Russell Westbrook (Brodie)
With four minutes left in the game, Westbrook takes a hard dribble right – drawing an eventual double team – leaving Semaj Christon, a rookie from Xavier, free in the right corner. Russell pushes the ball to an open Christon, consequently putting his claim for MVP in the hands of a late second round pick. As the nineteen thousand plus situated in the Pepsi Center stand up, Semaj knocks down the corner three, cutting the Nuggets lead to ten. For Westbrook this was another attempt at a miraculous late game comeback. However, for the NBA and the sold out Pepsi Center this was history. On this routine corner three, Brodie had cemented his name in the history books; now his forty-second triple double in a single campaign, breaking the record previously held by Oscar Robertson. The sold out crowd treated Westbrook with a standing ovation, which was not his first from an opposing crowd this season. The UCLA graduate capped off this night with a three point buzzer beater, miles behind the three-point line, culminating in another Westbrook led fourth-quarter comeback. Obviously this season was much more important for Westbrook than it was for anyone else in the association. Beginning with the sudden departure of Kevin Durant, Westbrook received his fair share of criticism from various members of the media. Labeled as “hard to play with” and “bad teammate” this season became a revenge tour for Russ. Westbrook became a symbol of loyalty and the perfect model of a true competitor, opting to stay with the Thunder. Undermanned and underappreciated, Russell became the victim of divorce. Excluding northwest California, the entirety of the NBA audience gathered behind Westbrook’s revenge tour and watched in awe as he began his “I didn’t need him anyways” campaign. We fell in love with Westbrook as the fiery competitor that he his and rooted against Durant and the new age in superteams that the Warriors represented. However, we should not let our love for a traditional competitor and our admiration for the triple-double blind us from objectively determining who in the nba is in fact the most valuable player?
Westbrook doubters have surely loaded up their ammunition as it becomes time to vote for the eventual MVP. The common angle is that his team is sitting in sixth place while the other candidates are no lower than third – in their respective conferences. Padding his stats has also been brought up by many LeBron and Harden lovers. The fact of the matter is that in this argument there is no need to bring up counting statistics since Russ is so far ahead of the competition. The last, most common complaint many people have regarding Westbrook is his turnover numbers. Westbrook not only broke Oscar Robertson’s record for triple-doubles in a season, but he also managed to break George McGinnis’s record for turnovers in a single season.
Per Basketball Reference
The advanced stats all seem to be sending the same message. Russell Westbrook is the most efficient player in the NBA across the board. This would come as a surprise to most: considering his hard-nosed, aggressive, attack the basket first mentality. There’s little need to extrapolate here considering the stats speak for themselves. These stats prove that Westbrook – pertaining to this season – has been more careful with the ball than LeBron and James Harden.
To effectively determine who is the rightful heir to this prestigious title, we first have to clarify the definition of value. Value directly translates to the effect of one’s addition. Meaning how much does this player add to a certain team. The VORP metric directly compares a player’s impact to that of an average player at that position. In this particular metric, it happens to be that Westbrook is miles ahead of competition. MVP shouldn’t be given to the best player in the league every season or LeBron would have won it the past twelve seasons. Rather, it should be given to the player whose presence gives the team its best chance to win every single night. Without Westbrook the Thunder would be a cat-hair better than the abysmal Brooklyn Nets. With him, on the other hand, they are the sixth best team in a star-studded conference. Don’t overthink it, give the man what he deserves or he shall be even better next year.
- Lucio Vainesman
Kawhi Leonard (Klaw)
As the NBA season comes to an end, much of the conversation will be on the playoffs and award season; the biggest of the awards given out annually is the MVP award, given to the best – or most valuable – player in the league. Much of the discussion this year has been between Russell Westbrook, who averaged a triple double this year, or James Harden, who was second in the league in scoring, first in assists, and led the Rockets to a three seed in the west. However, there is another man out west who has been having a quietly stellar season. He has been undermined by the greatness of both Harden and Westbrook: his name is Kawhi Leonard and he is the reason the Spurs are the two seed in the west.
This Spurs team was not supposed to be as good as usual. Yes, they were led by legendary coach Gregg Popovich. However, they were missing hall of famer Tim Duncan and their star players, Parker and Ginobili, are seeing their careers coming to an end. Thus, leaving this Spurs team in the hands of Leonard, Lamarcus Aldridge, and Pau Gasol. This begs the question, how did the Spurs end up with the two seed? The answer is simple: Kawhi Leonard. His numbers don’t jump off the page like Westbrook or Harden, yet the impact that he has when he’s on the court is just as great. Kawhi averaged 25.5 PPG, 5.8 REB, 3.5 AST, and 1.8 STL, while also shooting 49% from the field. While we tend to be amazed by the impact that both Westbrook and Harden have on the offensive end with their jaw-dropping dimes and unreal shots, Kawhi’s impact can be seen on both ends of the court. A game, a couple of weeks ago, consisted of the Spurs battling the Rockets. With under 30 seconds to go in the game the Spurs trailed the Rockets by 1. Kawhi came off a screen and nailed a 3-pointer to give the Spurs a two point lead. On the ensuing possession, James Harden came driving down the lane and seemed to have what would have been a game tying layup before Leonard came out of nowhere to deny his shot and preserve a win for the Spurs. This is just one of the many plays that stand out in what was a remarkable season for Kawhi Leonard. He does not possess the same “glamor” that Russ and Harden have; Leonard is a silent star. The term “most valuable” is subjective, but what it means is what player was most valuable to their team. Kawhi Leonard has led this Spurs team to the number two seed in the West. A mere two weeks ago this Spurs team was fighting for the number one seed in the West and Kawhi was the engine that kept this team running. He might have some good talent around him in Gasol and Aldridge, but neither one of those guys are good enough to be considered “The Guy” on one of the best teams in the NBA. They need a superior player to set them up, and in this case that superior player is Leonard: the man who should be given the MVP award. In today’s NBA, the man with the biggest personality generally garners all the attention and the fame. Therefore, we are inclined to say that either Harden or Westbrook should win the MVP award. However, if you have had the chance to see Kawhi play this season you would realize that his game is much more than numbers. His game is exemplified by his play on offense and defense, a down-to-earth guy who just wants to win. He is the best player on the Spurs,one of the best players in the league, and he deserves the 2017 MVP award.
- Ean Greenberg
The case for James Harden vs. Russell Westbrook for MVP often lacks perspective. By all metrics, they have put up two of the greatest statistical seasons in NBA history, and either would be a deserving MVP in any given year. At the same time, the MVP debate has often been muddled. As much as FiveThirtyEight and other publications would like to market this as a five horse race, tacking on LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Stephen Curry to the debate slate, it is not. While LeBron might be the consensus best player in the league, Kawhi the most versatile two way star, and Curry the most revolutionary talent, the transcendence of Harden and Westbrook this year has left them well in the dust.
Finally, the MVP debate this year often lacks proper direction. It has been characterized repeatedly as a microcosmic struggle between a new age analytics darling (Harden) and the outdated model of a high-usage, low-efficiency volume scorer (Westbrook), especially by those in Harden’s camp. I will not endeavor to make that case in my endorsement of James Harden for MVP, though not for lack of merit. Treating these two evolutionary stars as mere stand-ins for a larger debate among basketball writers and analysts is doing a disservice to the historic seasons both have compiled. Instead, it will become clear that through objective evaluation of each as a player, James Harden is the deserving MVP.
Start with win shares. On the most fundamental level, the most valuable player is the one who helps his team win the most. Harden is the league leader, compiling a total of 15.0 win shares for his team, nearly two more than Westbrook’s 13.1, which ranks fifth. Part of this, one might say, is a product of Harden’s superior supporting cast and team success, as the Rockets were eight wins better than the Thunder. However, the purpose of win shares is to strip all of this away, posing the question of how much better a team is due to the impact of solely that one player. Furthermore, it is hard to make the argument that the Rockets’ additional wins are a strike against Harden. In fact, no player has ever won MVP while playing for a team with as few wins as Westbrook, and Harden’s Rockets are indeed the most overachieving team in the league, beating their Las Vegas preseason wins line of 40.5 by 14. As win shares would have it, most of that came from the Beard himself.
Even so, that all might seem a little sudden. At no point do we let one statistic decide an MVP race, even if it is one that is designed to do exactly that. Westbrook leads his fair share of supposedly-definitive composition statistics, including Player Efficiency Rating and Value Over Replacement Player. The case for Harden only gets stronger, though, when one looks at the why and how behind these stats. Start on offense because that is the touted strength of both players, as well as the much closer debate. While Westbrook might have won the scoring title in the end, his offensive play gets outpaced in a couple of key areas. First, while he might not have scored as much, Harden led the league in points produced (a measure of points and assists), accounting for 56.4 points per game, nearly half of his team’s record-shattering total, and good for first in the league. While Westbrook may have been the better individual talent, it is clear that Harden was the one making his teammates better.
Furthermore, Westbrook’s absurd volume scoring statistics were a product of (even though I said I wouldn’t do this) old-school, low-efficiency, high-volume, isolation scoring. Westbrook’s usage rating on the year–an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player when he was on the floor–was 41.7%, which was more than 7% more than the second place finisher in that category, Harden, who used 34.2%. So it is clear that Westbrook’s scoring numbers were inflated by a higher number of offensive opportunities, but that is fine, and even ideal, some might say, as long as Westbrook used those opportunities as well as Harden did. Unsurprisingly, this is where his case falls apart. While their conventional shooting slash lines of FG%/3P%/FT% might give the impression that Harden holds only a narrow lead (Harden: 44.8%/35.2%/84.8%, Westbrook: 42.2%/33.6%/83.9%), Harden’s propensity for the three ball gives him a clear lead in true shooting percentage of 62% to 54.9%. All told, his season represents the most efficient offensive output from a player playing his volume of minutes in the three-point era. Advantage Harden.
Obviously, though, Harden’s case does not stop on offense. Normally, this would be the part where he gets maligned for his subpar defensive performance for the season, punctuated by a highlight reel of the Rockets guard getting crossed up, forgetting defensive assignments, and not contesting layups. Surely, Harden has had his share of those miscues this season, and surely Westbrook supporters will point to a similar highlight reel, but once again, the numbers tell a different story. Per Synergy, Harden’s defense ranks in the 56th percentile among point guards. In the opinion of most all NBA statisticians and analysts, his defense has been very “fine”. While “fine” certainly doesn’t fill billboards or win championships, it also does not take him out of the MVP conversation given his offensive prowess.
The same cannot be said, though, of his Oklahoma City rival. While Russ’s athletic swipes and high-risk interceptions have landed him on SportsCenter and sent him vaulting up counting stats leaderboards, those surface details mask damning inefficiencies. As always, the proof is in the pudding. Most significantly: Westbrook contested a grand total of 160 field goals the entire season, good for dead last in the NBA among players averaging 30 or more minutes per game by a considerable margin. Hilariously, the only two players who have contested fewer three-point field goal attempts are Rudy Gobert and Hassan Whiteside–yes, his own center Steven Adams has contested more three pointers than he has. And that’s not even the end of it. On average, Westbrook is contesting just 3.4 of his point guard match-up’s 13.1 field goal attempts while on the floor, meaning that the player he’s supposed to be defending is attempting 74% of his shots without a contest from Westbrook. Hence, it is no surprise that Westbrook’s opponents are shooting 6.9% better than their expected FG%, good for last among all guards.
So why is Westbrook failing to contest all those shots, you ask? The answer gets to the heart of the third, and possibly most damning, critique of Westbrook’s MVP candidacy–a critique which involves his precious triple-double stats. Instead of contesting shots, Westbrook has been crashing for rebounds, boosting his triple-double numbers at the expense of team defense, and catalyzing a vigorous backlash against his stat-stuffing candidacy. Westbrook leads the league in the statistic of uncontested rebounds with 8.5 per game, good for tops in the league, and just 64 of his total boards have been contested. Hence, not only has he been deserting his man for rebounding opportunities, but his teammates have cleared out and let him have them, potentially creating the situation where the Thunder’s point guard is also their rebounding leader.
Once that block tumbles, so does his candidacy. Westbrook averages 11.1 assists at home, but only 9.4 on the road, a discrepancy that no other assist leader maintains, including Harden, who actually averages 1.1 fewer at home. While one can give him credit for home-court advantage, that advantage might be pumped up a little by Thunder scoring officials (see the link above). In the end, this is nothing to take away from Westbrook’s candidacy. He is a phenomenal basketball player who deserves every ounce of praise he has gotten for his record-setting season. In the end, though, this is also why he cannot be MVP. It is not just the advanced analytics and efficiency-obsessed statisticians calling for a Harden vote; it is the most rational and logical choice in a selection that defines slim margins and good competition. Overall, a vote for Harden is indubitably the right choice.
- Daniel Oestericher