It’s clear the NBA MVP race has come down to two players: Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook and Houston Rockets guard James Harden.
MVP stands for Most Valuable Player. Often this is misconstrued as “best” player, “flashiest” player or everyone’s favorite player, but all three of those traits get away from the actual truth this award attempts to uncover. It’s about who adds the most value to a team’s season.
Let’s take a look at Westbrook first.
Much has been made of his “me against everyone” campaign this season, averaging a triple double and becoming a man of the people after Golden State forward Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City for a superior Warriors squad, forcing Westbrook - for better or for worse - to take matters into his own hands.
Westbrook averaged 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists, breaking Oscar Robertson’s triple double record that stood for 55 years.
Of course this is incredible, it was outstanding to watch and will go down as one of the most notable seasons by a player in NBA history, but was it valuable to his team?
The answer is no.
Oklahoma City finished with a mere 47 wins on the 2016-2017 campaign - that’s eight less than Harden’s Rocket team - and were eliminated after just five games by Houston.
Westbrook’s stats were padded by teammates helping him get rebounds and his desire to take 24 shots a game - five less than Harden - making his quest to achieve the triple double record all the more achievable.
That’s what Westbrook’s season was about. He felt personally betrayed by Durant’s departure, those feelings were aggravated by the national media trying to get an interesting anti-Durant/Golden State quote and he became the center of attention and never let go.
Harden’s 2016-17 season was far more impressive than Westbrook’s. He had a higher field goal percentage - using five less shots than Westbrook to score 2.5 less points - better three point percentage, led the league in assists and of course had eight more wins.
Above all of that, however, Harden finished the season producing 56.9 of Houston’s points per game - the most by a player in NBA history - and doing it at an extremely efficient rate.
There’s not much more of a case for Harden, but there doesn’t need to be. He adds much more value to his team. He has helped Eric Gordon ascend to new heights in his career by running such an efficient offense. Trevor Ariza, Clint Capela and Ryan Anderson are having the best years of their career and it’s not because they’re a much more talented bunch than the team in Oklahoma City.
That’s another backwards narrative being spun, or at least a giant misconception surrounding the race between these two players. Harden didn’t start out with a team that was worth eight more wins, three entire seeds better, he got the most out of every player.
His astonishingly efficient shooting forced defenders to close on him, which gave him plenty of opportunities when he decided not to try and score - an offensive strategy Westbrook should’ve tried - but rather distribute the ball to other players on his team who had better looks.
Yes, Westbrook averaged a lot of assists as well, but his constant, erroneous shooting attempts are what was eventually the downfall of his team’s season. You can have all the assists that you want, but at the end of the day, your irresponsible shot-taking can negate all of the distributive value you bring to your offense.
For those that believe that Westbrook’s superior stat line is what makes him more deserved of the MVP award, there are two things you must consider.
Do you really believe that if LeBron James and James Harden really tried, they couldn’t average a triple-double too?
It would take James 1.3 more assists and 1.4 more rebounds and Harden 1.9 more rebounds a game to achieve a triple double. They didn’t reach those numbers, but it’s not because the two best players in the world weren’t capable. They knew the things it took to win games, and doing everything yourself all the time isn’t one of them.
Which player was the most beneficial to their teams success?
Harden created more points, was far more efficient and led his team to more wins both during the regular season and beyond.
It’s about value, not stat-stuffing.