The Curious Case of Russell Westbrook

You’ve seen the headlines all year. All the triple doubles, all the dunks, all the double-takes, all the “did he just do that” moments. Most other years, Thunder Guard Russell Westbrook is the easy choice for MVP, but with everything seemingly going his way, how can people possibly even think about voting against him?

To be frank, it’s pretty easy. Many are focusing on the wrong things in his MVP case, and are actually giving more credit to Rockets Guard James Harden than Westbrook in the process, but if you’re going to vote for Russ, they are plenty of other good reasons why.

You should NOT vote Russell Westbrook for MVP because…

…Triple Doubles are arbitrary.

What meaning does a triple double really carry? It’s just an arbitrary benchmark of round numbers. 10/10/10. Why not a triple dozen? Crazy eights? Four score?

Wait. Triple dozens? I’m copyrighting that.

…He’s blatantly padding stats.

One of the growing schools of thought in NBA analytics is how overvalued the defensive rebound can be. As the truism goes, the defensive possession doesn’t end until you grab the rebound, but not all rebounds are equal. Russell Westbrook leads the NBA by a WIDE margin in grabbing uncontested rebounds, and when watching Thunder games, you might see a not-so-subtle pattern. Watch Westbrook’s teammates let balls fall to him on missed free throws, long jumpers where no one contests, and other scenarios rather than just grabbing the ball themselves.

“But Ethan, that’s harmless! That’s ok, and it shows his teammates are fully supportive if they’re willing to back off!”

That’s nice. You know what they could do instead of waiting for him to grab the ball? They could push the ball up the court. By waiting for Westbrook to grab the ball, the Thunder lose any advantage they would gain for an opponent missing a shot and not having an opportunity to set up their defense. Sacrificing 0.1 points per possession is unacceptable. Why should a team be O.K. with leaving 9-10 points per game off the board?

Westbrook has five of the ten lowest Game Scores of any instance of a triple double this season, including three of the top five, indicating a minimal impact on the game despite a big box score. He has also come away unscathed for some of his disgusting late game assist hunting.

…You think he does the things James Harden doesn’t.

We all know the jokes, Harden’s defense is suspect and he turns the ball over a ton. You might be surprised that Westbrook has more turnovers when adjusting for pace.

Westbrook ranks dead last among playing getting at least 30 MPG for number of shot contests. In that category, only Rudy Gobert and Hassan Whiteside have contested fewer three pointers. Let that sink in. DeAndre Jordan, Gorgui Dieng, and Westbrook’s teammate Steven Adams, among others, have all contested more three pointers than Westbrook this season.

Is getting a couple extra uncontested rebounds really that much better than what Harden is doing this year?

…You value winning.

It’s a trope at this point to say that the Thunder are bad outside of Westbrook, but Oladipo is a perfect compliment to Westbrook, Kanter is a perennial Sixth Man of the Year contender that plays crunch time minutes, and Steven Adams is one of the best rim protectors in the league. Taj Gibson, Andre Roberson, Domantas Sabonis, Jerami Grant, and Alex Abrines are all fine rotation players. Why do the Thunder have the point differential of a 43 win team? It starts at the top. Russell Westbrook has been selfish all season, padding his stats and forcing his teammates to compensate for things he just might not want to do and play along with his games. Westbrook is NOT willing the team to victory, in fact, he could be dragging it down.

Oklahoma City has the 15th best offense in the NBA. James Harden leads the 2nd best offense. For contrast, Oscar Robertson’s offense were almost always 1st or 2nd in the league.

Is James Harden’s supporting cast that much better? Outside of Beverley, who plays perimeter defense? Who else on the rockets can get easy buckets besides Harden? However…

You SHOULD vote Russell Westbrook for MVP because…

…his crunch time numbers are insane.

You’ve seen all the comebacks this year, you know, the ones where the Thunder are dead in the water and somehow win? Russ has been incredible in NBA-defined clutch moments this year, and the Thunder have a lot more wins than they should.

…he has succeeded in spite of an organization not helping him.

It’s no secret that the Oklahoma City ownership group is notoriously stingy, and while General Manager Sam Presti has been excellent in the draft, he’s struck out in free agency every year.

Worse, the team went from Scott Brooks, more a personality manager than anything else, to Billy Donovan, a man who couldn’t figure out to stagger Westbrook’s minutes with Kevin Durant last year. The team has shown little to no tactical improvement over the last two season, and Donovan has clearly lost control of the team, or at least has misguided motivations, if he is allowed the Thunder to play in a manner that goes against winning basketball.

…he filled the leadership void on a heartbroken team.

With Ibaka being traded and Durant headed for more Golden pastures, Westbrook eagerly filled the void and became the team’s unquestioned leader. The team has responded enthusiastically to Westbrook’s endless energy, both on and off the court.

 

In summation, the Westbrook argument is complicated. It can’t really hold up on numbers alone, and it has to rely on a lot of intangible, effervescent qualities that can’t be quantified. There are some real points, but in the end, it’s difficult to say his accomplishments are that much greater than Harden’s to justify voting for an  MVP on a team just scraping by.

 

Image copyright ESPN.

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