By Eric Getzoff
BU News Service
Call me basic. Call me intelligent. Call me a stat-hog.
Any of those adjectives could apply to a basketball fan’s opinion on this year’s NBA MVP race. It’s the most talked about MVP race in recent years. The only year in recent memory that was somewhat arguable was Steph Curry’s 2015 trophy.
This year? Unless you’re living under a rock then you would know there’s a race not just for two players, but for three.
On one hand, there’s James Harden. The Houston Rockets guard averaged 29.1 points per game, 11.2 assists per game and 8.1 rebounds per game, guiding his team to 55 wins.
On another hand, there’s Russell Westbrook. Westbrook, in case you haven’t heard, is the first player to average a triple double since Oscar Robertson did such way back in the 1961-1962 season. Westbrook took home the scoring trophy averaging 31.6 ppg and also added in 10.4 apg and 10.7 rpg for a Thunder team that lost the second best player in the league to free agency last summer. (Side note: Oscar Robertson didn’t win the MVP the year he averaged a triple-double. He didn’t even come in second; he came in third. Bill Russell came in first, averaging 19 ppg and 24 rpg for the Boston Celtics. Wilt Chamberlain came in second in his 50-26 season. Players voted for the MVP then. As Bill Simmons says in his column, “it’s a wonderful example of how they felt about Russell and Wilt.” It’s kind of like how Babe Ruth didn’t win the MVP during his 60-homer season in 1927. His teammate Lou Gehrig won instead.)
And then there’s Kawhi Leonard – the quiet guy. You didn’t and still don’t hear much about Kahwi’s year because he doesn’t make the headlines. He scored over 40 points exactly once this year. He’s almost a clone of Tim Duncan – a player who night in and night out consistently produces and doesn’t soak in the spotlight like the Mets’ Gary Carter did. He’s a final product of one of Greg Popovich’s lab experiments. Leonard, quietly so, averaged 25.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg and 3.5 apg, 1.8 steals per game and .7 blocks per game for the 61-win Tim Duncan-less Spurs.
I don’t really understand why Kawhi is even in the MVP discussion. He’s not in the top-five for any of the six major categories – points, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals and field goal percentage. He’s in the discussion only because Lebron isn’t having as good a season as he’s had in the past. And somewhere along the lines in the history of the NBA, voters decided the MVP has to have a better season than the last time they won MVP. (See: Jordan, Michael, 1993 and 1997). So Lebron’s off the board. Steph Curry isn’t in the conversation either for that exact reason, plus he gets points deducted for playing with Kevin Durant. Which is also why Durant is out of the discussion as well, because if you give the award to Durant then why not give it to Curry and vica-versa?
Why the discussion can’t be just about Harden and Westbrook confuses the hell out of me. But hey, Kawhi isn’t winning my MVP so if you want to include him in your MVP ballot then go right ahead.
So, who does win my MVP?
Easy. It’s Russell Westbrook. And there’s no argument.
He averaged a triple-double over the entire season. Repeat: he averaged a triple-double over the entire season. But that’s not all. Westbrook broke the record for the amount of triple-doubles in one season with 42. He threw up a triple-double in over half of his 81 games played this season. The rest of the league combined had 38. Harden had 21 and Lebron 13. Westbrook scored a triple-double against 27 teams this season, falling short only against the Chicago Bulls and Portland Trail Blazers.
Westbrook did this all for a team who lost the second best player in the league, Kevin Durant, to the Golden State Warriors in free-agency last offseason. The Thunder’s second to fifth best players this season were Victor Oladipo, Enes Kanter, and Steven Adams. A far cry from having Kevin Durant in playing besides you. Plus, Westbrook was in total F-U mode from game 1 to game 82. That has to count for something, right?
The James Harden backers will tell you Harden was 1.9 rpg away from averaging a triple-double. Spare me the stats. If he got those 1.9 rebounds more per game, he’d have 813 rebounds over an entire season. Still short of Westbrook’s 864.
Harden was definitely dominant this season. You’d have to be a fool to argue against it. He improved drastically from last season, especially in rebounds and assists.
His stats last season: 29.0 ppg, 7.5 apg, 6.1 rpg. This season: 29.1 ppg, 11.2 apg and 8.1 rpg.
He had a 53-16-17 game and a 51-13-13 game. He also made his teammates better, much more so than Westbrook did. I’ll give that to him.
For Kawhi, his story this season isn’t as sexy as Westbrook’s and Harden’s. He averaged 25 ppg, 8 rpg and 6 apg, played great defense and filled the box score night in and night out with steals and blocks on top of the major categories.
Should win totals count for MVP voting? Yes, it certainly should. I would be hard pressed to vote for a player as MVP whose team won less than half their games.
Kawhi’s Spurs won 61 games. Harden’s Rockets won 55 games. Westbrook’s Thunder won 47 games. Is that good enough? Usually, no. No MVP winner from the last 35 years was on a team who won less than 50 games. But, when you have a stat-line that looks like this – 31.6, 10.7, 10.4 – exceptions are granted.
Westbrook has my vote.