates though, it could still be a close race. James Harden’s season can’t be undermined. Numerically, his numbers are around the same from last year, but is getting four more assists a game. He was dangerously close to leading the league in both points and assists, all while playing more attentive defense. Somebody has to lose though, and unfortunately Harden’s career year will have to go down as one of the best seasons for a non-MVP.
The Rockets have played surprisingly well while Harden sits – Harden on court net +/- of 6.5, without Harden is 3.8 – while the Thunder crumble in Westbrook’s absence – Russ on court net +/- of 3.3, without Russ is -9.8. James revitalizing himself as point guard is nothing short of spectacular, but he’s doing it with guys that have experience creating for themselves – especially with the addition of Lou Williams – and with Eric Gordon finally being healthy.
For all that has been said about Westbrook’s poor efficiency, Harden and Russ are around the same ballpark in terms of shooting percentages. Harden actually turns the ball over at a higher rate than Russ – 19.4 turnovers per 100 plays compared to 15.9 – and that’s while Westbrook is sporting the highest usage rate in NBA history.
Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James are two others that have thrown their hat in the MVP case over the last month or so. Coming off back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards, Leonard surprisingly evolved into an elite scorer and has the Spurs in prime position to contend just a year removed from the Tim Duncan-era. But in a year of eye-popping stats Leonard’s comparatively pedestrian numbers in the archaic categories – just 5.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists – don’t hold up to the rest of the candidates. His team is also rather good even when he sits (+/- 8.8 w/ Kawhi versus 6.8 w/o).
LeBron has a bit more of a compelling argument. He’s averaging a career high in assists and rebounds in his 14th year in the league. He’s converting from the field at a rate that we haven’t seen since his Miami days. He’s shooting it better from three than in recent years, while attempting more from beyond the arc.
His Cavs are still in first place in the East – for now – and are a much more serious threat than either of Westbrook or Harden’s teams. But they were supposed to be there. No team in the East can realistically stack up to the Cavs’ three-headed monster, in yet they are tied atop the conference with Boston while Toronto is just a game behind. Of course, injuries and poor play while LeBron sits have played a part, but there is something to be said about how much Cleveland has underachieved this year.
Throwing advanced metrics out, Westbrook just does more for his team on a game-to-game basis. If stats told the whole story, we would have a computer pick the MVP based off of a formula. Russ plays like he’s fighting for a roster spot, not the star player for a team going to the playoffs. His tremendous year won’t be invalidated if the voters decide to go in a different direction, but the Thunder would be a perennial bottom-dweller without him. The MVP isn’t a lifetime achievement award, or a project on future years, it’s based upon how you performed in that given season. And nobody has performed at a higher level than Russell Westbrook.