Category: Sports

The case for Russell Westbrook

The Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook and the Houston Rockets’ James Harden have undoubtedly separated themselves from the rest of the NBA this season. Although Harden has been fantasitc, Westbrook deserves to win MVP because his play has been historic.

Westbrook eclipsed the great Oscar Robertson’s 55-year old single-season triple-double record of 41. For context, Michael Jordan only notched 28 triple-doubles in his entire illustrious career. In addition, Westbrook averaged a triple-double for the entire season, posting over 30 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds per night. He played so unbelievably well this season that if he recorded a 30-10-10 night, his averages for points, rebounds and assists would actually decline. Westbrook also took home the league’s scoring title for the second time in his career, edging Harden by about two points per game. While Harden performed exceptionally after transitioning to point guard, dramatically improving his defense and posting over 20 triple-doubles of his own, his numbers simply cannot rival Westbrook’s.

After Kevin Durant’s offseason departure for the Golden State Warriors, analysts pegged the Thunder as a lottery team and claimed they would fail to make the postseason for just the second time in the last seven years. However, OKC has posted a record well above .500 and will be the sixth-seed in the cutthroat Western Conference, thanks primarily to Westbrook carrying the team on his shoulders.

Granted, Oklahoma City will be traveling to open the postseason at Harden’s Houston Rockets, who hold the third spot in the Western Conference. In Westbrook’s defense, Harden possesses many more weapons around him. After losing Durant over the summer, the Thunder fielded a much less talented roster than in recent years, featuring Victor Oladipo, Enes Kanter and Steven Adams as the core pieces around Westbrook. OKC lacks outside shooting and other viable scoring options, making Westbrook’s season that much more remarkable considering opposing teams only had to focus on him each night. Therefore, Westbrook is worth more to his team than Harden because of the disparity in the quality of their respective supporting casts.

Without Westbrook, the Thunder would undoubtedly find themselves in the bowels of the Western Conference standings and likely with top five positioning in the draft lottery. If the Rockets were without Harden, they wouldn’t be nearly as good, but they possess talent beyond him that would likely net them at least a low playoff seed. Regardless of who wins this award, both performed exceptionally all season, and it will be exciting to watch them square off in the first round of the playoffs.

yahn1@stolaf.edu

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The case for James Harden

Russell Westbrook’s flashy, stylized play for the Oklahoma City Thunder has translated to incredible statistics, but his rival and MVP competitor in Houston, James Harden, has simply been the more valuable athlete for his Rockets, now a championship force.

Not to say that Westbrook’s extraordinary accomplishments should be disregarded – it’s not every year a player averages a triple-double. However, his efficiency and versatility are lacking. Westbrook has a league-leading 2,553 points compared to Harden’s 2,315, but the former has attempted 1,931 field goals, vastly outnumbering the latter’s 1,511. Harden scores a comparable amount of points without shooting the ball nearly as much, generating a healthy portion of his points through free throws with his unmatched ability to draw three-point fouls. His .613 true shooting percentage dwarfs Westbrook’s .555, one of the first guards in history to average over 29 points per game while attempting fewer than 20 shots. Westbrook is incredible, but his stats are padded from taking a ton of shots rather than making the few he attempts, as Harden does.

It’s what Harden does outside of shooting, however, that truly sets him apart from Westbrook. Topping the NBA with 888 assists, he generates 27 points per game by passing, which, in addition to his own point average, means Harden is producing 56.4 total points per game for the Rockets, nearly eclipsing Tiny Archibald’s record of 56.8 that has stood for 44 years. In offensive win shares, or how many wins a player individually provides their team based solely on their offensive production, Harden’s 11.3 outclasses Westbrook’s 8.6. For Houston, every play, every scheme and every philosophy begins and ends with James Harden – statistically speaking, he is a significantly more valuable offensive commodity than Westbrook.

Much has been said about Westbrook’s herculean efforts in carrying OKC to the Western Conference’s sixth seeddespite low expectations, but here Harden once again outshines him. The Thunder entered the season with Vegas over/under odds of 45.5 wins, but the Rockets were expected to do worse with their estimated total hovering at 41.5. Surprisingly, Houston currently holds a 54-27 mark after having clinched the third seed in the Western Conference. Westbrook took a mediocre squad and turned it into a fringe playoff team. Harden transformed a worse team into a legitimate championship contender. If leadership is figuring into this debate, then Harden certainly has the edge.

Westbrook deserves recognition for his borderline superhuman achievements, but the award must go to the athlete who plays the most vital role for their team, the player who provides more overall value than any other. Under this definition, James Harden is undoubtedly the NBA’s MVP.

seidel1@stolaf.edu

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