-Why Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook is really the only choice.
This week, Russell Westbrook clinched a triple double average for the season, becoming the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1962 to reach that feat, now a record that stood for fifty-five years before Westbrook was able to do it. During that era, Bill Russell won eleven championships, Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game, and many records from the pre-merger NBA were considered unbreakable. We think about how different basketball was back then and often dismiss the classic viewers who still believe that players like Wilt, Russell, Jerry West, George Mikan, Bob Pettit, etc., deserve the right to be in the conversation with modern players for rankings. When looking up old stats, we see them jump off the page in terms of what they were able to do in sheer numbers because pf how different the games were compared to today’s style of play. Often, statistics records are now quantified as being ‘post-merger’ or ‘since 1970’ to avoid that clear difference in how to analyze them. What Russell Westbrook is doing transcends that break in the timeline. Westbrook is having a season of 1960s numbers in the modern NBA.
Admittedly, Westbrook is a divisive player. Many people still hold on to the idea that Kevin Durant left the Thunder because of an inability to reconcile two ball-dominant players that need their space to work. Mixing Russell’s tenacity with KD’s fun-loving attitude and tame nature clearly wasn’t always the best fit. If you’re a fan of the NBA, you remember the constant cries about the following: Russell shoots too much, Russell plays too out of control, Russell plays too emotional, Russell turns the ball over too much, Russell needs to take a back seat to better players. Well, he had a chance this season to do something about it, proving everybody wrong that questioned his ability to be a leader and guide a team to the playoffs. Russell is not a perfect player, he has games like he had against the Suns the other night where his style of play causes his team to completely crash and burn against an inferior group. Without him having a great game, his team cannot win. Part of that is by design, with Russell having the most ball-dominant season ever in terms of his usage rate, but part of it is also by necessity because of his other pieces around him. Give OKC 10 games, they’ll likely go 7-3 or 6-4, but at least 2 of those losses will be caused by Westbrook on his own, like a derailed plane heading straight for a collision with the ground, and the ground has to win. It’s just that he’s also responsible for ALL of the wins.
As good as LeBron James is every year, his MVP case is clearly tainted by the Cavs not caring about their regular season record. When LeBron said “don’t ask me about regular season games,” he also told us that he shouldn’t get a regular season award. Kawhi Leonard is not an MVP just because his stats are not comparable to the top four or five players, and the Spurs would clearly survive without him. The race is really between Russell and James Harden of the Rockets, and the 2016-17 season has been dominated by a story about the former teammates (and current friends) outplaying everyone else in the NBA.
The two arguments used by Harden supporters, led mostly by someone like Colin Cowherd, are as follows:
- I shouldn’t have to care about Russell getting a few more rebounds a game, especially because his teammates allow him to crash the boards on free throws to artificially inflate his rebound statistic.
- Harden doesn’t have a great team, either. They have the 3 seed, OKC is the 6 seed, and wins mean more than individual accomplishments.
Before I get into the statistical case for Westbrook, I want to address these two points by re-classifying them both into a positive for Russell.
In what era of NBA fandom do we currently live in? I don’t actually believe that Westbrook’s case for MVP would be different if he was averaging 9 rebounds instead of 11, but the new belittling of the triple double is something entirely created by a dislike for Russell’s game. I remember growing up in an NBA household that idolized the triple double. LeBron had a lot of attention given to his triple-doubles because he was viewed as such a complete player, and it was special when a player got one. The headline was “______’s triple double leads team to victory.” Now, the rhetoric around the triple double has changed because Westbrook has made it completely obsolete, it’s easy for him to do it night in and night out. He has 41 in 79 games, which means that more than likely on a nightly basis, Westbrook will record one. Rather than be impressed with the accomplishment, some NBA fans now discredit the triple double as just a counting statistic and how it doesn’t really matter in terms of overall metrics (I’ll get to advanced metrics later). One of the most special classifications for an in-game performance has now been made less than noteworthy because of how easy Russell makes it. There’s no way to classify the people that say “we just like the round number 10, why does this matter?” anything other than haters. The triple double has been a staple for basketball fans everywhere for their entire lives, and now just because Russell is AVERAGING one, people find a way to discredit it because they don’t like his personality.
(Also, the team wants him to get rebounds because he’s an incredible driver of fast-break basketball. He has great downfield court vision, and makes excellent passes that span the length of the floor, or can outrun any other player to get to the other basket by going coast to coast. The Thunder have to make up for their lack of three point shooting by being a more athletic and more physical team, and they do this by cutting out the middle-man rebounder, and letting Russell head a break earlier. It’s a similar reason why he doesn’t always contest jump shots, they want him to cheat in and start the next possession.)
The other complaint about the team achievement is even more insane to me. James Harden has been on the Rockets for 5 seasons now, and the team has entirely been built around him to lead them to success. New coach Mike D’Antoni has done a lot to spread the offense out and use James Harden’s skills as well as they can. Harden is having an amazing season, and his ability is being completely maxed out with how special he’s been. He’s certainly deserving of MVP votes, and should be the second place finisher. Just in passing and more attentive defense alone, Harden has made drastic improvements to his game after being snubbed from the All-NBA teams last year (he should’ve been at least 2nd team, no question). However, it’s been five seasons since the Rockets began their pursuit of a title with James as their best player. The D’Antoni additions of guys like Eric Gordon, Lou Williams, Nene Hilario, and drafting Sam Dekker and Clint Capela helps them join already dangerous players already there like Trevor Ariza, Patrick Beverley, and Ryan Anderson. If you notice, these players all have a similar style of hands-on, and all of them shoot the three extremely well. The Rockets have made themselves an ultimate 3-and-D team and are on pace to shoot the most three pointers out of any team in NBA history. If Williams, Gordon, Beverley, Ariza, Anderson, and Harden all shoot 35% or better from the three point line, the team is going to score points, and Harden’s court vision and ability to dictate the pace of the game plays into how well this system works for them.
Russell, however, is on his first season leading the Thunder as a lone wolf. The team was not built for his success, it was built for Kevin Durant’s. The Thunder approach of having as much length as possible to rebound and bully teams was an approach to allow Kevin Durant to dictate the shot selection at the end of games, and mask any inefficiencies to Russell’s game in the early years by having good rebounders and the ultimate shot-clock bailout option in the entire NBA in Kevin Durant; the guy can score from anywhere. Russell inherited a team that is missing 3 of the top 5 scorers from the previous year. Durant infamously fled to Golden State, while Serge Ibaka was moved to Orlando (he’s now with Toronto), and Dion Waiters is now with Miami. Only Russell and Enes Kanter remain from last year’s top 5 scoring options. The team is still in the process of being built, and is licking its wounds from the Durant departure. Imagine if Russell had the three-point bailout ability of the Houston team, where he could kick and swing the ball to dangerous shooters that space the floor. They need Andre Roberson for his defense, but his shooting is pitiful, and regardless of what lineup they play in combination of their four main bigs: Kanter, Steven Adams, Taj Gibson, or the rookie Sabonis, none of them are great shooters. It basically means that outside of Alex Abrines (another rookie) or Doug McDermott, the team really doesn’t have any shooting, especially with how inconsistent Victor Oladipo has been this year as the second option. So, Russell has led this hodge podge of players to 11 games over .500, and we’re worried about team accomplishment being the handcuff to his MVP case? They have a chance of beating the Rockets in the first round also, and with wins over the Spurs this year, the Thunder path to a conference finals appearance looks a lot better through Houston and San Antonio than it would look through Golden State.
For all of the people who don’t like the triple double idea because it’s a counting stat, here’s some advanced metrics to chew on if the whole, “leads the league in scoring AND is third in assists while averaging a triple double in only 34 minutes per game” isn’t good enough. (Also, Harden averages MORE turnovers and shoots only incrementally better from the three point line, Russell’s 34% is a career high, while Harden’s 35% is a little low).
Russell leads the league in PER (player efficiency rating) at 30.5. The next highest is Kawhi Leonard at 27.7. This PER also includes the caveat that he leads player efficiency while having the highest Usage Rate in NBA history at 41.7%. (Usage Rate is the percent of plays that revolve around a particular player while PER is a measure of a player’s per-minute production.)
He leads the league in Assist Percentage at 57.2%. Harden is 2nd at 50.6%. (AST% is the percentage of his team’s assists that the players are responsible for.)
Despite the above mentioned team construction, Russell is 5th in Win Shares with 12.7, trailing Harden, who does lead the league, with 14.7. (Win Shares are wins produced for the team. If you add up every player on that team’s win shares, it’ll equal that team’s win total. Harden is responsible for 14.7 of his team’s 53 wins, a 27.7% clip, while Russell is 12.7 out of 45 wins, a 28.2% clip. This reclassifies the supporting casts just a little bit).
Russell leads the league in value over a replacement player at 12.0, while Harden is at 8.7.
Also, Russell leads the league in Box Plus Minus (a calculation of a +/- ratio for his team’s production per 100 possessions) at 15.4, while Harden is second at 10.1. (Russell is also 2nd in Defensive BPM behind Draymond Green, which shows that he still helps his team defensively despite the uncontested shots, while Harden is not in the top 20.)
I just don’t really see how this could still be a discussion no matter whether you are a classic statistics person or an advanced statistics person. As a basketball fan, setting aside your biases and just appreciating these players is more important than not really liking Russ’s game.