Russell Westbrook did something no one has ever done on Wednesday night in the Thunder’s rout over the Sixers. He finished with a triple double (which isn’t news with Westbrook these days because he is averaging a triple double this season) but did so without missing a shot or a free throw. Eighteen points, 14 assists and 11 rebounds, and he didn’t miss a shot.
It was another jaw-dropping line from a player who is doing something many of us thought wasn’t possible over the course of a season – matching Oscar Robertson’s triple-double season average that he set in 1961-62.
What may be even more jaw-dropping? I still don’t think Westbrook will win MVP this year.
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Before we delve into why this is, let’s give a moment to discuss just how great this Westbrook season has been. His average of 31.2 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.4 assists is, well, it’s flabbergasting. If a random NBA player put up a 31-10-10 in a game, it’d be a noteworthy feat. This is Westbrook’s average. His benchmark. That’s standard operating procedure for him this season.
He’s the Thunder’s entire offense and a bit of its defense. And despite the entire thing being built around him, he’s still shooting 45% from the floor and 33% from 3, which isn’t that great a mark but still is the best 3-point shooting percentage he’s had so far in his career. (These aren’t a ton of open looks he’s getting, either.)
And despite the Thunder being essentially a one-man team, they’re winning. They currently sit 6th in the Western Conference, just a game and a half back of the Clippers in fifth. Westbrook has dragged this team nearly singlehandedly to what looks like a spot in the playoffs, and he did so putting together one of the greatest statistical seasons we’ve ever seen.
So what could possibly be the argument against Westbrook, and why won’t he win the MVP?
Well, it comes down to two things. The most important thing being that Westbrook’s usage rate is high. Historically high. Over the course of a game, the ball is in his hands more than it’s been in about anyone’s hands in the history of the league. (The Ringer dove into this in great detail.) His usage rate this year – an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player – is 41.6. It’s the highest in the NBA by a long shot. The difference between him and No. 3 on the list, James Harden, is the same difference between Harden and the 20th player on the list, Andrew Wiggins.
The argument thus goes like this: Westbrook is putting up a historically great season, but these numbers are augmented by the fact that he gets more opportunities than anyone else. If LeBron James had the ball in his hands on 41% of the Cavaliers plays, rather than the 29% he has this season, he could well average a 30-10-10 too. He just doesn’t feel the need, because he wants to make sure his teammates are involved and interested in what’s happening.
The second thing hurting Westbrook’s chances is the fact that James Harden just happens to also be playing one of the great statistical seasons of the last 20 or so years. Harden’s 29-11-8 average may not be a triple double, but it’s staggering all the same, and he’s doing it with a usage rate that is seven percent lower than that of Westbrook’s. On top of that, the Rockets are one of the best teams in the league, going 49-22 so far and trailing only the Spurs and the Warriors in the top-heavy Western Conference.
That doesn’t even mention the late momentum of Kawhi Leonard’s MVP candidacy. Leonard is the best defender in the league and has also managed to become one of its 10 best offensive players this season, making a leap that not many of us thought he could make on the offensive end. I doubt he’ll play spoiler, but who knows? If he steals some votes off Westbrook, it could give the thing to Harden.
So does Harden deserve it? Well, it’s all a bit mucky, especially when you consider that Harden had the benefit of the team being built around him. Daryl Morey crafted a roster that would perfectly complement Harden’s game, and brought in a coach in Mike D’Antoni who could create an offense that took Harden to another level. Harden is surrounded with shooters and rebounders, guys who can take advantage of his unique ability to beat a man and get into the paint.
The Thunder, on the other hand, cobbled together what they could when the team was shocked by the departure of Kevin Durant. Russell Westbrook obviously became the focal point of the offense, but it’s not like this team was designed for him … Thunder GM Sam Presti and head coach Billy Donovan put together what they could in the time they had with the hand they’d been dealt. It just so worked out that the best chance for their success this season, especially with some injuries to Victor Oladipo and others, was for Westbrook to have the ball in his hands constantly, always, forever and ever. That’s not a real knock on Westbrook … yeah, he’s a ball hog, but he’s doing what the team needs him to do.
So who will win? Right now, I have my money on Harden. I think Westbrook’s usage rate and the Thunder’s good-but-not-great record will detract from his candidacy for some voters, who will dismiss the triple-double average as a nice statistical thing that ultimately doesn’t mean much. I think for the basketball purists, Leonard’s defense will nick a few second-place votes away from Westbrook as well, and it will break for Harden.
But who knows? Westbrook still might win, and he would be deserving. Whether you approve or don’t approve of how he plays, we haven’t seen a season like this in a long time.