By what metrics should we determine who should win the NBA MVP? By definition, MVP stands for Most Valuable Player, however, everyone seems to have their own subjective criteria as to who best fits that title. Is the MVP the leading scorer in the league? The most clutch player in the final minutes of the game? The best player on the best team? Or simply the player who has the best overall statistics? When it comes to the latter, two players in particular have managed to substantially separate themselves from the field in historical fashion. If you've been following along with the NBA at all this season then you know who I’m talking about. Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
The human dynamo, walking triple double machine that is Russell Westbrook has now recorded 38 triple doubles (and counting), and not only has this number surpassed Wilt Chamberlain on the list for most triple doubles in season, but Westbrook seems to be on his way to passing Oscar Robertson’s mark of forty triple doubles in a season. It seems like throughout his entire career the same criticisms have followed Westbrook. Most of which claim that he is too much of a ball dominant player to carry a winning team to the playoffs, or that he shoots too much, or that he is too out of control. Well, Westbrook has been proving all of his critics wrong. Westbrook currently leads his team in points, assists, rebounds, and steals, and not only is he currently averaging a triple double (31.8 ppg, 10.4 apg, 10.6 rpg) and leading the league in scoring, but he is doing it in winning fashion. The Thunder have won in over 80% of the games in which Westbrook has recorded a triple double and currently sit as the projected 6th seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Westbrook has also managed to accomplish this feat after losing Kevin Durant to free agency, losing Enes Kanter to injury, and being equipped with a less than stellar supporting cast.
On the surface his season averages are incredible, but when you dive even deeper, the numbers are even more impressive than you think. Yes he's leading the league in scoring, but he's also 3rd in assists, 2nd in free throws per game, and in the top 15 in both steals and rebounds per game. What is really crazy about his rebounding mark of 10.6 rebounds per game is that not only does no other guard average more than him but no other guard in the league - outside of James Harden - averages more than 6.6 rebounds per game. Here is a list of just a few of the players Russell Westbrook averages more rebounds per game than: Tristan Thompson, Nikola Jokic, Lebron James, Blake Griffin, Draymond Green, and Kevin Durant. Westbrook also happens to be leading the league in Player Efficiency Rating (PER) with a mark of 30.3 - the only player in the league above 30 this year. He's doing all of this while playing 34.6 minutes a game, which is less than both Lebron James and James Harden.
Speaking of the latter, its tough to overlook James Harden’s season, especially coupled with the success - and incredible one year turnaround - of the Rockets this year. It seems as if the change to point guard (which looks like his natural position) as well as the change to Mike D’Antoni as coach has really reinvigorated Harden and allowed him to take his game to the next level. As of now Harden leads the league in assists (dishing out 11.4 dimes per game) and is second in the league in scoring. Along with Westbrook, Harden has also been a regular when it comes to recording triple doubles with 20 on the season and is only 2 rebounds a game shy of averaging a triple double like his former OKC teammate. His averages of 29.3 ppg 11.4 apg and 8.0 rpg would all be career highs if the season were to end right now. All of this has culminated in the Rocket’s 51-23 record which is good enough to make them the 3rd best team in the league in terms of record alone - behind only their Western Conference counterparts, the San Antonio Spurs and the Golden State Warriors. What's also impressive about what Harden has been doing is his ability to get to the free throw line. Harden leads the league in free throw attempts per game. His toughness, ability to drive the lane, and crafty euro steps always seem to lead to scored baskets, free throws, And-ones, or kick outs to wide open teammates. It is not only Harden's ability to drive the lane that helps create so many wide open looks for his teammates, but also his passing has drastically improved. Harden was never a bad passer, but I've never seen him make as many bold, tight-window, creative passes in his career as I have seen him make this year. Maybe, it's just the fact that he's switched to point guard and has consciously tried to become more of a play maker, but regardless it has been impressive. So, I guess the real question is, is anyone else deserving enough to be considered in the NBA MVP conversation?
While Westbrook and Harden are certainly putting up mind-blowing numbers this season, you can’t forget about the best players on the best team in each conference. LeBron James is quietly posting career highs in rebounding and assists while the Cavaliers sit atop the Eastern conference. Even though the Cavs have had their ups and downs this season, one thing has been evident, and that’s been LeBron’s dominance. He is averaging an astonishing 26.0 PPG, 8.8 APG, and 8.4 RPG. Based on the numbers alone, this would be enough to secure the MVP in just about any season. The only problem is that this isn’t just any season. This season has guys like Russell Westbrook on pace to average a triple-double, and James Harden switching from the 2-guard to the 1 and leading the league in assists while his team is exceeding expectations. Still, you cannot ignore how much of an impact LeBron has had on the Cavs. If you take a look at the numbers, it’s clear the Cavs really struggle without him on the court. With LeBron on the court, the Cavs have a +/- rating of 7.4. When he’s off the court the Cavs post a+/- rating of -2.3. That gives him a net rating of 9.5, which is by far higher than James Harden (4.8), Russell Westbrook (6.3), and Kawhi Leonard (4.1). Even worse, the Cavs are 0-5 in games that LeBron has not played this season. In addition to that, he is top five in the league in assists per game, ninth in scoring, and eighth in PER. Let’s also not forget that LeBron is managing to do all of this while leading the league in minutes per game at the age of 32! To do this in the prime of your career is no easy feat, but to do it in your fourteenth year in the league after making it to the finals 5 straight years?! That’s unreal, then again should we expect anything less from LeBron James? Even with elite teammates like Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, it is still obvious that the Cavs will only go so far as LeBron can take them.
Then there’s Kawhi Leonard who is leading possibly the best team in the NBA right now. In an era where “Super teams” are becoming the norm for contenders, Kawhi is the sole superstar of the Spurs, and it is not even close - no disrespect to Lamarcus Aldridge. Also, did I mention the Spurs are battling the Golden State Warriors for the best record in the NBA? While his numbers are not as eye popping as the other candidates, you can’t ignore his presence. His averages of 25.9 PPG, 3.5 APG, and 5.9 RPG pale in comparison to Russ’ triple double average, Harden leading the NBA in assists, and even LeBron posting a career high in assists and rebounds, but Kawhi’s effect on the game isn’t predicated on these stats alone. Labeled by many as the best two-way player in the league, Kawhi’s case for MVP is strengthened when you dig a little deeper into his stats. He is top 10 in steals per game, defensive win shares, and defensive rating. On the offensive side of the ball, he ranks eighth in scoring, first in win shares per 48 minutes, and second in PER and total win shares. Even more than that, he is scoring in more efficient ways than the other candidates. The table above shows he has a higher field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and free throw percentage than Westbrook and Harden. When compared to LeBron, Kawhi is shooting the three ball slightly better and much better from the line. Also, let’s not overlook Kawhi’s ability to take over games offensively and compete defensively against the top offensive option for the opposition. Against the top 4 teams in each conference, the Spurs are 13-2. Against these teams Kawhi has averaged 28.2 PPG showing that he elevates his game against top tier competition.
While the Spurs are a very good team thanks to a balanced roster and hall-of-fame caliber coaching from Greg Popovich, it is impossible to deny that Kawhi Leonard is the key piece to the team’s overall success. Night in and night out he takes on the toughest defensive assignment while carrying being the team’s go to scorer. Like I said the numbers aren’t dazzling, but there’s something to be said about the Spurs record and Kawhi’s leadership.
I'll have to admit that its often easy to overlook what Lebron has been doing purely for the fact that he's been doing it for so many years, and he always plays at MVP candidate level. We all know King James kicks it into overdrive during the playoffs, but his numbers this year have been simply astounding - especially considering his age as you mentioned. In addition the Cavaliers happen to sit atop their conference as the projected number one seed in the East - despite the fact that the Eastern Conference - which besides themselves, Toronto, Boston, and Washington to some extent - is simply horrendous. However, the fact that Lebron has soon-to-be MVP candidate Kyrie Irving on his team along with perennial all-star Kevin Love does make his burden a little easier. Having more time to gel with his teammates since being in Cleveland, and with the addition of sharpshooter Kyle Korver its easy to see how Lebron and his assist numbers could make a nice jump. And look, I know Lebron does elevate the play of his team by helping to make those around him better, I just think that his supporting cast is too stellar for me to put him in front of Harden or Westbrook in the MVP race, the same sentiment goes for pre-injury Kevin Durant up in Golden State.
How could I have forgotten about Kawhi Leonard?! What skills does he not possess on the basketball court? It seems like he simply does everything on the court for the Spurs with Duncan now retired and Manu and Tony Parker in the twilight of their careers. In terms of all the players we have mentioned so far - Lebron, Westbrook, Harden - Kawhi Leonard may just be the biggest two way threat as you pointed out above Alex. Not only has he developed a smorgasbord of weapons for his offensive arsenal, but he is also a lock down defender tasked night in and night out with guarding the opposing teams best player. In fact, defensively his numbers for defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) and defensive win shares (an estimate of the number of wins a player contributes while on defense) are better than those of his competition - Westbrook, Harden, and Lebron - as you can see in the chart below.
In terms of player's who fit the most literal definition of Most Valuable Player, Kawhi Leonard is the most solid pick. Take Westbrook off of the Thunder, take Harden off of the Rockets, Lebron off of the Cavs, and Kawhi off of the Spurs, and I think the Spurs suffer the most. Remember, the Spurs are only trailing the Warriors by 3.5 games for best record in the league!
More than just the obvious statistics, Kawhi does the little things - that sometimes go unnoticed - that wins games, a la Bill Russell. Maybe he isn't going on insane scoring sprees like Harden or Westbrook, but he's making key defensive stops, getting rebounds, steals, and assists in the most critical junctures of the games. Look no further than the Spurs recent showdown with the Rockets where Kawhi hit a 3 with 25 seconds left to put the Spurs in front before blocking James Harden's final attempt in the waning seconds, solidifying the Spurs victory - see the gif of the block to the side here. Perhaps it's just the recent victory and crazy crunch time block, but I'm actually starting to think that I would put Kawhi Leonard slightly above Harden in terms of my MVP favorites. However, as much as I love Kawhi's all around game I just can't choose him over Russ for MVP. Especially, after these past few weeks where it seems like Westbrook has elevated his game to another level. Just last night Westbrook had a 57 point trouble-double in an overtime come from behind win against the Orlando magic. Not only did Westbrook hit the game tying three to send the game to overtime with 7.1 seconds left in regulation, but he also set the record for most points scored in a triple-double in NBA history, and the 21 point comeback was the largest in franchise history. In fact, the Thunder's last game - which was on Monday - Westbrook had yet another triple-double and led the Thunder to a come from behind win against the Dallas Mavericks in which he hit a pull up jumper with 7 seconds left to seal the victory. At this point it sure looks like he will finish the season averaging a triple-double, the first in NBA history since the Big O. What do you think Alex? With only under 10 games left in the season there's not that much more we need to see from these players to make a final determination.
You definitely can’t go wrong with picking Kawhi Leonard. Like I said earlier, he’s the only superstar on a Spurs team that is contending for the best record in the NBA. In addition to that, he is the best two-way player on this list and probably the league. On the other hand, James Harden has really taken the Rockets to the next level. Last season, the Rockets did not even make the playoffs after going to the Western Conference Finals. Because of that, expectations were pretty low this season. Yet, Mike D’antoni’s decision to move James Harden to point guard seems to have been a genius. Harden has posted career highs across the board this season, and propelled Houston to a number three seed in the West. You definitely cannot deny the impact Harden is having on his team as he continues to elevate his game.
With that being said, I as well have got to go with “The Brodie,” Russell Westbrook as the MVP. He is literally going nuts this season making triple doubles look pedestrian. Like you said not only is he going to be the first player to average a triple double since Oscar Robertson—yes, he is going to do it—but he may very well surpass The Big O’s single season record for triple doubles. Russ is only three triple-doubles shy of Robertson’s record of 41, with eight games left in the season. While some people may argue that Russ is a stat stuffer and a selfish player, I disagree. The Thunder are 31-7 when Westbrook has gotten a triple double and 12-24 in games he has not. Getting triple doubles is not a matter of want for Westbrook but almost a need. While his teammates work hard and compete every night, Russ literally has to put the team on his back every night to earn Ws. He is the ultimate competitor. His tenacity and unwillingness to take a night off is unparalleled. While the Thunder are not as highly seeded as the Spurs, Cavs, or Rockets, they are still in contention for the fourth seed in the West. With the way Westbrook has elevated his game this season, I would not be surprised to see OKC squeeze into the fourth seed and get home court advantage in the first round. Plus, I don’t seem to be the only person that thinks Russell Westbrook should be MVP. Check out the hilarious video below to see Enes Kanter and Steven Adams aka the ‘Stache Bros. make their case for “The Brodie.”
Well there you have it folks. The case for MVP here at the Herban Indigo house has led us to unanimously deciding on Russell Westbrook as our pick for the 2017 NBA MVP. However, with the season coming down to the final stretch, the MVP race is still extremely tight thanks to the play of both Kawhi Leonard and James Harden. Chances are it’s going to depend on a combination of individual and team performances as each MVP candidate’s team is jockeying for playoff positioning. In any event, this should be another exciting close to the NBA regular season. Please let us know your pick for MVP in the comments section below.