The MVP award is an annual award that somehow remains inconsistent in how it’s perceived. Should it be taken literal in the “Most Valuable” sense, or should it go to the best player in the league? Or should it just go to the best player on the best team? The definition conundrum of the award has invited debates for years, to the point where I imagine several friendships have been deemed irreconcilable.
That leads me to Russell Westbrook, who by all accounts will be the stat king of the upcoming season, having been projected to average everything from a triple-double to 35 points a game. Westbrook is a superstar, warts and all, so it makes sense to see his name up there as one of the leading candidates for the award – at least if you ignore team record.
The Thunder will take a step back this year. It’s just not logical to assume a team that saw Kevin Durant leave town for nothing, will stay at the same level. It’s also perfectly understandable that a minor decline will occur, and no one would point their finger at Westbrook if Oklahoma City wraps up a 40-45 win year.
And therein lies the first mountain that needs climbing for Westbrook. Should the Thunder win between 40-45 games, what would the statistical output have to be for Westbrook to beat out players on 55 and 60-win teams?
A triple-double would most surely help, and given how the Thunder were 18-0 in games where achieved the feat, win/loss expectations would be high if the point guard started out the year racking up TD’s. Only, averaging a triple-double is insanely difficult.
Westbrook last year came the closest since Magic Johnson in 1982 (2.2 rebounds off compared to Magic’s 1.1 combined rebounds/assists off), so there’s no denying the possibility exists. But even so, changes over the summer has set up parameters that would make it even more difficult for Westbrook to achieve it.
With Durant gone, the likelihood of Westbrook averaging 10 assists goes down. Durant was exceptional off the ball, getting assisted on 55 percent of his baskets, including 65.4 percent on his triples, of which he made 217. There’s no one to step into that role, and with Durant’s 28.2-point output in need of being replaced, some of that responsibility falls on Westbrook. I
increasing his shot volume, while maintaining an assist rate of 10.4 without having the luxury of Durant next to him seems improbable.
The 10 rebounds will be even trickier. The Thunder are deep up front with Steven Adams likely receiving an increased role this year, Enes Kanter likewise, and rookie Domantas Sabonis in the rotation as well. Ersan Ilyasova–a decent rebounder in his own right–Nick Collison, and Joffrey Lauvergne round out the big men of the year, and some are expected to get a lift in minutes after Serge Ibaka was traded to Orlando.
In essence, Westbrook managing a triple-double average would be otherworldly and the circumstances of which, noted above, would make it possibly the greatest statistical output in the history of the NBA.
With that mind, it’s worth noting Westbrook is likely to remain close. There’s little fear in him settling in for five rebounds and five assists per game, and as such, it’d be wise for media members to not belittle him at the end of the season for not achieving a goal that’d be record-breaking.
Assuming Westbrook settles in for a 30-point average (which seems the most likely) with 7-8 rebounds and assists to accompany him, would that be enough to win the award assuming Oklahoma City stays int he 40-45 win range?
For comparison, James Harden averaged 29 points, 6.1 rebounds and 7.5 assists last year for a 41-41 Rockets team, and finished ninth in MVP voting. That means Westbrook would have to jump quite a distance in the voting process to make it if he finds himself in a similar situation as Harden.
Though, to be fair, and as Kelly Scaletta pointed out, Harden has become somewhat underrated, which means his ninth-place finish should be taken with a grain of salt.
Let’s move on to the other definition idea of the award. The flat-out best player in the league. LeBron is widely believed to be the best around, although names such as Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard should be in the conversation. But even in Oklahoma City, Westbrook was viewed as the second-best player. This doesn’t bode well for him expanding the perception of himself into being the absolute best.
His flaws, which include an inconsistent jump shot and at time erratic play, are so overwhelmingly covered by the national media, he’d have to display several years of removing those doubts from his game before he’s labeled as being as polished as the other four.
As such, there’s little chance in Westbrook getting recognized as the best player in the league, thus hurting his chances in that area as well. Even a triple-double season, while fantastic, would be viewed as a reaction to more touches, than him becoming the best player on Earth. And to be fair, such an argument wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. Stats, even record-setting ones, needn’t be an example of being the best. Just ask the 2016 Warriors.
History, however, has rarely used this approach which speaks in favor of Westbrook. If the best player logic had been applied in years past, Michael Jordan would have won closer to 10 than the five currently on his mantel. It could also be argued that LeBron James, Tim Duncan, and especially Shaquille O’Neal would have garnered many more in their respective careers.
That leaves the best player on the best team ideology. That, too, seems highly unlikely for Westbrook to get in on. He’ll be the best player on the team by lightyears, but there’s little chance in the Thunder replicating success similar to past seasons, as previously noted.
Should the Thunder somehow surprise the whole league and win 50-55 games, part of the best player/best team ideology would be applicable to Westbrook, and he’d likely win the MVP via a combination of being the best player on an overachieving team, having a historical stat line, and in part he because he is amongst the league’s elite players.
It’s a fairly long list of things that has to swing his way, for him to raise the Maurice Podoloff Trophy. It isn’t necessarily impossible, but compared to guys who are on more successful teams, who play maybe a bit more efficiently, and who are the primary reason for their team being in the championship hunt, Westbrook likely falls short of reaching them in the MVP rankings.
Nevertheless, it’s an intriguing side-plot to the upcoming season, and the debate in itself raises the question whether it might be time for the NBA and its media members to have an old-chool sit-down to hash out how awards are being defined. Not just MVP, but Sixth Man Of the Year and Most Improved as well.
Heck, even the Rookie Of the Year award could use a tune-up. While the MVP turns into a popularity contest, backed by narratives, Sixth Man Of the Year has frequently gone to the best scorer off the bench, as opposed to the most influential bench player, period. In the grand scheme of things, that hardly seems right.
The MIP is looked at as tomorrow’s star, which is a fine point of emphasis, but if the recipient was expected to be a star all along, wouldn’t it have been logical to assume he’d make improvements year-to-year? Wouldn’t it then make more sense to hand the award over strictly to the unexpected riser–which, to be fair, it does at times–and never let it reach the hands of a Top-3 draft pick?
Russell Westbrook’s season, which is expected to be absolutely ridiculous, will likely increase the volume on such talk, which hopefully will catch the mainstream media and make it a point of emphasis in the future.