By: Hunter Wright
It is a forgone conclusion that the 2016-17 NBA M.V.P. will either be James Harden or Russell Westbrook. While deserving talents such as Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James will receive votes, this has become a two-man race, with any potential dark horses far behind. As of this writing, “The Beard” James Harden, and “Mr. Triple-Double” Russell Westbrook have both played eighty-one games, concluding their regular seasons.
Russell Westbrook was drafted out of UCLA with the fourth overall draft pick by the Seattle Supersonics in 2008, the year before the team would relocate and be rebranded as the Oklahoma City Thunder. The next year, in 2009, the Thunder drafted James Harden out of Arizona State University with the third overall pick. Harden, now the franchise player for the Houston Rockets, has reinvented himself since leaving OKC in 2012. Meanwhile Westbrook, in the wake of Kevin Durant’s departure, has been unleashed and is waging war against the record book.
Harden’s Rockets finished 55-27 and rank third in the western conference, mainly because Harden has been one of the most efficient scorers in the league. His Rockets have made and attempted more three point shots than any team in NBA history, making 1181 out of 3306. The 2016-17 Rockets rank 10th in league history with 114.7 points per 100 possessions, and 13th in points scored with 9458. The Rockets have tallied 2070 assists, a whopping 906 of which belong to Harden, who in the wake of Mike D’Antoni moving him from shooting guard to point guard, led the NBA in assists per game with 11.2. Harden also led the league in free throws made and attempted going 746 for 881 at the charity line. Harden has recorded seven games with at least 30 points and 15 assists, the most in league history.
Unfortunately for the man with the arguably the most famous facial hair in basketball (except for maybe Steven Adams and Enes Kanter of the Thunder, aka the “Stache Brothers”), Harden’s skillset is one-sided, as he disappears when the Rockets don’t have the ball. His defense is lackluster, and many of his attempts at protecting the paint have been brutally exploited in GIF’s as much as Deandre Jordan’s attempts at shooting free throws. The YouTube video below is not even a minute long, but it will make anyone toting Harden as the rightful M.V.P. shake their heads in shame:
In this video Harden looks like the little brother who, after countless attempts at stopping big brother from dunking over his head, has finally just given up and is just waiting for his turn with the ball. To be fair though, Harden is improving, he is more focused on the defensive side of the court than we have ever seen him, but can we claim that a man with his defensive limitations and a league leading 464 turnovers is the most valuable player in the league?
Now of course we have Russell Westbrook, who’s entire M.V.P. résumé can be summed up in two words; “Goodbye Durant”, I’m kidding obviously the words are triple-double, but the departure of Kevin Durant is a huge factor. After Durant’s sloppy divorce with Westbrook he entered a shotgun marriage with Stephen Curry as both players had the same goal in mind, winning the NBA Championship. Westbrook, now left with no top echelon peer, became the focal point of the Thunder’s offense.
The Thunder have finished the season 47-35, ranking sixth in the western conference, which means that they will face Harden and the Rockets in the first round of the playoffs. For the first eight years of Westbrook’s career, with Durant playing the role of team leader, Russ averaged 21.5 points, 7.6 assists, and 5.6 rebounds per game. In the 2016-17 season Westbrook, with the spotlight solely on him, and with his teammates and millions of fans relying on him, averaged a whopping 31.6 points, 10.4 assists, and 10.7 rebounds per game. While all of these are career highs, the boost in points and assists was expected, but many were surprised when the 6’3” Westbrook began exploding into the air for rebounds to make up for the loss of the 6’9” Durant. Since the 2011-12 season in which Westbrook averaged 4.9 rebounds per game, he has slowly increased his total every year, reaching a then career high 7.8 this previous season.
The points, assists, and rebounds Westbrook averaged per game result in a triple-double on the season. Westbrook is only the second player in NBA history to average a triple-double for a season, the other was Oscar Robertson. In the 1961-62 season, the Big O averaged 30.8 points, 11.4 assists, and 12.5 rebounds per game, over the course of 79 games. During his historic season Robertson recorded 41 triple-doubles, Westbrook finishes with 42, an NBA record.
Westbrook’s 31.6 points per game were the most in the league, and his 10.4 assists trail only Harden. Westbrook made and attempted more shots than anyone else in the league, shooting 824 for 1941. Westbrook has been more valuable to his team than anyone else in the league.
The bad news for Westbrook is that his 438 turnovers were the second most in the league, behind Harden, and his team did not finish with a great record. Many people look at the difference between the Rockets’ and Thunder’s records as a deciding factor for M.V.P. and while the Rockets lead the Thunder by eight games, they finish three spots ahead in the conference.
If I were voting, I’d cast my vote to Russell Westbrook.