Opinion: Russell Westbrook Deserves MVP Despite the Thunder’s Playoff Failure

When the basketball world learned that James Harden and the Houston Rockets would face Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, it became inevitable that the MVP race would be distorted by the results of the series. If the Rockets lost, Harden would be considered a perennial choker who continually disappears in the playoffs. If the Thunder lost, Westbrook would be viewed as a selfish ball hog unable to lead a team without Durant, Ibaka, or Harden. Well I’m here to say that this playoff series should not define Westbrook or Harden’s seasons, and that Russell’s record-breaking performance should place him first in this year’s MVP voting.

This Thunder season began as an experiment in pseudo-rebuilding: The team was designed to surround Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant with specialized role players, but Durant abandoned the team in free agency. He signed with the Warriors, the star-studded team with the best-ever regular season that the Thunder blew a 3-1 lead to in the Western Conference Finals. This left the Thunder without the core that had propelled them in the playoffs, and forced the team to adapt all the team’s role players around Russell Westbrook as their singular offensive weapon.

This shouldn’t have worked. The Pelicans tried the same strategy with Anthony Davis, the Kings with DeMarcus Cousins, and the Wizards last season with John Wall. These players put up incredible numbers, were unquestioned All-Stars, and made themselves walking highlight reels. They gave it all on both sides of the court, but somehow managed to put up 40 and 50 point games where their team still lost, and they never even made the playoffs.

Not Westbrook. He willed an incompetent team that should be beginning their rebuilding phase into the playoffs through sheer skill and athletic ability. Westbrook lead the entire league in scoring with 31.6 PPG, outscoring LeBron James, Steph Curry, and so many other powerhouse All-Stars. He lead the league in Player Efficiency Rating, a measure of per-minute production, and had more than double the average player’s PER. Of course, he also managed to average a triple-double and broke Oscar Robertson triple-double record of 41 in a single season, something that analysts long ago dismissed as impossible to replicate in the modern era.

Westbrook’s statistical achievements have undercut simply how much value he brought to an Oklahoma team that would be utterly lost without him. His usage rate was an insane 41.7%, meaning Westbrook used 42% of Oklahoma City’s plays when he was on the court. The next highest player was DeMarcus Cousins at a 36.5%, meaning Westbrook was responsible for far more of his team’s offensive production than any other single player in the NBA.

This production causes Westbrook to lead the NBA again in VORP: Value Over Replacement Player. This stat attempts to measure the number of points per 100 possessions a player would contribute to above an “average” player, and Westbrook’s astonishing 12.4 VORP again leads the NBA by a mile. This stat can be translated into WAR, Wins Above Replacement, a direct measure of how many wins a player contributes above an “average” player. Westbrook has a jaw-dropping 33.48 WAR.

That’s right, without Westbrook the Thunder would have an estimated 13-14 wins on the season. That would put them dead last in the NBA, behind even the Brooklyn Nets. Now, a disclaimer that VORP measures often overrate the value of high-usage players, but this still shows that Westbrook is unquestionably the most “valuable” player by statistical measures, and that the Thunder would be a high-pick lottery team without him.

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You can see exactly how much Westbrook meant to his team by the +/- when he was on the court vs on the bench. In the regular season, the Thunder were +251 when he was on court (+3 per game) and were an astonishing -189 when he was off court (-2.3 per game). Considering he played 34 minutes per game, that means the Thunder’s bench managed to blow almost all of Westbrook’s work in just over a quarter of playing time each game. His teammates were not even able to play containment defense and hold the leads Westbrook had given them most games.

This was painfully obvious in the playoffs, where every time Westbrook went to the bench the Rockets went on huge runs and erased the Thunder’s lead. They were impossibly lost without him, unable to put together any reasonable offensive plays or even slow down the Rockets’ offense. Houston would score 12 points or more in the couple minutes Westbrook rested, and he was forced to come back on the court early to get the Thunder back in the game.

It was painfully obvious during this playoff series that nobody else on the Thunder could even hold their own on the court without Westbrook. Victor Oladipo and Andre Roberson were the only other players to average more than 10 points across the series. Oladipo, who is supposed to be the outside shooter to compliment Westbrook, went 6 for 25 from beyond the arc, bricking plenty of wide open attempts. Andre Roberson, an NBA starting Small Forward, went 3-21 from the free throw line. Eventually Thunder coach Billy Donovan gave Semaj Christon and Norris Cole real minutes in an attempt to shake up the bench. It was an unbridled disaster.

What this series eventually became was not the no-holds-bar battle between MVP candidates Westbrook and Harden we were promised. It became a battle between the Thunder and Rockets’ bench and supporting players, of which the Thunder were hilariously outmatched. This isn’t to say that Harden is not a great player, as he unquestionably is, but let’s not pretend he willed an incompetent team into the playoffs. Lou Williams, Eric Gordon, Nene Hilario, and Patrick Beverly are all better players than anything this year’s Thunder has to support Westbrook, and it was their skills and abilities that made the difference.

If MVP is truly about the most “valuable” player, Russell Westbrook should win in a landslide, playoff results aside. Westbrook was the epitome of value, carrying an otherwise below average team into Western Conference playoff contention. His two-way abilities, amazing on-court presence, and incredible skill was unrivaled by any player in the league, making him truly the most valuable single player in the NBA. What he accomplished individually was awe-inspiring and historical, and he deserves recognition for how hard he carried his team this year.

Russell Westbrook deserves to be MVP.

-Joseph Politano

The 4th String team


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