By: Dan Grant
Over the next several weeks, we’ll be laying out the various candidates for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award for the 2016-17 season. It’s one of the most interesting races in years, hearkening back to the 1990 race in which Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan went head-to-head all season long. This year, there are four viable candidates, with others lurking. We’ll dedicate a full piece to each. Today we begin with the people’s champ: Russell Westbrook.
Russell Westbrook is a force of nature.
Even before Kevin Durant left to join the Golden State Warriors, this was known. He’s a guy who plays all out, all the time. He never takes plays off, and begrudges those that do. He’s the guy who cares just a little bit too much, who has a contentious relationship with the media and sometimes with his own teammates. His personality is unique, and has (sometimes gently) been described as ‘prickly’.
Despite this, through the first eight seasons of his career, Westbrook was a fan favourite, not just with Thunder supporters, but around the league. His electrifying brand of basketball was magnetic — even if he makes decisions you didn’t agree with, or berated referees mercilessly, you just couldn’t look away. This season, that rings especially true.
When Kevin Durant went down to a foot injury two seasons ago, we got a glimpse into what a solo Russ project could look like, and the results were polarizing. Russ was great, but the Thunder were not. He finished second in all time usage rate, behind only the ultimate Kobe-as-gunner season, that legendary 05-06 year when he played with likes of Smush Parker, Kwame Brown and Chris Mihm.
Oklahoma City missed the playoffs.
When Durant left for Golden State, things were a little different than when he got injured. The Thunder had retooled since that 2014-15 season, retaining Enes Kanter and adding Victor Olapido, Domantas Sabonis, Kyle Singler and Jerami Grant. Steven Adams and Andre Roberson, who were already in house, had blossomed into bigger roles. This was a team that was ready to be great with Durant but very good without him.
Everybody knew that Durant and Ibaka’s departures would shine a bright light on Westbrook, that he was now the lone franchise cornerstone and that the entire offense would run through him. The lone superstar is something that’s been done before in the NBA.
But never quite like this.
Through 36 games, Westbrook has set the NBA on fire and watched it burn. The Thunder are 21-15, good for 6th in the Western Conference. It’s hard to argue that any player has been more instrumental to the success of his team than Westbrook. He’s averaging a league leading 30.9 points per game, is second in assists at 10.5 per game and, perhaps most shockingly, ranks 11th in the NBA with 10.5 rebounds per game. But it goes deeper than that.
Despite shooting a relatively pedestrian .424/.313/.824 from the floor (FG%/3P%/FT%), Westbrook leads the NBA in PER (29.9), assist percentage (58.4%), Offensive Box Plus Minus (9.8), Total Box Plus Minus (14.2) and VORP (5.1). He’s not just dominating the game on a macro level, he’s doing it overwhelmingly. Unsurprisingly, he also leads the league in usage rate at 42.4%, which would be all time record. This isn’t a repeat of that 2014-15 season. It’s a far, far greater accomplishment.
The assist percentage is the biggest difference to me. In 2014-15, Westbrook had an assist percentage of 47%, meaning that when he was on the floor, 47% of all his teammates baskets were assisted by him. This was good for the 18th best mark of all time. It may have felt like Westbrook was going 1 on 5 a lot of the time, but he still averaged 8.6 assists per game that season, which at the time was a career high.
This season his assist percentage sits at 58.4%, which would be the all time record. The current record holder is 1990-91 John Stockton. Stockton, the all-time assist leader, owns 5 of the top 6 spots on the list. He was an assist machine, borne out of the assist ether to compile assists and punch people in the nuts on screens. Westbrook is on track to break a friggin’ John Stockton assist record, while leading the league in scoring. Let that sink in.
Then there’s the whole triple double thing.
Per Basketball Reference:
He’s the only player to average a triple double this late in the season since Oscar Robertson, who actually accomplished the feat over a full year in 1961-62. He’s less than halfway there. But if he can keep it up, Westbrook’s achievement will be more impressive.
Setting aside the myriad era arguments, (Ed. Note: which can never be decided properly. Westbrook plays in a larger league against better athletes with all the benefits of modern technology, Robertson played under tougher conditions, with no three point line and against virtual All-Star teams every night since there was only 8 teams. Pick your side, fight to the death about it, but we’re calling it a wash) the simple fact is that teams took more shots in Robertson’s day, which creates more counting stats.
This season, NBA teams are averaging 85.3 field goal attempts per game and shoot .453%. Teams are averaging 104.5 points per game. In Robertson’s triple double season, the league averaged 107.7 per game and shot .423%. Teams scored 118.8 points per game. So there were far more opportunities for both rebounds and assists. Back when Robertson did it, usage rate wasn’t tracked, but it’s not hard to see the differences in their formulas, and why Westbrook is so much more dominant.
Robertson played 44.3 minutes per game, Westbrook is playing only 34.6. Westbrook is taking 24.0 shots per game this year, while Robertson took just 22.9, despite the minutes disparity. Robertson led the league in assists, but averaged just 0.9 per game more than Westbrook is currently. His Cincinnati Royals finished 43-37, good for second in the Western Division (as it was then called).
Unsurprisingly then perhaps, is the fact that Robertson didn’t win the MVP award. That went to the Boston Celtics Bill Russell (for the third time), who averaged 18.9 points, 23.6 rebounds and 4.5 assists, all while leading the Celtics to the title. Blocks weren’t tracked then, but it’s estimated Russell averaged something in the 10,000 per game range. It should also be noted, this was back when players exclusively voted on the MVP results. Robertson garnered the second most first-place votes, but finished third in total voting, behind Russell and Chamberlain.
So if he averages the triple double in this era, in the fashion we just described, does Westbrook win the MVP? It’s not as automatic as it might seem.
The triple double is impressive, but it hasn’t been enough to sway voters in the past. Robertson didn’t win it in his year, and the next closest was Magic Johnson, who averaged 18.6/9.6/9.5 in the 1981-82 season, and finished a distant eighth in MVP voting. Johnson did go on to win three MVP awards later in his career, each time averaging a double-double with points and assists, but never posting a higher rebounding total.
The bigger problem is that NBA MVP has come from a 1 or 2 seed in the Conference almost every single year, and literally every single year in the past 28. Michael Jordan’s win in 1987-88 (3rd seed), Moses Malone’s in 1978-79 (4th) and Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s in 1975-76 (missed playoffs) are the lone exceptions in the past 40 years. Those three would be the template for voters supporting Westbrook. Lone wolf star’s gathering teams around them, and dominating at a historical level on the statistical side of things — those were the years Malone set every offensive rebounding record in history and Jordan averaged 37.1 points per game, still the highest non-Wilt total of all-time. It was Kareem’s first year in LA, and the year he set career highs in rebounding (16.9) and blocks (4.1) per game, which is saying something for the leagues only six time MVP winner, though choosing a guy who’s team missed the playoffs still seems silly.
But the team success matters, whether it should or not. Kobe, the current usage rate record holder, didn’t have it in 05-06. His team went 45-37, and that wasn’t good enough for voters. The Thunder are on pace for a similar (if slightly better) record this year. Will Westbrook be able to convince them if his pace slows even slightly?
That will largely depend on his competition. Join us again in two weeks, as we take a look at the other front runner for the award: James Harden of the Houston Rockets.
Dan Grant is an editor at the Same Page and a contributor to FanDuel’s numberFire, as well as SB Nation’s Raptors HQ. He can be found on Twitter @SlamminDannyG. He likes high fives, cold beers and basketball. He’ll probably like you, too.