There are just a few games remaining in the 2016-17 NBA regular season, and barring any miraculous developments over the next couple of days the chase for League MVP is a two man race. Sure people might say that Kawhi Leonard and Lebron James deserve to be in the discussion for the award, as they always do, but both the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook and the Rockets’ James Harden are having historic seasons, separating them from the rest of the league. But whose case is stronger? Well, in this addition of “OR” we argue both sides of the case, making a strong argument for both MVP candidates.
The reason Westbrook will win the MVP this season is pretty simple. For an award that is supposed to be about value, no player has been as valuable to their team or to the league as Russell Westbrook has; arguably ever.
Without Westbrook the Thunder aren’t the 6th seed in the Western Conference like they are now. Heck, without Russ they don’t make the playoffs, they don’t have a winning record, they don’t have a shot at either. Without Westbrook the only thing the Thunder would be guaranteed would be a lottery pick. Their roster is that bad.
Oklahoma City is the home of just one All-Star and that’s the former UCLA guard. The best player for Billy Donovan’s Thunder outside of the outstanding point guard is Victor Oladipo, a draft bust out of Indiana who even the lowly Magic gave up on. And while Oladipo is having an alright year for OKC, as is Enes Kanter, both of these players, the top two scorers for the team outside of Westbrook, aren’t even combining to score as much as their star PG. Their rebounding numbers combined aren’t equivalent to the 6’3 guard either. And to equal the number of assists that Westbrook has piled up this season you would have to add up every player that has suited up for Oklahoma City this season, and even then you would barely have the number of assists between 18 players that Westbrook has by himself.
In addition to that, his insane numbers at the three major individual statistics in basketball are unheard of. Averaging 31.7 points per game all but assures him the scoring title with just 3 games left, and with 10.7 rebounds per game Russell Westbrook is 10th in the league in rebounds…as a point guard. The next guard on the list has over 200 fewer boards this season, and isn’t inside the top 25 in terms of rebounds per game. And with Russ’s unbelievable passing skills the point guard ranks 3rd in the league with 10.4 assists per game, despite playing for a team that outside of Westbrook is awful at shooting the basketball. Meanwhile, James Harden, who leads the league in assists per game has a team that is stacked with shooters, ranking in the top half of the league in 3-point percentage and field goal percentage, stats that Westbrook’s Thunder rank near last in the league at. What’s more is that while Westbrook has less than an assist-a-game fewer than Harden, he is doing so without turning the ball over as much as Houston guard who so far this season has demolished his own NBA record for most turnovers in a season (2016-17: 445, 2015-16: 374).
And while Russ’s numbers are absurdly good, nay historically great (more on this later), Harden is having a great offensive year as well. So instead, we turn to the other side of the ball to distinguish Westbrook’s value being much greater than the Rocket’s defenseless wonder. According to advanced statistics Russell Westbrook is the best defensive guard in the league posting the top defensive rating statistic (103.8) among backcourt players, including defensive stud Tony Allen. Where does Harden rank on the list? Not in the top 20 of guards defensively. Meanwhile, Westbrook ranks 2nd out of all NBA players in defensive plus/minus, another list Harden doesn’t crack the top 20 in.
And his defensive play isn’t all that separates Westbrook from Harden, it’s just part of what makes Westbrook the better and the more valuable player. Along with his top 2 finish in defensive plus/minus is Westbrook’s spot atop the offensive plus/minus, leading to his absolute dominance of the overall plus/minus statistic, a number that clearly shows the importance of one player both offensively and defensively. And if importance is what you are looking for in an MVP then no candidate compares with Russell Westbrook. Of course there is another statistic which shows how many wins a player has added to his team over the course of the season compared to that player’s replacement. This statistic, WAR, or Wins Above Replacement is the perfect measurement for determining who is the literally the most valuable player in the league, and this year Russell Westbrook has been the most valuable player…ever. Westbrook’s 12.38 WAR this season is the highest in league history, and the disparity between Westbrook’s WAR and Harden’s (8.84) is the largest difference between the top two scores since 1976. In other words, Harden isn’t even close to as valuable to his team as Westbrook is.
And then there is what makes Westbrook so valuable to the league this season. Westbrook’s incredible chase of the season long triple-double average has drawn even non-basketball loving fans to watch the game; and for good reason. To average a triple double back when it was last done by Oscar Robertson in the 1961-62 season, it was much easier than it is now. “The Big O” averaged a 30.8/12.5/11.4 when a team averaged 118.8 points, 71.4 rebounds, and 23.9 assists per game. This season Westbrook is averaging 31.7/10.7/10.4 in a year where a team averages 102.7 points, 42.1 rebounds, and 21.8 assists, meaning fewer possessions and fewer chances for Westbrook to average the impressive season long triple-double. It’s something that took an incredible MVP worthy season from Westbrook, and it was a story so big that Westbrook was more than just valuable to his team, drawing the attention of sports fans everywhere to the NBA.
So however you look at it, whether it’s Westbrook’s offense or defense that make him more valuable to his team than Harden was to his, or if it was his triple-double season that made him valuable to the entire NBA, there is no doubt that Rich Harden trails Westbrook in every sense of the NBA MVP race.
Russell Westbrook is an incredible player, and in most years he has a strong case for the NBA MVP, but this season the rightful owner of the award is playing his basketball in Houston, Texas. And the reason is pretty simple. James Harden’s Rockets are just better than Westbrook’s Thunder, and the bearded baller is the reason.
The other night James Harden came out and said that wins should be the most important factor in the voting for the esteemed award. “If you set your team up in a position to have a chance, at the ultimate goal, that’s the most important thing.” And if you haven’t seen the standings in a while let me explain them to you. There’s two teams then Harden’s Rockets. Then there’s another team, and another team, and then right near the cutoff for the postseason is Westbrook’s Thunder. And with 8 more wins than the Thunder, and a winning percentage nearly 10% better, it’s not much of a question on which superstar has led their team to the better season.
Now maybe you are one of the fans who believes that looking at which team finishes better is a ridiculous way of judging MVP candidates, but it doesn’t look so ridiculous MVP voters.
Since 1985, just two MVPs have been on teams that finished lower than second in their conferences, Michael Jordan in 1988 and Karl Malone in 1999, both of whom played on teams that finished third in their conference. Now Houston isn’t a top-2 seed headed into the playoffs, but the Rockets have locked up the 3rd spot in the Western Conference, which puts Harden’s candidacy at least working more in his favor than Westbrook’s, whose Thunder will finish the regular season in 6th giving the triple-double king really no chance at winning the award.
And speaking of triple-doubles, what an overrated measurement that is. Westbrook’s 31.7/10.7/10.4 line is impressive but not much better than Harden’s 29.1/8.1/11.2, especially when one looks deeper into the statistics. Consider this, Westbrook’s true shooting percentage ranks 26th among the 35 players averaging at least 15 shots per game this year. Harden’s ranks 5th. He’s also shooting just 34 percent from long range. So maybe instead of leading the league in shooting Westbrook should get the ball to better shooters than himself.
Then again, there seems to be the perception, or should I say misconception, that Westbrook needs to do things himself because the other players around him aren’t scorers, while Harden has it easy in that he is surrounded by talented scoring machines. In reality that situation is flip-flopped. Westbrook is in fact surrounded by players that shoot the ball better than the overrated guard, as every Thunder player who has started 8 or more games this season has a higher shooting percentage than Westbrook. Meanwhile, the only players on Houston’s roster with a better shooting percentage than Harden are centers and forwards who are barely above Harden in that category due to the ease of dunks and down-low shot efficiency.
But forgetting the “less-telling” statistics and getting back the central idea of wins being the reason the MVP is awarded, there is an even better statistic than WAR, which the argument for Westbrook cited earlier. According to basketballreference.com the statistic Win Shares (WS) is “an estimate of the number of wins contributed by the player”, or the best statistic in showing just how many wins the player has added to his team. And you might be surprised to find out that it’s not Westbrook at #1. Heck, it’s not Westbrook at #2, #3, or #4. Instead he is down at #9 just in front of Rudy Gobert, while James Harden sits atop the field with a comfortable lead, and statistical proof that nobody has been a bigger part of their squad’s success than him.
But how could Harden lead the league in wins contributed (WS) if he is such a bad defender? Because the idea that Harden’s defense is weaker than Derrick Rose’s knees is a myth. Harden ranks 18th out of 449 players in defensive win shares, meaning less than 4% of the league was better on defense than the supposed worst defender in the league.
So by carrying a worse shooting team to the 3rd seed in the West thanks to his efficient shooting and massively underrated defense James Harden is by far the most valuable player in the league. Don’t believe me? Believe the stats and the standings.