NBA MVP 2017: Russell Westbrook, James Harden Debate Has No 'Correct' Answer

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistApril 12, 2017

DENVER, CO - APRIL 9:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder dribbles the ball up court against the Denver Nuggets on April 9, 2017 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Dear Reader,

You have opened another sports writer's take on who should win the NBA MVP. This article will feature many of the same things you have heard 8,125,616 times on the Internet—only with perhaps some slightly different adjectives and hopefully a writing voice you find to be "not actively infuriating."

Also on this premise: There is no right answer here. There is no wrong answer. Russell Westbrook, James Harden or Kawhi Leonard could win the MVP in June, and it will be perfectly fine. No one will have gotten robbed or harmed in any tangible way.

Anyone with a vested, strong opinion on the matter is either a) wrong; b) not super intelligent; c) a combination of A and B; or d) speaking with an agenda. Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has a reason to publicly stump for Harden. It further justifies the best move of his career (the Harden trade) and makes Houston an even more attractive free-agent destination if Harden wins.

The purportedly objective sports experts you see bloviating on television and in print? Like...dude. You all need to calm down a bit. It ain't that serious. You're clowning yourselves. You are the Chainsmokers of sports punditry.

With that caveat in place, let's roll up our sleeves—actually, don't do that; you're reading an article on the Internet, sleeves down are just fine—and delve into this debate.


David J. Phillip/Associated Press

AKA: the most nauseating factor. While not quite as insufferable as QB WINZZZZZZZZ over in the NFL hot-take cauldron, there are many good, smart people who believe team accomplishments should be the deciding factor in an individual award.

Take, for example, Harden himself.

"I think that's the most important thing. I thought winning is what this is about—period," Harden told reporters. "I'm not going to get in-depth with all that, but I thought winning was the most important thing. If you set your team up in a position to have a chance, at the ultimate goal, that's the most important thing."

Morey took a similar stance over the weekend, tweeting that "basketball is losing its focus on winning."

First of all: LOL. Basketball is not losing any of its focus on winning. Teams are becoming smarter in the way they employ their own players, just as writers are becoming smarter in the way they evaluate an individual player's impact. Morey knows this because he's helped lead the revolution. He's hustling votes for his player, and I respect the finesse.

But using WINZZZZZZZZ doesn't even help Harden in the MVP debate. It simply creates a more compelling case for Leonard, the oft-forgotten man in this race who is perhaps the NBA's best two-way player. To quantify WINZZZZZZZZ, I did some painstaking research, opening up and looking at the league standings page.

I then created a chart because it felt like the responsible adult thing to do:

As you can plainly see, Leonard's San Antonio Spurs have 61 WINZZZZZZZZ. That is seven more than Harden and the Houston Rockets and 14 more than Westbrook's Oklahoma City Thunder. Leonard is clearly the winner of the WINZZZZZZZZ round, if you want to take 0.4 seconds to decide your MVP.

Luckily, I had roughly 8.6 seconds and decided to come up with something a little more fun. Basketball-Reference's advanced database quantifies individual player wins through "win shares," which uses data from both ends to quantify a player's effect. ESPN's RPM does the same, as does John Hollinger's old Estimated Wins Added formula.

Each metric has a different formula, and they all have their inherent flaws, but together they're a decent-enough picture of a player's contributions to their team's success. I added all of those numbers up—team wins, win shares, RPM wins added and EWA—to create a stat I am conservatively calling SUPER WINZZZZZZZZ™ (patent pending).

Team WinsWin SharesEWARPM Wins

Leonard still takes home the overall WINZZZZZZZZ crown. Just not by as much.


AKA: the nerd factor.

We cheated a little bit during the previous section by adding some advanced stats to accommodate for wins. Luckily, the NBA's statistical revolution has allotted us enough numbers that we can use a few and still have roughly 18 million more to choose from.

The traditional counting stats favor Westbrook. Breaking Oscar Robertson's single-season triple-double record (42) and becoming the second player in history to average a trip-dub during a full year will do that. He leads the NBA in points by nearly three per game, ranks third in assists per game and 10th in rebounds per game. And even though Westbrook has a somewhat-earned reputation as a chucker, he and Harden shoot roughly the same percentage from the floor and three-point range. Leonard is the efficiency darling, blasting his previous high scoring averages while still nearly maintaining his career rate from three.

Traditional Stat Breakdown

Unsurprisingly, the advanced metrics, nearly all of which have a basis in traditional stats, skew in Westbrook's direction. Basketball Reference's BPM, which translates how much a player contributes above average over the course of 100 possessions, ranks Westbrook's season as the best ever in its database—and it's not even particularly close.

Westbrook's 15.6 BPM is 2.6 points better than any other player in history. He is three points better than Michael Jordan's greatest season and more than nine points better than Kobe Bryant's best season. For the record, Harden's BPM of 10.0 ranks as 18th-best in NBA history.

Westbrook's VORP, another per-100 possessions translation of box-score stats, also nearly breaks the system. His 12.4 VORP is 3.6 points better than Harden, who is in second place. Michael Jordan currently holds the all-time VORP record at 12.0.

NBA Math (run by B/R's Adam Fromal) has Westbrook on pace for the greatest TPA (total points added) since at least 1973. His 884.58 TPA is more than 60 points better than Jordan in 1988-89.  Harden is 277-plus points behind, and Westbrook doubles the TPA of every player who isn't Harden or LeBron James.

Advanced Stats Breakdown

To put it another way: Westbrook is breaking statistical records at a rate faster than United Airlines is racking up PR blunders.

Lineup stats are a little noisy and perhaps unfairly favor Westbrook because he has the worst supporting cast of the bunch. The Thunder outscore teams by 3.3 points per 100 possessions with Westbrook on the floor and are outscored by 9.2 points with him on the bench—a difference of 13.1 points over 100 possessions, per

The Spurs and Rockets both outscore their opponents with Leonard and Harden on the bench. That's partially due to depth, and because Gregg Popovich and Mike D'Antoni do a better job of mixing their lineups than Billy Donovan. Lineup stats were never going to favor Harden or Leonard, though their teams are still (obviously) better with them on the floor.

Net Rating Breakdown

If plays made in crunch time are your bag, here is where Westbrook falls off. LOL, jk, he's super dope here too. Westbrook has four go-ahead field goals in the final 10 seconds of games (most in the NBA) and has knocked down seven total makes in that time frame when down 1-3 points or tied, per Tom Haberstroh of Harden and Leonard have a combined four field goals in the latter scenario.

The Rockets have touted Harden being responsible for 56.4 points per game on their official website. While impressive—it's the highest since Tiny Archibald in 1972-73—their difference in points created all season is four. It's possible Westbrook passes Harden in the one statistical metric Houston fans have touted all season. 


LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 24: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs plays defense against the LA Clippers on February 24, 2017 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

AKA: the "quit with these stats I don't understand and actually watch the games" factor. Otherwise known as the former professional athlete/old man yells at cloud opinion.

Here is where things frankly get a little tricky. Mostly because Westbrook has been dreadful on defense all season (and quietly for a few years now). He's undisciplined, takes plays off and leaves teammates in the lurch. It's been a problem only a few have been willing to discuss all season.

You can't totally excuse it by saying he's carrying a lot of weight on offense, either. So does Harden, who has gone from turnstile to "wait a second, does James Harden play defense now???" while making the eye-blinking meme face. He'll never be an elite defender, but D'Antoni has him motivated to try on most possessions, and it shows.

Chris Herring of FiveThirtyEight put it in perspective in his case for Harden: 

Harden’s defense is nowhere near as bad as it was in the past, but you won’t hear anyone vouch for him as a two-way player the way people would for San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard, the NBA’s best perimeter stopper. Yet Harden has been pretty active this season, contesting 8.2 shots per game, third most in the NBA among guards. By contrast, Westbrook — who has been accused in some circles of padding his rebounding stats — has been less interested in getting out to shooters, contesting an eye-poppingly low 3.6 shots per night, by far the worst rate of any NBA player who’s logging at least 30 minutes each game.

Leonard is the obvious two-way winner. He's the best defensive player in basketball. Do not allow weird lineup stats to cloud your judgment. Leonard is the only player in basketball who can reasonably defend Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Harden on any given night—and give them trouble on every single possession.

The Spurs will even throw him on bigs in situations where they feel he can handle it. Leonard was put on earth to play NBA defense. He's a maestro, a near-perfect combination of size, athleticism and intelligence. The Defensive Player of the Year Award is probably going elsewhere this year, but it's only due to voter fatigue. Sometimes it almost feels like Leonard might even crack a smile while locking down an opponent.

Westbrook is a Basketball X-Man. And a Monstar. And there are so many photoshops of him going Super Saiyan that I'd be remiss if I didn't mention, too. 

When we write about Westbrook 20 years from now, his stats won't be mentioned in the first five paragraphs. What stands out for Westbrook is his frenetic energy. No player since Allen Iverson has played with such an expressive desperation. Westbrook plays like a man told his family will be kidnapped if he doesn't make a basket on every possession.

There have been some who unfairly characterize Harden's game as "ugly." He's actually one of the most brilliant players we've seen in this generation. His ability to create contact is something we have never seen before. The man gets fouled on more threes by himself than any team in the NBA, per Herring. The way he has continued to draw contact when officials and players know what he is trying to do is remarkable.

Keeping it all up while also turning into Steve Nash 2.0 has been a treat. 

4) Why I Would Vote For Russell Westbrook

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

In 2005-06, Kobe Bryant averaged 35.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists while earning a first-team All-Defensive selection and playing with a collection of talent you'd be embarrassed to take to a rec league. The Lakers started Smush Parker for 82 games, Chris Mihm for 56, Kwame Brown for 49 and Brian Cook for 46.

You get it. This was a repugnant roster with two legitimate NBA players (Bryant and Lamar Odom). Kobe dragged that dumpster fire by its ears to 45 wins, put together some of the most brilliant individual scoring performances in NBA history (including his 81-point game) and nearly wound up sniping a stacked San Antonio Spurs team in the playoffs.

Steve Nash won MVP. Nash was his typical brilliant self, averaging 18.8 points and 10.5 assists on a Phoenix Suns team that won 54 games and finished second in the Western Conference.

I remember nothing Nash did on a basketball court that year. I remember everything Kobe did. He was must-see television every night. Before Twitter, before group texting, before dude was even nicknamed the Black Mamba, Kobe was the gathering source of our collective basketball attention.

Nash was great that season. Kobe defined it. He was the MVP.

Harden and Leonard arguably put up better competition than Nash in 2005-06, but take a second and clear your mind. An alien from another planet lands on your doorstep and for some reason only wants to know about the 2016-17 NBA season. Where do you begin?

Russell Westbrook.

He chased rebounds, counted assists and went after round numbers in ways we haven't seen possibly since Wilt Chamberlain. It was unseemly and embarrassing and beautiful and absolutely mesmerizing for every second.

The fourth quarter of Sunday's win over the Denver Nuggets was a 12-minute microcosm of Westbrook's season. Needing one assist to break Oscar Robertson's single-season triple-double record, Westbrook went into full assist-chasing mode. He passed up shots out of driving lanes he'd normally take, rolled his eyes when teammates missed shots he created and prioritized getting one assist over what was better within the context of the game.

It was h i l a r i o u s.

Then Semaj Christon hit a three to give Westbrook the record, a shot that brought the Thunder within 10 with 4:16 remaining. Westbrook proceeded to use those four minutes and 16 seconds to rip the Nuggets' heart out, culminating in a 36-foot jumper as time expired to give OKC a 106-105 win. He finished with 50 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists. 

The last-second three gave Westbrook his third triple-double with at least 50 points this season. That's also an NBA record. Not for a season. For ever. Westbrook has more 50-point triple-doubles than any player in NBA history, and he's done it all within an 82-game span. 

We're going to remember that game-winning three—and every moment of Westbrook's historic campaign—for the remainder of time. 

Harden and Leonard were great. Westbrook defined the season. He's the MVP. 


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