In a season dominated by awful individual performances and drama from all corners of the league, the NBA just had one of those years that people will talk about for a very long time. Really, pick your topic about this season and you’re going to get heated discussions on all of them. The new-look of the Warriors? Heated. Who’s the best unicorn? Heated. Are the Cavs coasting? Heated.
Through it all, one topic has consistently risen to the top as the most talked-about query this year. Who’ll be the MVP?
The answer, of course, is far more difficult than you think. As many as six different players can lay claim to the title. LeBron James is still the best player in the league when he wants to be. Kevin Durant posted one of the most efficient seasons in league history before getting hurt. Kawhi Leonard has turned into arguably the most devastating two-way player in the league. And Steph Curry is still Steph Curry.
But two names stood out for a big part of the season, which is exactly why this MVP discussion (with apologies to the aforementioned names, specifically Leonard) revolves around Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
The case for Russell Westbrook as the MVP
This is an easy one, especially if you’re the type who romanticizes numbers and the history attached to those numbers. Russell Westbrook is the MVP because the man averaged a triple double for the season, leading an Oklahoma City Thunder team that had just lost Kevin Durant in the off-season. That’s his case and it’s a very compelling one given how neutured the Thunder looked after Durant “opened the next chapter of his life” in the Bay Area.
Consider this: raise your hands if you thought the Oklahoma City Thunder would make the playoffs before the season started. There’s a strong chance that not a lot of people have their hands raised right now.
It just so happened that Westbrook turned in one of the most ridiculous individual seasons of any player in history. It’s not just about the numbers either, although 31.4 points per page, 10.7 rebounds per game, and 10.4 assists per game can bolster his chances. Look to the world of advanced metrics and Westbrook’s 30.6 player efficiency rating (PER) ranks in the top 15 all-time and his 41.7 percent usage rate is head and shoulders above Kobe Bryant’s 38.7 percent usage rate in the season where he scored 81 points and led the league in scoring at over 35 points per game.
Consider that usage rate statistic for a second here. For that number to be record-shattering, it meant that Westbrook accounted for 41.7 percent of the percentage of team plays used by a specific player while he was on the floor. That means that 41.7 percent of all Thunder possessions during the season ended with either Westbrook shooting the ball, turning the ball over, or getting to the free-throw line. Add that to the number of possessions that ended with him either getting the rebound or recording an assist and you can paint a clearer picture on how much of a force of nature Russell Westbrook was for Oklahoma City this season.
And if you want to further cement the Brodie’s MVP candidacy, imagine what the Thunder would be if you replaced him in the team with an average player in his position, say somebody like Dennis Schroeder. Westbrook’s value over replacement player is 12.4 (a category he also leads, by the way), which means that a Thunder team without him in it wins between 34 to 35 games. Really though, it should be more like 24 to 25 wins, right?
That’s why Russell Westbrook is the NBA MVP.
The case for James Harden as the MVP
As far as redemption stories are concerned, James Harden’s 2016-2017 NBA season is arguably more impressive considering how lackluster he was last season, at least for his standards. You can attribute his resurgence to a number of different factors (Mike D’Antoni, the move to point guard, the construction of the team, no Dwight Howard), but one fact remains above all others: James Harden is a freaking superstar of the highest order.
This year we saw the Beard in full-bloom, even if it took a surprising move to full-time point guard duties to do it. D’Antoni has to get some credit for openly giving Harden the keys to the Rockets kingdom, but just because he had said keys, nobody still knew what he’d do with it at the start of the season.
Well, it turned into a masterstroke for D’Antoni and the Rockets because giving Harden the ball meant taking advantage of his entire basketball skills. We’ve seen glimpses of the shooting, the vision, the all-around passing in past seasons. But only this year did we see it in full display, night after night, on his way to averaging an incredible 29.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 11.2 assists per game. Seriously, we’re it not for Westbrook’s incomprehensible stats, we’d be looking at Harden’s own line and marvelling at how he was able to consistently put up those numbers throughout the year.
Nobody seems to mind this one tidbit, too: Russell Westbrook put up 42 triple doubles this season to break the record set by Oscar Robertson back in the '60s. Guess what, James Harden posted 22 triple doubles of his own, which is tied for fourth of all-time! If Westbrook didn’t post as many as he did, we’d be talking about Harden posting as many as he did!
Here’s another fun stat to back up Harden’s MVP candidacy: the Beard generated 2,179 points from his assists last season, miles ahead from the second guy on this specific list (Russell Westbrook - 1,886 points).
Numbers aside, Harden’s MVP candidacy is most evident in the Houston Rockets’ success this season. Once more, who expected the Rockets to go 55-27 for the season, a year removed from a disastrous 41-41 record? Anybody? Nobody?
Not only did Harden take the leadership role in this incredible run, he’s doing it with a team that fully complemented his skills and allowed him to display said skills on a night-to-night basis in leading the Rockets to a record it had no business getting.
That’s why James Harden is the MVP.
Who’s our pick?
James Harden is our pick and it took the last minutes of Game 2 between the Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder to rest our case. That time in the game showed just how much the Thunder relied on Westbrook to manufacture points for them and when he couldn’t do it—the shot 4/18 for the whole quarter—Oklahoma City completely lost its will. That may be the description of “MVP” for some, but if it ends up with that team losing, then we’ll take the guy who led the comeback and got the W.
Besides, Westbrook said it best after that game when asked about his record-setting 50-point trouble.
“I don’t care give a fuck about that. We lost.”
Gve the Beard the MVP award.