NBA

MVP Debate: History For and Against Russell Westbrook

Introduction

Four superstars headline this year’s 2017 NBA MVP race. Each one of them has a unique and distinct case for why they are worthy.  James Harden. LeBron James. Kawhi Leonard. Russell Westbrook.  Those are the four to choose from.  All are worthy. But, there can only be one.

There are a multitude of factors that dictate who is truly the most valuable but history has proven there are two indicators that demonstrate extreme value. To start, there is a substantial pattern supporting the belief that the MVP should be awarded to a player on a team that holds a top spot in their conference. In the last 20 seasons, 18 MVPs led their team to a top-two position in their respective conference. That trend yields 90%. The two outliers played on a team that finished 3rd in their conference. So, in the last 20 years the MVP has not been awarded to a player on a team that finished outside of the top three spots in the Eastern or Western Conference.

Below there is an in-depth look at each individual player and their unique case for 2017 MVP.

Statcat_MVP Total Production

Russell Westbrook

The Oklahoma City point guard is compiling gaudy statistics at a historic pace.  He has been a triple-double machine and, in fact, is averaging the remarkable threshold. Westbrook is the first player in NBA history to average a triple-double throughout the entire season since Oscar Robertson did in 1961-62.  Oscar averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists.  Russell Westbrook is right there with him at 32.1 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10 assists.

He has resurrected the franchise after a devastating free agency departure and has used the departure to his advantage.  Westbrook plays with such fury and fire that the only result is the stat sheet being absolutely stuffed.  His loyalty is heralded.  His passion is commended. And, his relentless attitude has churned out an impressive 40-29 record which is good for 6th in the Western Conference.

The knock against Westbrook’s MVP campaign is two fold.  Oklahoma City does not hold the 1st or 2nd seed in the Western Conference.  If he were to win, he would be the first MVP in the last 20 years to hail from a team not in the top two spots.  The other knock is also a major knock against James Harden (see below) – turnovers.  Russell Westbrook averages 5.4 turnovers per game which puts him on pace to finish second all time in NBA/ABA history for most turnovers in a season.  Since the ball is the most valuable thing to possess, turnovers are the most costly.  

Ultimately, there is a very strong case for Westbrook and two knocks against.  History is on his side from an individual achievement perspective, in that averaging a triple-double for the entire season has seemed near impossible until now. However, history is also against Westbrook from a team perspective by way that the Thunder do not hold a top three spot in their conference.

LeBron James

The King has dominated the NBA for more than a decade.  His legacy is cemented.  By now, it just is a matter how many titles he will bring home to his hometown and how many more MVPs he can win before he dominance fades.  But, the fact that he has been so dominant for such a long period of time is impressive whether or not he earns his 5th MVP award this season.  What is remarkable is that LeBron in his 14th season has continuously improved his game so much so that he is putting up career numbers in three different categories.  His three-point percentage is second best in his career (39.8%).  He has increased his rebounding activity on the glass (8.2 RPG).  And, he is top five in the league in assists (8.8 APG).

Among the MVP candidates, LeBron James is the most efficient from the field.  He is shooting at nearly a 54% clip.  He is making more shots while taking less.  As a result, his scoring is the best it has been at since returning to Cleveland.  To provide perspective on just how efficient LeBron is with his shot selection and improved shooting ability, let’s compare him with Russell Westbrook shooting frequency.  If LeBron were to shoot as many time as Westbrook (24.5 FGA), then he would average 33.65 PPG (which is 1.55 points more).

Statcat _ MVP FG Rader
Efficiency from the Field (FGM vs. FGA).
Statcat_MVP shooting percentages
LeBron James is the leader among all MVP candidates in three shooting categories.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are currently first in the Eastern Conference standings with a record of 45 wins and 23 losses.  That again is another positive mark towards his MVP campaign. History has set the precedent for the award going to the the best players on the teams with the best records.  Cleveland is poised to contend for another championship, as they try to defend their crown.

Ultimately, the production of career high numbers is only bolstered by the Cavaliers success (and extreme success when he is on the floor).  There is a very strong case for LeBron and not a negative mark against him.  The King has been in contention to win the MVP award every year, and this season is no different.

James Harden

The 5-time All-Star has taken the reigns as point guard this season.  The offensive scheme he is working under is slightly different than before, as Mike D’Antoni implores volume outside shooting and uptempo basketball.  D’Antoni’s system has greatly favored Harden.  As a result, the Rockets are ranked third in the West and James Harden is recording career numbers.

James Harden is averaging a league-best 11.3 assists per game.  In each of his eight seasons in the NBA, he has improved in the APG category.  From last year to this year, the Beard has increased his distribution numbers by 3.8.  This season accounts for his largest improvement from year to year.    His 11.3 assists have generated 1,745 points for his team. That sort of statistical increase has led to league-leading playmaking production, which is a very positive mark to his MVP campaign.  Couple his assist totals with his scoring and his case for MVP strengthens. He is averaging 29 points per game, second behind only Westbrook.

Statcat_MVP Points Generated PGA
Westbrook, LeBron and Harden are all top in the league in total points generated from assists.  They each account for 1200+ points just from their playmaking abilities.

Another positive towards Harden MVP case is that he leads the league in Win Shares (WS).  He currently stands at 13.3 WS.  The reason this statistic is important is not only does it show a player’s accountability towards the team’s record but there is historical precedent.  In the last 20 seasons, 12 out of the 20 times the player who led the league in WS was also awarded the MVP.

There is one very major knock against the Rockets’ point guard and that is turnovers.  “With power, comes great responsibility.”  And, with all of the responsibility of being the floor general, Harden has both relished the opportunity with his distribution of the ball but also dealt the ball to the other team a record number of times.  James Harden is on pace to break and set the all-time NBA & ABA record for most turnovers in a season.  He is currently averaging 5.8 turnovers per game, which yields a total of 476 turnovers for a single season.  

Ultimately, a two very strong points towards Harden’s case and one historically bad knock against.

Statcat_MVP turnovers and season pace
James Harden’s pace for 476 turnovers will set the NBA record for most in a single season.

Kawhi Leonard

Leonard’s scoring numbers are top in the league, but his rebound and assist totals are not eye-popping like that of Westbrook or Harden.  His stat line is as follows: 26.3 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 3.4 APG, 1.8 SPG.  What he is know for is his defensive impact.  There can be an argument made that Kawhi Leonard is the league’s best two-way player. His contributions on the defensive end are invaluable.  Leonard accounts for 3.9 defensive win shares (DWS) this season.  He ranks 6th in the NBA for that category.  In comparison, the only other player close to him from this discussion is Westbrook who is tied.

The San Antonio Spurs currently stand at 52 wins and 16 losses, which is good for second in the Western Conference and second in the entire NBA.  The team’s success is of utmost importance and only strengthens the case for why that player should be named MVP.  As previously stated, 18 of the last 20 MVPs have been from teams that were in one of the top two seeds in their respective conference.  History is in Leonard’s favor.  

Ultimately, his defensive impact speaks volumes but his ability to lead the Spurs to the second best record in the league is the biggest mark towards his MVP status.

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