Ed. Note: This piece was written by my cousin, Sam Hergott. He believes Russell Westbrook is the clear MVP and says, “no knock on Harden but I can't see why this is a question.”
It’s basically a two-man race for MVP — Russell Westbrook vs. James Harden.
Harden is a fantastic player, who is having an amazing season, but his MVP credentials are fake news. I believe this is an open debate because a lot of media members don’t like the way Westbrook plays.
They thought he should have conceded to Kevin Durant in the past. He’s considered a ball hog, not a good teammate, etc., which is why Harden is being promoted as a legit MVP candidate, possibly even the favorite. I never understood the criticism of Westbrook. Here’s what I see: A guy that plays his ass off every night in a league where teams are criticized for resting players, and players are criticized for not trying until the fourth quarter. Russ brings it every minute of every night. That should be applauded.
Effort, though, is not measurable, and Russell’s MVP candidacy should not be based on the above paragraph. They should be based on facts, and these are the facts...
Statistically, by almost every measure, Russell Westbrook is having a better season than Harden. Russell is going to end up averaging a triple-double. Most people thought this accomplishment was unattainable. We all know it’s only happened once. Magic, Bird, James, Kidd — none of these all-timers could pull it off. Due to the anti-Westbrook sentiment from some media members, I see arguments that downplay the triple-double. Things like “What’s the difference between 9.4 rebounds and 10.1 rebounds? It’s not even one rebound a game.”
Here’s the difference: One number gets you into the club, and the other keeps you behind the velvet rope. When Ted Williams hit .406, he had 185 hits in 456 plate appearances. 3 fewer hits would have meant finishing at .399. That is an amazing batting average, but it isn’t .400. You would never hear a member of the media debate .399 vs .406.
We revere stats like a .400 batting average because it’s a rare achievement. It’s an exclusive club. Sports history is based on statistical benchmarks. It’s how we measure players, teams, eras. Yes, we like round numbers like 500 home runs, 1,000 yards, 20 points per game. I’m not sure why that’s a bad thing. We like round numbers in every aspect of life. Would you rather make $100,000 or $99,000 a year? It’s only a thousand dollar difference, but there’s a prestige involved with saying you make six figures.
Bottom line, averaging a triple-double is an amazing accomplishment. No shit, right? I will admit that a 10/10/10 triple-double average wouldn’t be MVP worthy, but it’s not merely the fact Westbrook has 10+ across the board. HE’S LEADING THE LEAGUE IN SCORING. A 30 ppg, 10 apg season has only happened six times in NBA history. A 30 and 10 rpg season has only happened 22 times. Westbrook will hit both marks in the same season! Olajuwon, Ewing, O’Neal, Robinson, Duncan, Garnett, Barkley, Nowitzki...none of them put together a 30 ppg and 10 rpg season.
Westbrook is a G##D### point guard! I won’t accept the line that his teammates let him get rebounds. Every team acquiesces to its star. Watch any NBA game and the alpha big man gets all the uncontested rebounds. Is Westbrook chasing stats a little? Probably. But that happens anytime a player is close to a statistical achievement. Chris Johnson had 36 carries in game 16 to reach 2,000 yards and managers leave pitchers in longer than typical if they’re chasing a no-no.
If you’re not impressed by the triple-double average, Westbrook is also likely to end up in the top 10 for total points (1st), total assists (3rd), total rebounds (8th), and total steals (7th ). I’m too lazy to do the full research, but I’m guessing that’s pretty rare. Harden will finish 2nd, 1st, 16th, and 15th, respectively.
Defensively, I’d argue Westbrook and Harden are a wash. Westbrook has a higher DWS (defensive win shares) and DBPM (defensive box plus minus), for what it’s worth. Two final stats addressing the ball hog comments: If you take both players field goal attempts per game + free throw attempts here’s what you will find: Russell is at 34.6, while Harden is at 29.9. In other words, Westbrook is taking 1.175 true shooting attempts per quarter more than Harden. Then there’s this great stat from Chris Herring in his article making the case for Harden as the MVP on 538:
Harden moved to point guard this season, an abrupt shift that has put the ball in his hands an NBA-high nine minutes per game, a whopping 43 percent increase compared to last year and 50 percent more than in 2014. Harden has more than just handled the adjustment; he has thrived because of it. Defenses have generally had no clue how to slow down the Rockets, because Harden himself has been impossible to guard.
In short, Westbrook the “ball hog” had the rock in his hands less often than James Harden, and he took about one more shot or free throw per quarter than The Beard, who nobody is calling a ball hog.
What advantage does Harden possess?
Well, it’s simple. Team record.
If OKC had 20 wins, I don’t think Westbrook is in the conversation. Anthony Davis has had some amazing seasons recently, but they didn’t equal team success. Pelicans finished above .500 only once. Oklahoma City will finish with around 47 wins, and likely be the sixth seed. Houston will finish with around 55 wins and the third seed. If Houston was the #1 seed and/or had 60 wins, I’d give Harden more consideration. For those that will argue “really, what’s the difference between 55 wins and 60 wins?” I’d ask the same question. Really, what’s the difference between 47 and 55 wins?
Here’s the real kicker on records — one guy’s team got significantly worse from last season, and one guy’s team got significantly better. Westbrook lost Kevin Durant (former MVP, top 5 player) and his 28/8/5 2016 average and replaced him with Victor Oladipo and his 16/5/4. Harden “lost” Dwight Howard (13/11 in 2016, arguably a bad teammate) and added Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson (combined 2016 numbers equal 32/8/4).
Houston also brought in a new coach, Mike D’Antoni. His offense and the addition of Gordon and Anderson helped Harden flourish. Mid-season, the Rockets also added Lou Williams and his 15.4 ppg. OKC added Taj Gibson and his 8 ppg and 4 rpg. Houston has more wins, but it’s hard to argue they don’t also have the better coach, system, and roster.
I’ve also seen an argument that the Rockets were predicted to finish around .500 and since they exceeded these expectations, Harden is obviously the MVP. Predictions are not facts. When a team’s record fails to match a prediction, it is always the team that was “wrong.” They either over or underachieved. It’s never the prediction Houston added a new coach, 3 new players (Gordon, Anderson, Nene) and have a full season of Sam Dekker. Maybe the media’s prediction was off? If I predicted Houston to win 65 games, did they underachieve?
If Harden’s only real advantage is team record, and if team record is the swing vote, why aren’t Harden supporters looking at Kawhi Leonard? The Spurs have eight more wins than Houston; the same gap between Houston and OKC. Leonard isn’t as good all-around offensively as Harden, but he’s arguably the best perimeter defender in the league. The gap between Leonard’s defense and Harden’s defense is way bigger than Harden’s offense and Leonard’s offense. The criteria which gives Harden the nod over Westbrook would also give Leonard the nod over Harden. Leonard is going to be first team All-NBA and first team All-Defense. Harden (nor Westbook) will come close to even second team All-Defense. Leonard also led his team to 60+ wins.
I’ve tried to counter every argument I’ve heard against Westbrook and/or Harden, which is why this essay is 1,400+ words. I can’t stress enough that I’m in no way anti-Harden. He’s having an amazing season on a very good team, but there really isn’t an argument to make that he’s the MVP over Westbrook.
In fact, if you look at all the “Harden 4 MVP” articles and arguments, they mainly focus on why Westbrook ISN’T the MVP. Doesn’t that tell you something?
Sam Hergott, Chicago