It’s been a number of years since we’ve seen an MVP race this tight, or one with as many reasonably viable candidates this late in the season. With just over 20 games to go, there are as many as five or six mostly realistic names still in the hat. Stephen Curry and James Harden have led the pack much of the year and continue to do so for many. LeBron James has been dominant in the months since his maintenance period, pushing the Cavs toward the elite status many had foreshadowed for them. Even Anthony Davis and his alien-like performances and numbers remain around the margins, though recent injuries, his team’s standing, and the incredible play of these other guys may see him trailing at this point.
Maybe the most interesting study, though, is Russell Westbrook (surprise, surprise). Both his own injuries and Kevin Durant’s have left a top-heavy Thunder team struggling just to reach the postseason, with much of this due to a 14-game stretch in November where OKC was without both superstars and went 4-10.
But Russ has remained healthy since (until Friday night; more here later), and as Durant has continued to bounce in and out of the lineup – now sidelined once again for an unspecified period – the fireball point guard has shoved his way emphatically into the MVP conversation. He completed a remarkable and historic February on Friday night with his third consecutive triple-double (the first to do that since LeBron in 2009), finishing the month with a ludicrous 31.2 points, 10.3 assists and 9.1 rebounds per-game average, the only player in history besides Oscar Robertson to ever average even 30-10-9 in a single month.
And somehow, these insane figures don’t even capture the full volume effect Russ is having on the floor on a nightly basis. On the year, he’s using 38 percent of Thunder possessions, just the seventh individual season in history where a rotation player used over 36 percent (outside a random Jermaine O’Neal blip season, his company here is legends only). This skyrockets even further into the 40s when Durant isn’t sharing the floor with him. The load Westbrook is shouldering on a nightly basis, particularly in recent weeks, may be the largest of any player in the modern history of the league.
Overall metrics love him, as well. He’s second in PER only to Anthony Davis, and quickly narrowing the gap on Curry and Harden in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus stat. Essentially, there doesn’t currently exist a comprehensive metric in which Westbrook doesn’t fall in the league’s top five.
Much of the foundation for his dominance, as always, lies in his ability to get to the rim with ease. Russ might be the single most capable player in the league of getting a layup or a dunk at will. He’s in the top 20 for every driving-related category in NBA.com’s SportVU tracking, and his 10.3 points generated per-48-minutes through drives is fourth among qualified rotation players. His first couple steps have to be among the quickest and most difficult to predict in the history of the game, and his explosive elevation is just too much for even most quick-rotating bigs:
Russ is attempting 8.3 tries within five feet of the hoop, per NBA.com, third in the league among guards, and is within the top 10 here as well for shots between five and nine feet. He’s simply relentless about getting into the lane, something he can do literally any time he touches the ball. Former teammate Harden is considered the NBA’s foul-drawing savant, but Russ is actually the only rotation guard in the league attempting more free-throws on a per-minute basis than the Houston star (9.8 per-36 to Harden’s 9.3).
His gravity here has opened things up for his teammates, as well. Despite often being classified as a selfish, shoot-first player, Westbrook leads the entire league in percentage of teammate baskets assisted while on the floor, at 48.1 percent according to basketball-reference.com. A great piece by ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh earlier this week (Insider) revealed such a high assist percentage to be historically unique for such a high-usage player. Other Thunder players need only position themselves well and be prepared for a pass from any angle (seriously, any angle), and they’ll find themselves with free buckets courtesy of Russ’s profound impact on opposing defenses:
The list of his contributions goes on and on. Westbrook is among the league’s premier rebounding guards, not a surprise given his silly athleticism and drive. He’s fourth among all rotation guards in overall rebound percentage (11.0), trailing only Thabo Sefolosha, PJ Tucker and teammate Andre Roberson – all of whom are specialists known more for their defense, with nowhere near the other responsibilities Russ carries. He’s second behind only Tony Allen (another specialist) in offensive rebounding percentage, a figure made all the more insane by the sheer number of Thunder attempts he takes himself. No guard in the league has rebounded more of his own missed shot attempts than Westbrook on the year, and only one other volume shooter (350-plus field-goal attempts), Elfrid Payton, has collected a higher percentage of his own misses. (Big thanks to Aaron Blackshear for this data).
He’s also second in per-game steals (2.0) behind only Curry, and partially as a result leads the NBA in per-minute fast-break points among qualified players by quite a healthy margin – his 8.3 transition points per-36-minutes is comfortably ahead of second-place Curry at 6.4. Seriously, is there anything this guy doesn’t do?
That’s a bit of a stretch, of course. Westbrook’s game is far from perfect overall, and there are several good reasons why he often takes as much grief as he does for the way he plays the game. He’s freqeuently far too quick to pursue his own shot even when it’s an ineffective one, an issue he’s had throughout his career. Only three players (Curry, Klay Thompson and Gerald Green) have taken a higher number of jumpers within the first six seconds of the shot clock, per NBASavant, and all three have both appeared in many more games and been far more efficient – Russ is at 35.2 percent on such attempts, with each of these others comfortably over 40 percent.
Concerns about his volume are certainly justified at times in an overall sense. Westbrook attempted a combined 70 (seventy!) field-goals in OKC’s Thursday-Friday back-to-back, making just 26, and it’s easy to assume that even with how well he’s been playing, at least some of these could have gone to teammates for more efficient looks. Westbrook’s shooting efficiency figures are quite pedestrian compared to his elite numbers in so many other areas – he doesn’t even crack the league’s top 50 for True Shooting Percentage (factors in both the added value of three-pointers and free-throws) among qualified guards.
But MVP stands for “most valuable,” not “most efficient,” and though the two are of course symbiotic in many ways, context must be considered. Durant’s absence leaves the Thunder incredibly thin beyond Westbrook and to a lesser degree Serge Ibaka, even after a deadline move to shore up the depth somewhat. Coach Scott Brooks has proven time and again incapable of incorporating a more team-inclusive scheme around his all-world talents, and when one of them goes down for an extended period, the load on the other is massive. Westbrook has taken the challenge on with mind-blowing ferocity, and the level to which the Thunder depend on him when Durant is out absolutely counters some of the less efficient areas of his game as compared to his peers in the race.
Rather, the largest threat to his candidacy would actually appear to be his own missed time from earlier in the year, where he was out for 14 games. Harden has played every game for Houston, Curry has only missed one game for Golden State, and even LeBron has sat fewer overall games (11) than Russ on the year. Furthermore, a facial fracture he sustained at the end of Friday night’s loss to Portland looks likely to keep him out at least another few games, and he’s dangerously approaching the territory where guys take a real hit to their MVP chances if this current malady keeps him out more than a week or so. Even if he’s back to health quickly, his performance likely has to demonstrably outpace guys like Curry and Harden for him to win the award. A Durant return sooner rather than later could also dilute things if KD is his usual dominant self, and despite the good reasons behind it, the Thunder’s place in the standings will be a slight knock against Russ compared with his competitors.
Whether or not he’s got the juice to become the frontrunner, however, what Westbrook has accomplished to this point in the season is historically gigantic and warrants real consideration. He has excellent competition at the top, but one can very easily make the argument that no player has been as valuable to his team over the course of the year than Russ.
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