Daniel Johnson and Andrew James
Daniel: Russell Westbrook
Coming into this season, the weight that Russell Westbrook had to carry is enough to comically flatten the road runner. The Oklahoma City Thunder were coming off a seventh game Western Conference Finals defeat after leading the series 3-1 with a home loss in game 6. Many analyst and fans placed the blame for the defeat at the hands of Westbrook and superstar teammate Kevin Durant. This was another year that saw the team being unable to return to the NBA Finals since their 2012 defeat. Then the Decision Part Deux, Kevin Durant leaves the Thunder for the team who defeated them in the postseason and who has represented the West in the past two Finals, the Golden State Warriors.
Then came the questions of their relationship and whether or not they could win together and the fact Durant left for another All-Star point guard in Stephen Curry. Without Durant, Westbrook became the sole superstar on the team and the undisputed leader in the locker room. The question then became whether or not he could lead OKC back to the postseason or would his ball dominate play would pull the team closer towards the cellar of the Conference. Today, OKC is the top team in their division and tied for the sixth spot in the West and within three games of the star studded LA Clippers for the fourth seed.
Now to the numbers and stats for Westbrook, an area of his game everyone knew was going to increase, but not like this. There are some marks in sports no one thinks can ever be reached: Baseball has not had a player hit 400 since Ted Williams in 1941. Football has not had a perfect team since the MIami Dolphins in 1972. And basketball has not had a player average a triple double since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62. The fact that this late into the season, Westbrook has averaged a triple double per game with 31.2 points (league leading), 10.4 assist (second in the league) and 10.6 rebounds, most since Robertson, how can it not be said he has been the most valuable player in basketball?
In the realms of sabermetrics, Westbrooks’ 30.4 Player Efficiency Rating, which measures positive averages and play to negative plays and average, is the highest in NBA History.
Let’s compare Westbrook to the competition. LeBron James may be the best player in basketball, this season, Westbrook has been more valuable to his team. Cleveland is in possession of two All-Stars on their roster. James Harden, like Steve Nash in the mid 2000s, is the product of a MIke D’Antoni offense. Any ball dominant player will stuff the stat sheet in a D’Antoni offense. Chris Paul, like LeBron has had the benefit of playing on a roster of not only two, but three All-Stars in DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin, and JJ Redrick, who has been shooting the three ball like a Splash Brother (who has never been considered a serious candidate just because of the star power that the team possess).
At the end of the day, the award is called “Most Valuable Player.” Without Westbrook’s production on the court, Oklahoma City’s net rating goes from the middle of the Western Conference postseason picture to far and ahead last (6.4 with, -13.0 without, the Brooklyn Nets own the lowest with -7.7). Maybe in the past, Westbrook earned the derogatory nickname “Westbrick” for his very questionable shot selection and his tendency to be a bit out of control, rely on his speed and playmaking, very similar to newly enshrined Hall of Famer Allen Iverson in his prime.
That being said, this team needs a playmaking guard because there is not a player on the roster that can constantly get their own shot. In this league right now, we have a player who might average for an entire season a triple double and be the first player since Nate “Tiny” Archibald in 1974-75 to lead the league in points and assist in the same season. Like Iverson in 2000-01, Archibald in 74-75, and Robertson in 63-64, this is the season for Westbrook to win the Most Valuable Player.
Andrew James : Chris Paul
The NBA is a star-centered league, where the primary marketing is focused on individual players with eye-candy highlight reels. Yet somehow, every generation has a select few stars that tend to slip through the cracks of media headlines. It is usually only when their careers come to a close that people realize just how much these guys accomplished.
John Stockton was one of these players—in a league that was hysterical over the likes of Jordan and Drexler, the scrappy, intelligent point guard for a small market Jazz team must have not seemed interesting enough for prime time. Tim Duncan was another—his quiet leadership and unmatched consistency was always more effective at winning games than attention.
Today that player is Chris Paul. He may be overshadowed by the flashier guards who have played throughout his career, like Rose and Curry. But he always has been a fringe MVP candidate, just inches away from the award. Something is different this year.
It largely has to do with the impact of a coaching move by Doc Rivers. In previous years, the Clippers have tried to take advantage of Paul’s defensive prowess by giving him the most difficult perimeter assignment (he even guarded Durant at times). But now the Clippers have changed face. Luc Mbah A Moute has taken ownership of that role, allowing CP3 to stay back and play help.
This has unleashed a revolutionary kind of defensive beast. In today’s game, where the motion offense is so prevalent, Paul’s ability to clog the passing lanes and read the defense is more important than ever.
It is well known that the big man down low has the most impactful defensive role in stopping inside attacks, and now the Clippers have found a way to simulate that same effect on perimeter shots, which are more important than ever in today’s league.
The result is evident in the metrics. Chris Paul’s defensive Real Plus-Minus (a measurement of how much impact a player has while on the court, adjusted for the other players on the court at the same time) is +3.15. The next highest point guard on the list is Patrick Beverley, at just +1.51.
While there’s a lot to be said for Paul’s defense, his best attribute has always been his ability to run the offense intelligently and efficiently. Paul doesn’t play as many minutes as Westbrook, but his Per-36 minutes statline is 20.3 points, 11.1 assists, and just 2.7 turnovers per game, on 47% shooting.
Westbrook has gotten a lot of credit for his passing ability this year, but here’s the thing: passing is about more than just assists. Westbrook is averaging a career high 10.9 assists Per-36 minutes, but he is also averaging 5.5 turnovers per game, due to his over-aggressive passes.
Using simple mathematical logic, we can assume that as a statistic, turnovers have to be weighed more than assists. After all, an assisted basket is a basket that could still have been scored on that given possession without an assist–there is always a chance a player will score. But a turnover not only automatically decreases that chance to zero for the culprit’s team, but gives the other team a very high chance of scoring on a possession that otherwise would not have existed.
Therefore, to really get an idea of who the most valuable passers are, we need to look at assist to turnover ratio. Chris Paul has the second highest ratio (and first among point guards) with 4.18, while Westbrook’s ratio of 1.99 is 52nd. A similar argument can be used to contest James Harden’s candidacy, who turns the ball over 5.8 times a game.
OKC’s offense, much like Houston’s, relies on one man making a play. The Rockets do it at a faster pace, but ultimately the strategy of the Thunder is to let Westbrook be as aggressive as he is, and hope it works out. That might make Westbrook the most important player, but that isn’t the same as the most valuable.
The true most valuable player has to be a building block that contributes to the entire team. This difference is why Allen Iverson — who never had the ability to play within the offense — was unable to lead a great team.
Westbrook’s triple double stat-line is exciting, but deceiving. And as the award is for on court value, the best stat to look at has to be Real Plus-Minus, which quite literally gauges how a team changes when a particular player is on the court.
Chris Paul leads the league with a RPM of 9.50, and second place (Jimmy Butler) is far behind at 7.17.
If the committee gets it right this year, Chris Paul is your MVP.