Wednesday, April 12, 2017

NBA MVP: Westbrook or Harden?

With yet another NBA regular season coming to an end, the league-wide MVP debate is beginning to heat up. While there are a handful of players that have played at an MVP level this season, the award seems to be between former teammates Russell Westbrook and James Harden.



After watching teammate Kevin Durant leave Oklahoma City, Westbrook chose to sign an extension to stay in Oklahoma City and began his "me against the world" campaign. Through 80 games, Westbrook has averaged 32 points, 10.4 assists and 10.7 rebounds per game. He has 42 triple doubles. He's only the second player in NBA history to average a triple double for an entire season. Most seasons, Westbrook's numbers would've allowed him to run away with the MVP award.

This season, however, Houston Rockets guard James Harden has done his best Steve Nash impersonation. After being called a ball hog and a ball stopper over his career, Harden proved to everyone this season he's capable of being an elite ball distributor as well. Harden has averaged 29 points, 11.2 assists and 8 rebounds per game this season through 80 games, just a touch below Westbrook's averages, while playing point guard for the first time in his career.

However, what makes Harden's season arguably better is his shooting percentages. Both players shot 34.5% from 3 point range this season and about 85% from the free throw line, which is likely a surprise to everyone. Harden is widely regarded as a much better shooter. The difference, however, is that Harden shot 52.8% on two's, while Westbrook shot just 46%.

Both players were turnover machines, averaging more than 5 per game, which isn't surprising since their both closer to combo guards than natural point guards. Teams also had to try anything to stop them, and trapping and double teams will result in a lot of turnovers as it did for these two.

Defensively, neither player is great but they are better than their reputations in my opinion. There are several ways to determine defensive value, but regardless Westbrook graded out slightly higher. Ultimately, Harden was slightly better offensively, while Westbrook was slightly better defensively.

As someone who values efficiency over everything, I had felt all season that Harden was the MVP. Westbrook was taking 40 shots a game, and had the ball in his hands every play. It didn't make his triple double feat less impressive, but I think if you put Harden on OKC instead of Westbrook he'd have averaged a triple double as well. Despite thinking Harden was the MVP all season, after examining the shooting percentages and overall value, I've changed my mind.

The 2017 NBA MVP should be Russell Westbrook. I believe he will win the award thanks in large part to the "He averaged a triple double!" argument, which is sillym but he's still deserving.

It reminds me of the Miguel Cabrera-Mike Trout MVP debates in 2012. Cabrera had won the triple crown, something that hadn't been done in baseball since 1967, so fans just assumed he had to win the award. What people don't seem to realize is that things like the triple crown or triple doubles are a group of arbitrary stats we decided mattered decades ago. The triple crown stats in baseball are not the best way to determine a players value for that season; and points/assists/rebounds are a less than perfect way to determine a basketball players value. With the growth of advanced statistics, we've learned what effects winning more than the stats we valued 50 years ago.

Simply put, there are better ways to determine who the best player was than his points/assists/rebounds average. Again, though, because Westbrook and Harden's advanced stats are so similar, Westbrook gets the nod in my opinion because he was playing on a less talented team and in a less stat-friendly scheme. Harden's season has been a joy to watch and I love the Rockets strategy of shooting as many 3's as possible. But Westbrook carried a not-very-good OKC Thunder team to the playoffs by simply hogging the ball all season. Kobe Bryant tried that (with less talent, though) after Shaq left and led his team to a 34-48 record.

I expect the Thunder to be eliminated after the first round, and the Rockets to make a run possibly as far as the Western Conference Finals. But Russell Westbrook is the MVP, and James Harden will have to settle for the greatest runner-up MVP season in NBA history.