The People for Russell Westbrook
Why Russell Westbrook is the Real MVP, haters be damned.
Russell Westbrook is making history and people are mad. They’re mad that a guy who’s been their go-to target for criticism for being inefficient, a ball hog, and not being willing to defer to Kevin Durant, has just produced the best individual season in the NBA this year.
If I were among the Westbrook Hate Brigade I might be mad, too. His historic season was punctuated with a Twitter-exploding buzzer beater against the Denver Nuggets on Sunday, which was enough for many current players and even prominent media members to relent and acknowledge the truth: Russell Westbrook is the real MVP.
There is so much to appreciate about the play you’ve just seen: the timing (a genuine, walk-off buzzer beater), losing his player with a quick change of direction, the gather and launch in one smooth sequence, the backpedalling in anticipation of the coming splash, the ecstatic celebration including leap and fist in the air — this was not basketball — this was poetry.
If my words fail to capture the moment, perhaps we should leave it up to The King aka. LeBron James to sum up what we the people were feeling:
Man, Russell Westbrook man. Did I say, man?
In the case of The People for Russell Westbrook vs Hater Nation, which, if it were an episode of Suits, would already have been dismissed before trial by Harvey Specter, allow me to rebut five critical arguments against Westbrook in my quest to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, that Russell Westbrook is this season’s MVP.
Argument 1: “Triple Doubles don’t count.”
Yes, they do.
Argument 2: “No, really, I believe that Russell Westbrook averaging a triple double FOR AN ENTIRE FREAKING NBA SEASON should count against his case for MVP.”
I respectfully ask the court to confiscate the pocket protectors, calculators, spreadsheets, and multiple flasks of vodka from the prosecution.
With that out of the way, let me spend some perfectly good brain cells convincing you that 10 rebounds is more than 8.
Russell Westbrook is the first person since Oscar Roberson in 1961–62 to average a triple double. Adjusted for pace and minutes, this is what Westbrook would have averaged:
Triple doubles are hard to obtain in the NBA, especially if you are a 6'3" point guard. There have been many takes out there to say that the Thunder bigs clear out for Westbrook to rack up ‘easy rebounds’. Easy rebounds like this one, I assume:
Being someone who actually watches games allows me to report that Russell Westbrook is one of the greatest rebounding guards of all time, and that he contests them ferociously, particularly on the offensive glass. He might pick up a few rebounds here and there that the Thunder bigs (mostly Steven Adams and Enes Kanter) could have snagged for themselves, but this is intentional. In case you hadn’t noticed, Russell Westbrook grabbing the rebound and going downhill at 100 miles an hour is the Thunder’s best offense. He’s not just a one-man fast break, he’s a one-man wrecking crew.
Here’s one from last season involving his old mate James Harden because — well, you know why…
If Westbrook gets a chance to grab and go on the break, whether off a rebound or a steal, it’s goodnight.
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Westbrook’s game is perfectly suited to racking up triple doubles. He’ll always get the points. He has an historically high usage rate, and also sets up his teammates a lot with his penetration — see dishes / lobs to Adams, kick outs and passes to Oladipo, Abrines and McBuckets for threes. He’s not hunting assists, he’s setting up his teammates and making them better in the process.
Only someone like him with his unparalleled motor, physique, stamina, and skill could do all of what he’s doing.
He’s doing all of this playing less minutes than James Harden and LeBron James. You know, the same LeBron James who is probably the most well-rounded basketball player of all time.
LeBron James: 37.8
James Harden: 36.4
Russell Westbrook 34.1
Westbrook ranks 18th overall in the league this season in minutes per game and hasn’t played more than 40 minutes in any regulation game yet this season, per Royce Young. Check out his amazing story about Westbrook’s (soon to be MVP) season here.
Argument 3: “But, EFFICIENCY!”
There is a misguided narrative that has taken hold in some corners of the NBA media and blogosphere which suggests that James Harden is a significantly more efficient player than Russell Westbrook. This is a holdover argument from years past where many saddled Westbrook with the reputation for being a ball hog, and taking too many shots and three pointers. Let’s put this one to bed.
The difference between Harden’s percentages and Westbrook’s is 2.1 percentage points across three categories. In other words, the difference is negligible. You cannot go on narrative and reputation alone. You have to look at what the guy is actually doing on the court, and the numbers above (particularly the 3P%) would come as a shock to many — hell, I was even shocked to see how close Westbrook was to Harden from the three point line.
Plus, Westbrook leads the league in PER, which is not perfect (don’t @ me) but is still recognised as a very serviceable statistic when it comes to player efficiency.
Argument 4: “WINZZZZZ!!!!!!”
The Rockets have 55 wins. That’s awesome, no doubt. They’ve struck lightning in a bottle and credit must go to Rockets GM, Daryl Morey for doubling down on his #Moreyball strategy, the pillars of which are three point shooting, layups / dunks, and free throws. By taking educated risks on Ryan Anderson ($18m this season) and Eric Gordon ($12m), he added lethal three point shooters to force opponents choose between sticking to their man on the perimeter, allowing Harden to drop endless three pointers, layups and free throws, or to try and stop Harden, and watch the inevitable barrage of three pointers rain down on them on Harden drive-and-kicks.
Morey has also amassed a bevy of offensively capable big men, led by Clint Capela and Nene, to form a devastating lob threat from their lead dog, Harden. Couple this roster with the hiring of offensive genius Mike D’Antoni as Head Coach, and it’s fair to say the Rockets were all-in on their offensive system this season, and it has paid off big time, resulting in a 3-seed in the competitive Western Conference.
The Thunder stand 8 wins behind them in the 6-seed as we enter the Playoffs, and it is Westbrook who has carried them there. What you have to consider here is that although the team that Westbrook has around him may be comparable talent-wise to what Harden has in Houston, the structure of the team is a long, long way from what the plan was before KD decided to give up on his stance of not being a front-runner and joined the Golden State Warriors.
Steven Adams was meant to be a complimentary piece, not someone the Thunder needed to look to for significant offensive contributions. Victor Oladipo was meant to be playing third string, but ended up as the second banana. Kyle Singler was meant to be a cheerleader, not a genuine option for playing time at small forward.
Make no mistake, Russ had to pick up the pieces of this roster when Durant skipped town. He had to re-form the team in his image and set a tone from day one that made it clear they weren’t going to slip from playoff contention. If you put Harden in the same situation, there is no guarantee he would’ve been able to do what Westbrook has done this season.
Westbrook has had to overcome more adversity, and he has done it with style and a ferociousness that has captured the attention of a national audience who now consider the Thunder’s games must-see TV because of him (no offense, Semaj Christon).
I will give a ton of credit to James Harden for the job he has done in leading the Rockets to 55 wins, however the MVP is an individual award, and it should go to the person with the most outstanding performance on the season as a whole. There is little doubt that person is Russell Westbrook.
Argument 5: “Westbrook is the obvious answer and I have to be contrarian because I’m smarter than you are.”
In the age of analytics it is temping to look beyond the obvious answer and to find all sorts of justifications as to why the MVP should go to a less visible candidate, a less popular candidate, or a candidate who is going under the radar.
History will judge this season as having been Westbrook’s and Westbrook’s alone. It’s Westbrook who has created the most excitement, who has generated the most discussion, who has the most intrigue, and ultimately who has produced more out on the floor than all of the other MVP contenders. It’s more diplomatic to say that any of the four leading candidates have a case (and they do have a case), but the final choice here comes down to one man.
Legend has it that Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, was once asked the meaning behind why he smoked cigars. Could it possibly signify something else about him?
Freud replied, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes Russell Westbrook is just the MVP.
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Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock