By: Kwame Fisher-Jones
With the NBA season nearing an end, Russell Westbrook should now be the clear favorite to win this year’s M.V.P award. Since August the Oklahoma City Thunder guard has embraced the role vacated by his former running mate. In the process, Westbrook has managed to make the magnificent look mundane.
First the anointment of Westbrook is not an indictment on the skill set of Houston Rocket guard James Harden, San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard or the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James. Rather this proclamation is a testament to just how amazing the guard has been this season. In the case of the Cavaliers’ forward, it is extremely difficult to overlook what the champion has done this season. Especially when one considers the travesty of the future Hall-of-Famer being passed over for the trophy by Derrick Rose in 2010 – 2011 and Kevin Durant in 2013 – 2014.
But when a player averages a triple-double, which is one of the most sacred bench marks in professional sports, things change. What the former UCLA Bruin has accomplished in his first year of being “the man” is worthy of applauses, but what the All-Star guard has overcome in the process has been nothing short of spectacular. To date the former Bruin has posted career numbers in almost every offensive category.
The defending champion Cavaliers are not the only club ravaged by injuries, OKC has experienced its share of injuries to key players. To date starting guard Victor Oladipo has missed 15 games and key reserve Enes Kanter has missed 10 games. However, overcoming injuries and posting career numbers only tell part of his most valuable player journey. In an offensive system that is completely reliant on Russell’s play making ability, it is the offensive explosion of his teammates that speaks to the guard’s new found unselfishness. Andre Roberson (4.8 ppg vs. 6.7 ppg), Steven Adams (8.0 ppg vs. 11.8 ppg), Oladipo (16.0 ppg vs. 16.3 ppg), and Kanter (12.7 ppg vs. 14.3 ppg) all have reaped the benefits of a sharing Westbrook. This new “sharing is caring” version of the 6’3 guard is a stark contrast to the all he does is shoot mantra that has been uttered about his game throughout the guard’s career.
This abrupt transformation has allowed OKC to contend for a top four playoff seed, while building/rebuilding their roster. The former Bruin has exceeded most team expectations and surpassed all of the individual expectations many had before the start of the season. Such feats are what has put him in the M.V.P conversation, but the offensive dominance Russell has displayed is what propelled him to the front of the conversation.
Consider this, prior to the season there were two individual records many thought would never fall. One was the unofficial 100 point scoring mark held by Wilt Chamberlain and the second was averaging a triple-double for an entire season. The nonchalant attitude by some regarding the eventual accomplishment of averaging a triple-double is intriguing. If this were say Steph Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo or Anthony Davis the basketball world would fall off its axis to worship them. Yet, because the player approaching that record is not a media darling there has been some belittling of the inevitable achievement. There is a certain amount of “yeah, but” when discussing the history being made before our eyes, which is beyond baffling.
Mark Cuban even went as far as to inadvertently take a shot at his own M.V.P, in an effort to omit Westbrook from consideration. The Dallas Mavericks owner was quoted as saying “You got to win 50 games and a playoff series” as the requisite criteria to win the award. If this were the case Dirk Nowitzki would never have won his lone Maurice Podoloff trophy. Nowitzki won the award in the 2006 – 2007 season, this was the very same year the Mavericks lost to the 8th seeded Golden State Warriors in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Cuban’s contempt for the OKC guard was obviously clouding his judgment.
Cuban is not the only front office member to alter their narrative in hopes of arriving to a different conclusion. In a survey conducted by USA Today Sports, 12 of the 32 league executives polled selected James Harden over “the Brodie”. The Thunder guard was second with eight votes, while Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (who plays for the team with the best record of the three) was third with seven votes.
Harden is certainly a viable candidate, his penchant for scoring and Houston’s freewheeling offense is much more fun to watch then Oklahoma City’s offense. Also, the Rockets’ guard currently ranks third in points per (29.1) and first in assist per (11.2) which is commendable and should be celebrated. Yet, when you compare Harden’s post All-Star assists per (10.3) to Westbrook’s post All-Star assists per (10.2) they are virtually identical. This is difficult to fathom considering the stark contrast in each team’s style of play, and even tougher to explain for those choosing to vote for the Rockets lead guard solely off his ball distribution.
Harden’s record against the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs is 2 – 4, with the guard averaging 26.4 points, 9.8 boards and 11.9 dimes. Conversely, Russell’s record sits at 1 – 4, with 28.1 points, 10.1 boards and 11.9 dimes. Oddly enough the Rockets have not fared much better against the two top teams in the west, and once again those assists are a lot closer than many would have believed. The measurable difference is Houston’s one more win against the top clubs and their winning of the season series against the Thunder.
The Rockets have an NBA champion (Trevor Arizia) and a playoff tested roster, the Spurs have arguably the greatest coach ever in Gregg Popovich along with a former NBA Finals M.V.P in Tony Parker. Finally, LeBron has a top five scorer in Kyrie Irving and statistically one of the best power forwards in the game in Kevin Love. Meanwhile the Thunder have, with all due respect, Victor Oladipo. Now the former Magic guard has gotten better, so those are not shots fired, but no one can sincerely say this Thunder squad has not overachieved this season. This success is solely attributed to Westbrook and his historical play.
Polly on this for one moment in the upcoming draft there may be, for the first team in league history, a player selected first overall whose team failed to win 10 collegiate games. The argument being “his team was not any good”. The responsibility of the most talented player on any team is not contingent upon how talented their current roster is. In sports the best player is expected to elevate those around him. That elevation does not always reach the level of a championship, but it does habitually reach the level of unforeseen heights.
Instead of condemning the OKC guard for not reaching similar heights of rosters whose cores have been together for years, we should be in awe. Oklahoma City did not just lose you know who, they also lost Serge Ibaka and Dion Waiters. People have forgotten that those three were the team leaders in total minutes played from the previous season. To go from grizzled veterans to the naivety of youth and find a way to not only compete, but in some instances thrive is remarkable.
There is little doubt that Russell’s contemporaries have all put together admirable seasons, yet none of their performances have been historical. The unlikeliness of how the season began and the uniqueness of how it has taken shape is why most valuable awards are given. OKC is only a few games away from last season’s win total, and Westbrook has been the most invaluable reason why.