Throughout the season, candidates for the NBA Regular Season MVP Award have risen and fallen, but the whole time, two candidates have stood out from the pack: Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Kawhi Leonard had a great season and led the Spurs to another great season, but his statistics just don’t compare. Lebron James, a perennial candidate, had another great season, boosting his averages in both rebounds and assists, but as his team faltered down the stretch losing the #1-seed in the Eastern Conference, Lebron’s MVP hopes dissipated. Finally, one of the most underrated picks, Isaiah Thomas, had an outstanding season and led the Celtics to the #1-seed in the East. Maybe the most clutch player in the NBA, his fourth quarter scoring elevated a team that should never have been in the running for a top seed. Unfortunately, scoring is not the only thing involved in the MVP pick. While his 28.9 points per game make him a possible pick, he only averaged 5.9 assists and 2.7 rebounds this season. While these three candidates all looked like obvious picks at some point in the season, Harden and Westbrook separated themselves over and over. The former teammates both had historically great seasons, so the question is — which should win the MVP?
This year, Harden carried a Rockets team that, before the season, was projected to miss the playoffs. He averaged 29.1 points, 11.2 assists, and 8.1 rebounds while leading the Rockets to the third seed in a highly competitive Western Conference. While Harden was dominating, and leading the Rockets to an unexpectedly great season, Westbrook was answering the call for his own team. After losing Kevin Durant in free agency, Westbrook knew he was going to have to pick up the slack and carry the team. In this historic season, Westbrook averaged 31.6 points, 10.4 assists, and 10.7 rebounds, becoming only the second player to average a triple double for a season, the first since Oscar Robertson did it in the 1961-62 season.
One major argument towards Harden’s MVP case is that he led his team to 55 wins and the third seed, while Westbrook could not get the Thunder to 50 wins. This argument must be looked at more deeply though. While Houston did win more games, a large part of that is the supporting cast around Harden. Westbrook was doing everything himself; Harden had help. The system that Mike D’Antoni, Head Coach of the Rockets, runs encourages three-point shooting and fast-break offense, and the Rockets are built for that. The team is made up almost completely of guards that can shoot three pointers and run the floor. This gap between the supporting casts around Westbrook and Harden was all too evident in the first round of the playoffs, where Harden and Westbrook faced off head to head. Through the first four games of the series, the Thunder were down in the series 3-1 despite leading for around two thirds of the time. The Rockets seemed to trail all game, but then storm back in the fourth quarter and win the game. This happened because of the Thunder’s atrocious defensive rating of 134.4 when Westbrook was off the court (defensive rating is the number of points a team allows per 100 possessions meaning lower is better). That rating is compared to a 106.1 rating with Westbrook on the court. While the offense was not as good without Westbrook, the real problem was that without him, the team could not defend at all. Over and over, I watched the Thunder blow double digit leads in the minute or two that Westbrook was resting on the bench. I actually felt bad for Russ; he could never rest, or his team would collapse. Through the first four games, the Thunder were outscored 110-70 in 39 minutes when Westbrook was off the floor. This collapse was not just something that happened in this playoff series; it happened all season. If Westbrook was not in the game, the team would collapse. These collapses show all to clearly how deficient the supporting cast of the Thunder is, especially in comparison to the Rockets cast. This gap between role players makes it even more surprising that the Thunder were able to win as many games as they did.
Considering everything that Westbrook did this year, with all of the triple doubles and the individual dominance, the obvious choice for NBA Regular Season MVP is not Harden, James, Leonard, or Thomas, but Russell Westbrook.
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