This column is dedicated to Kaleb Simonds, whom I am desperately trying to get into watching the NBA
Almost a year ago, I wrote this column in response to the fascinating decision from former MVP Kevin Durant (pictured above wearing #35) to join the record-holding (albeit non-NBA Champion) 73-win Golden State Warriors. If you don’t remember the column, after arguing that the NBA, as a whole, produced the best “reality show” on television, I talked about how Kevin Durant’s move to Golden State made him into TV’s newest villain and the NBA’s most hated player. After about a year, that’s mostly become the case. However, what’s even more fascinating are the consequences of this decision and its effect on the MVP race as a whole.
Let’s Talk About the MVP Race
So, the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award in the NBA has always been a weird award. In theory, the title should be awarded to the best individual NBA player of the regular season. For you movie buffs, think of this as the Academy Award for Best Actor. However, in practice, the interpretation of the terms “Most Valuable” has always put restrictions on who could win such an award. For example, if the most talented NBA player of the regular season didn’t have his team finish within the Top 4 of their conference (i.e. the Top 8 teams out of 30), they don’t win it. Here’s a list of the MVPs of the last 15 years along with their overall team standing:
- 2016, 2015: Stephen Curry (#1, #1; pictured above in the white jersey wearing #30)
- 2014: Kevin Durant (#2)
- 2013, 2012, 2010, 2009: LeBron James (#1, #4, #1, #1)
- 2011: Derrick Rose (#1)
- 2008: Kobe Bryant (#3)
- 2007: Dirk Nowitzki (#1)
- 2006, 2005: Steve Nash (#4, #1)
- 2004: Kevin Garnett (#2)
- 2003, 2002: Tim Duncan (#2, #3)
What does all of this have to do with Kevin Durant or the MVP race? Well, do you see the player in the Featured Image wearing a blue jersey with the #0? That’s Russell Westbrook, Durant’s former teammate on the Oklahoma City Thunder. At the time I write this, he currently holds a statline for 31.4 points per game (1st in PPG for the season), 10.4 assists[/passes that lead to a score] per game (3rd in APG for the season), and 10.5 rebounds [retrieved balls after a missed shot] per game (10th in RPG for the season; definitive 1st amongst Point Guards). Since three categories are in double-digit figures, this is referred to as a Triple-Double. Due to the amount of skill and energy required to produce double-digit figures in three categories at the same time, Triple-Doubles are incredibly hard for professional basketball players to produce in a regular game. And Russell Westbrook, since former teammate Kevin Durant left the OKC Thunder, is averaging a Triple-Double over 73 games.
Simply put, this is unheard of in the modern era of basketball. While NBA legend Oscar Robertson obtained the only Triple-Double average in the 1961-1962 season, the pace was substantially faster than the modern NBA and there were far more opportunities for scoring and rebounding. If the game were played at that pace today, three players would be en route to eye-popping Triple-Double numbers:
In other words, without Kevin Durant on his team, Russell Westbrook has been able to put up the most impressive individual season from an NBA player ever seen in quite a while.
And yet, by the season’s end, he might not win the Most Valuable Player Award. Following trends for the last 15 years says that Russell Westbrook and his 6th seeded OKC Thunder (10th overall) are about 10% of wins away from justifying Westbrook’s selection for MVP. They’ll look like they’ll make the NBA Playoffs (the postseason tournament), but they definitely aren’t the favorites to win.
But isn’t this an individual award? Why do teams put so much stock into team success if it’s the Most Valuable Player? And here’s where we need to talk about the word Valuable.
Valuable: Stats vs. Success
In the 2010-2011 NBA season, you’d be hard pressed to find people that didn’t think LeBron James (pictured above in the black #6 Heat jersey) was the most talented player in the league at the time. Sure, you would’ve had to listen to people say that Kobe Bryant would have a better legacy because he had 5 championships to LeBron’s 0 (at the time), but very few people would have argued that a 33-year-old Kobe averaging his lowest PPG in 7 years was a more talented player than 27-year-old LeBron who was averaging more PPG, RPG, and APG.
But look at the 2011 MVP. It’s a player named Derrick Rose (pictured above in the white #1 jersey for the Bulls). To be sure, his season from a statistics standpoint weren’t particularly eye-popping. Here are his stats in orange near LeBron:
And despite LeBron’s statistics clearly being the more impressive of the two, Rose won the MVP voting in an absolute landslide with 113 First-Place votes to LeBron’s 4. So what gives? Why wasn’t LeBron awarded the MVP that year? Why weren’t any of the other players chosen over Derrick Rose?
Well, the 2010-2011 NBA season happened to be the first one that saw LeBron James join the Miami Heat with two other NBA All-Stars Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade (who also got MVP votes throughout the year). Sports analysts started to debate whether somebody could truly be considered the Most Valuable Player on a team that had another player who could be argued as the Most Valuable Player. If you took LeBron off of the Miami Heat, wouldn’t they still be a good team with MVP candidate Dwyane Wade? How much value could a player have on a team that still had another player just as valuable?
And here’s why Derrick Rose won the MVP: In only his 3rd year in the league, Derrick Rose had to lead a team that whose other two best players Carlos Boozer (2x All-Star) and Joakim Noah (All-Defensive 2nd Team that year) averaged about 28.5 missed games between the two. Out of 82 total games, that’s over one-third of the season that those two missed! And despite missing two of their best players for basically 1/3rd of the season each and handing the reigns to a 22-year-old Point Guard, they went 62-20 for the best overall record in the NBA. Derrick Rose was undoubtedly the best player on a team that finished with the best record in the NBA. While LeBron and other players like Kobe, Dwight, and Wade were more talented, Derrick Rose was far more valuable to his team’s success than they were.
Thus, having the most talent or the best stats doesn’t always mean you’re the most valuable to your team’s success.
A Hardened Battle for the MVP
So if Russell Westbrook isn’t the most valuable to his team’s success, who in the league is?
Meet Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook’s former teammate, James Harden. If you know nothing about James Harden, there’s this wonderful video I’ll link you to at the end. However, for now, his magnificent beard and stats speak for themselves:
To be clear, James Harden isn’t too far off from averaging a Triple-Double (only 2.0 RPG away) and his Houston Rockets hold the 3rd best record in the NBA as opposed to the OKC Thunder’s 10th. So does it follow that James Harden is more valuable to his team than the slightly more talented and stat-stuffer, Russell Westbrook?
Well, this is a slightly different situation than the Rose vs. LeBron debate I referenced for 2011. On one hand, people argue that James Harden’s Houston Rockets have the 3rd best record because of a better supporting cast and coach than Russell Westbrook. On the other hand, there are just as many people who argue that Westbrook’s “do-it-all” attitude is stunting his teammates’ growth and that James Harden elevates the talent of the supporting cast around him. However, is this historic season going to go to waste because we’re too afraid to reward a player whose team isn’t within the top 13 percentile of the league? Again, for movie buffs, this is like the Best Director race in the 2014 Academy Awards. Do you commend Richard Linklater for directing an unprecedented film with a 12-year production schedule, an atypical story structure, and only a few professional actors? Or do you go with Alejandro Iñarritu Gonzalez who tackled an ambitious single-take metafilm with the aid of a star-studded cast and an Award-winning cinematographer?
To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure who I would choose at this point. The narrative constantly changes as these two players hit buzzer-beaters, lead their teams to unlikely victories, and break historic NBA records each day. At this point, there are less than 10 games in the season and I couldn’t be more excited to see a Houston Rockets or OKC Thunder game.
Whoever wins and whatever the case may be, these breakout characters have made this season of NBA: The TV Show a must-see.
More Russell Westbrook and James Harden:
- James Harden on the Thunder trade (6 min)
- Russell Westbook on Never Planning to Go Pro (4 min)
- Russell Westbrook’s 57 Points 13 Rebs 11 Ast (9 min) vs. James Harden’s 53 Points 17 Ast 16 Rebs (8 min)
- James Harden Celebrates National Puppy Day (37 s)
- Russell Westbrook Makes Reporter Look Stupid (18 s)