Usually when writing previews, coming up with a theme or a subject can be tricky. Do I dive into some statistics? Do I find something humorous that makes sense in context? Can I just talk about the other team and ignore Houston? Do I go lazy and just write about how the teams have been doing lately? Sometimes it’s hard to find an angle or come up with something worth reading.
Not today. This one’s easy.
I’m speaking, of course, about the race to the MVP between James Harden and Russell Westbrook. They’re clearly the two front runners for the award, with a few stragglers falling farther and farther behind them after every monster performance or triple double.
Now, this is a Houston Rockets blog. I know where most of you stand on this matter, and rest assured I’m right there with you. But let’s talk for a moment about why people are going crazy about Russ.
By now, you’ve likely grown tired of the phrase “triple double” in regards to the Thunder’s mercurial point guard. He’s had a billion of them this season. And he’ll have a billion more. Barring an injury or some other unforeseen obstacle, the man will average a triple double for the season. Make peace with it, because it’s going to happen and will be the crux of every case for Westbrook’s MVP merit.
Firstly, averaging a triple double is incredible. Just a few years ago I was talking with a friend and we couldn’t see it ever happening. If LeBron couldn’t do it, no one could. Maybe there was some up-and-coming player that had the greatness to accomplish the feat, but more than likely we figured that the next player to average a triple double hadn’t been born yet.
Second, with so many great players jumping to create superteams, it grows less and less likely that we’ll ever see another player chase this goal. I’m not saying that anybody on the Warriors, Cavs, or Spurs (Pop plus any star=superteam and I refuse to say otherwise) could average it alone, but the fact that they’re playing with so many other talented players makes it nigh impossible.
Now, let’s look at the other aspects of Russ’s MVP case. He’s carrying a team with zero All-Star appearances among them. The Thunder were expected to take a step back with Kevin Durant gone. They have, but it’s been a small stride backwards, not the yards and yards originally believed. This Thunder squad is young, with most of the team in their early to mid-20s. Only four players are over the age of 25. OKC is starting one rookie (noted AK player crush Domantas Sabonis), and giving decent minutes to two more (Alex Abrines and Semaj Christon).
And through all of that, Russell Westbrook still has them at a .600 winning percentage. They’re on pace to win 49.2 games. Give them a 0.8 swing and suddenly they’re a 50-win team with one star that’s succeeding despite a ton of youth and a second-year NBA coach.
Watch Russ play and you’ll see a player with no regard for safety, willing to run head-on into any situation. He’s 2006 Finals Dwyane Wade on steroids. In my life, I’ve never seen another player with his work rate. No one goes 110% on every play like he does. So many writers and players talk about “hustle” and “grinding” and all of those buzzwords, but Russ does it and then some. If there’s a loose ball, he’s getting it. If there’s a long rebound, it’s his. If no one boxes out properly, he’s getting the putback. He doesn’t just do everything. He does more.
But all of those considerations pale in comparison to the big one: this OKC team needs a superstar. Five years ago, they had a core of players in their early 20s. They were ahead of schedule and had a Finals appearance under their belt. They would compete at that level for years. It was a given. Today, only one is left, and it’s the one that’s always been appreciated but spent much of his time in Kevin Durant’s shadow. The way he acts and the way he plays probably feels like a metaphor for how the fans feel. I’d rather not get into the discussion about all the moves or decisions that OKC made, but suffice to say that even OKC fans never imagined this future even a year ago. It’s been taken from them. They’re as angry as the way Russell Westbrook plays. So forgive them for giving more meaning to the city than just “superstar.” He’s them in player form.
You’re probably saying, “Damn AK, sounds like you think Russ should win the award.”
Anyone wanna guess the last player to win MVP on a team that didn’t finish in the top 2 of their conference? I’ll wait.
It was Michael Jordan in 1988, winning the MVP despite playing for the three seed Chicago Bulls. Those Bulls won 50 games and Jordan averaged 35 points a night.
The Thunder will not be the 3 seed in the West. I can say that with relative certainty. It would take a rash of injuries to teams ahead and near the Thunder, and this epidemic would have to spare OKC.
Meanwhile, James Harden’s Rockets are on the fast track to the 3 seed in the Western Conference. Their .750 winning percentage projects to a 61.5 win season. Even if they don’t hit 60, they’re sure to be a 55+ win team.
Remember when we talked about Russ’s triple doubles? Well James is getting his fair share, too. The biggest one is also far and away the best individual performance of the season and probably this millennium (come at me Kobe fans). 53 points, 17 assists, and 16 rebounds will live on in NBA lore for a long time.
Much like how the Thunder’s offense revolves around Westbrook while he’s on the floor, so too does everything go through Harden for Houston. Nothing happens if Harden isn’t forcing defenders to shade over or making big men step out on the pick-and-roll. The difference between the two teams (besides scheme) is that the Rockets have Eric Gordon and the Thunder don’t.
A lot has been made of the fact that Harden’s supporting cast is better than Westbrook’s. The issue here from the standpoint of Rockets fans is twofold. One: No one gave a single shit about that distinction two years ago when Harden’s teammates were far worse than Steph Curry’s. Suddenly that’s a valid argument in favor of Russ and Rockets fans feel like the media is being a bunch of hypocrites. Two: Guess how many All-Star appearances Harden’s teammates have among them? Zero.
In fact, an easy argument can be made that Harden’s teammates are better than Westbrook’s because Harden makes them better. Gordon is having a career year and Ryno is hitting threes from Conroe (h/t Bill Worrell), but none of that happens without Harden creating for them. Westbrook’s assists lead to points, but Harden’s assists have led to better performances.
Harden has exceeded expectations. The smart money was on Houston fighting for the 8 seed in the West this season. Most predictions topped out at 45 wins, and some were a little less than that. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Rockets are projected to beat their original projection by 14 wins (45 to 59). Meanwhile, the Thunder are projected to lose four wins.
Finally, Harden is averaging similar raw numbers to Westbrook while posting a substantially lower usage rate. Think about this: Westbrook has scored 93 more points than Harden, but has required 195 more shots than Harden to do so. And before someone says, “Yeah but Harden only scores by flopping and getting to the line,” I should also point out that Russ has taken 14 more free throws this season. All of this has been in the same number of games (36).
For the neutrals, you’re probably reading this and going, “Wait, it’s January. Why are we talking about the MVP? The season isn’t halfway done yet.”
They make a great point. Unfortunately, the creation of social media and the 24-hour news cycle has morphed “narrative” into a hideous and ever-present beast. Instead of waiting until the end of the season, most awards are decided upon months in advance. It’s turned the MVP campaign into a full-season event. Tell someone “Russ is the MVP” enough times from November through April and even the most open-minded person will start to believe its veracity. Heck, Bob Myers seems to have already locked up the Executive of the Year award because Kevin Durant chose Golden State in the offseason. Myers did nothing, but everyone spent all summer saying that the Warriors won the offseason (they did), so now Myers has the award locked up. Should it be that way? Of course not. But here we are. Voters have tended to go with the first player to distance themselves, and Russ started off the year like a man of fire. Harden did too, but early in the year there was more attention paid to Russ because of the Durant departure.
Tonight, the Thunder are coming in from Charlotte, where they dropped their second straight game last night. Houston seems to never play OKC with more rest than the Thunder, so it’s imperative that Houston take advantage of finally being given a few days off.
Tip-off is at 7pm CT on TNT.