Welcome back, Russell Westbrook! A lot has happened since you’ve been gone. The Oklahoma City Thunder have continued to play at an elite level and remain one of the league’s best teams, and Kevin Durant has emerged as a legitimate MVP threat—and the favorite in the eyes of many analysts.
But your return decreases those MVP chances. The only question is: by how much?
Durant has been nothing short of spectacular as the lone ranger in OKC, annihilating the competition en route to eye-popping numbers. We’re used to seeing Durant post jaw-dropping stat lines, but he has taken his game to another level without Westbrook to lean on.
He has taken it to an MVP level. Can he keep it there with Westbrook back?
Let me preface this analysis by making it clear that this is not an article bashing Westbrook. The notion that Kevin Durant would be better off without Westbrook is ludicrous—at least if his goal is winning a championship.
But Westbrook’s presence does hurt Durant’s chances of winning the league’s Most Valuable Player award. The extent of that damage will be explored here.
How is the MVP award won? As I see it, there are two main aspects to any MVP campaign: team success and individual statistics (and how they compare to everyone else). Then there’s a third issue that factors in on some occasions, but we’ll get to that later on.
Before we project what Westbrook’s return does for Durant’s shot at the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, we must first assess the MVP landscape right now.
Let’s start with team success. A good record is imperative, and OKC was the best team in the league entering the All-Star break. There is no team with a record that stands out from the rest of the elite—at least, not yet—so it’s safe to say that Durant is all set on the team portion of the award.
Next up is the individual competition. You can stack Durant’s current averages against anyone in the league, and he’s not losing. Here are the statistics of four MVP candidates (in terms of the aforementioned criteria):
These numbers show two things. Firstly, Durant is ridiculous. Secondly, this is a two-horse race—just like we expected.
Sure, the Indiana Pacers and Portland Trailblazers have been somewhat surprising in their rise to dominance, but Paul George and LaMarcus Aldridge just aren’t at the same level as Durant and LeBron James.
Comparing the two best players in the NBA is no easy feat. It’s not easy to differentiate between the two, but Durant’s advantage in scoring and the defensive statistics give him the edge in my book.
Top 5 NBA Players PER 1. Kevin Durant: 30.66 2. LeBron James: 29.48 3. Kevin Love: 28.29 4. Chris Paul: 26.98 5. Anthony Davis: 26.45— NBA Center (@nbacenter_) February 26, 2014
Both are extremely efficient, and both do everything on the court. Right now, Durant is ahead, but that might not last long—especially if Westbrook’s return affects Durant’s output.
Durant’s usage is bound to go down as he transitions from having the ball in his hands every time down the floor to playing with another ball-dominant player.
Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant have the two highest usage rates in the NBA via ESPN— NBA Center (@nbacenter_) February 26, 2014
This will result in lower assist numbers, but the flip side will be fewer turnovers and more energy to expend on defense and rebounding.
Why am I explaining this when you can just look at the numbers? Here’s how Durant has performed with and without Westbrook in the lineup this season:
|Stat||With Westbrook||Without Westbrook|
The trends I outlined above hold true, but the change in Durant’s numbers isn’t very significant. With a fairly tight grip on the scoring crown, it’s going to take a herculean effort from LeBron to catch up to Durant’s overall numbers.
Yes, Westbrook is going to be rusty, and it’s going to take OKC some time to rebuild team chemistry on the court. But the Thunder aren’t going to stop being one of the best teams in the league, and Durant’s numbers aren’t going to fall off too drastically.
In fact, Westbrook’s return might even boost Durant’s efficiency—which is already excellent and places him in good company:
Kevin Durant is averaging 31.6 points on 50.9 percent shooting. Last player to do that for a full season was Michael Jordan in 1991-92.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 24, 2014
And that brings us to my last point—that “third factor” I mentioned before: voter fatigue.
The simple fact of the matter is that the voters become bored selecting the same MVP every year. It happened with Michael Jordan in 1997 when the voters handed the award to Karl Malone.
In this case, LeBron James has won four of the last five MVPs and he finally has a legitimate challenger that can compete—and even best—his numbers.
Durant has the trifecta of team success, individual quality and a dash of voter fatigue. Westbrook may cause a slight dip in Durant’s MVP stock, but the mercurial point guard’s return doesn’t take away from what Durant has done in his absence.
Durant has been hearing MVP chants in the Chesapeake Energy Arena for some time now. This year, there is some truth to them.
Note: All player statistics and team records are courtesy of ESPN.com and are accurate as of Feb. 25, 2014
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