In a season filled with otherworldly performances, two former teammates rose to the top of the pack. James Harden of the Houston Rockets and Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder were statistical anomalies, defying expectations of what could be done in the modern era of basketball. While Harden, under new coach Mike D’Antoni, was the maestro of one of the most devastating offenses of all time, Westbrook ravaged the league with Tasmanian Devil-like ferocity, kept his team afloat after losing an MVP-caliber player and rewrote the history books.
When Kevin Durant missed 55 games in 2014-2015, the world got a glimpse of Westbrook’s triple-double prowess, averaging 31.4 points, 9.9 assists and 8.6 rebounds per game after the All-Star break. The moment Durant announced his decision to join the Golden State Warriors, NBA fans salivated over the prospects of an unhinged, scornful Westbrook. It is unfair to simply call him an amazing athlete; his acceleration, dexterity, durability and intensity makes him more cyborg than human. Westbrook goes full throttle no matter the opponent even after undergoing three knee surgeries in 2013. His effort, plus the drama between he and Durant, made his storyline even more enticing for fans. Westbrook rewarded viewers with jaw-dropping box scores on a nightly basis.
Westbrook, with averages of 31.6 points, 10.4 assists and 10.7 rebounds, became the first player to average a triple-double since Oscar Robertson’s 30.8 points, 11.4 assists and 12.5 rebounds in 1961-1962. He recorded 42 triple-doubles this season, breaking the “Big O’s” record by one. What makes Westbrook’s feat more impressive is that he has played nearly ten minutes fewer per game than Robertson. Westbrook conjured such a ridiculous comeback on the road against the Orlando Magic—57 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists—that the opposing fans showered him with MVP chants. His record-breaking 41.8 percent usage rate is indicative of how dependent the Thunder are on its dynamic point guard to finish possessions.
Westbrook’s supporting cast needed every bit of his production. The Thunder was worst in the NBA at 3-point efficiency. Though none of his teammates are multi-faceted stars, each directly contribute to his prolific output. Steven Adams and trade-deadline acquisition Taj Gibson box out defenders to clear room for Westbrook to pogo-stick for rebounds in the painted area. The Thunder did not just cater to Westbrook’s perceived stat-padding, it tactically designed its offense around Westbrook’s unique skill set. He is a one-man wrecking crew who throws down dunks as if the rim disrespected his family. Starting the possession with the ball in Westbrook’s hands allows his cybernetic brain to process dozens of scenarios and choose the optimal decision, all while galloping 80 feet in 3 seconds. The triple-doubles are remarkable, but Westbrook’s infinite motor and sheer volume of production is what makes him the MVP.
Those who advocate for Harden over Westbrook reference the Rockets’ 55-win total to the Thunder’s 47, his greater efficiency in greater minutes played and their similar mind-boggling averages—Harden’s 29 points, 11 assists and 8 rebounds per game and 22 triple-doubles also invoked Big O comparisons. The dismal shooting of the Thunder is in stark contrast of the Rockets’ proficiency from beyond the arc. According to FiveThirtyEight’s Kyle Wagner, Harden’s teammates shot 38.3 percent on wide-open 3-point attempts while Westbrook’s shot 30.9 percent, nearly five percentage points below league average. Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley are proven defensive stalwarts, and adding Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon in the offseason bolstered the Rockets’ already indomitable 3-point barrage.
Prior to last year’s lethargic 41-win season, the Rockets won 56 games and competed in the Western Conference Finals in 2015. Though expectations were lowered entering this season, the Rockets merely returned to their previous excellence. The Thunder maintained a competitive edge while losing one the five best players in the NBA all thanks to Westbrook. The Thunder’s net rating, which measures a team’s point differential per 100 possessions, is -8.9 with Westbrook off-the-court and +3.3 with him on the hardwood. His +12 on/off net rating, contrasted with Harden’s +3.5, shows how Westbrook is the life force of the Thunder and the Rockets can sustain themselves with a replacement-level player—in their case, Lou Williams.
If win totals and overall team success was the be-all and end-all of the MVP discussion, then Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard would be the top contenders. Adding Durant to a 73-win team and Curry’s regression from his celestial heights of 2016 stunted any chance of a three-peat. Leonard will once again contend for Defensive Player of the Year and carried an aging roster to 61 wins, but he is perceived to be a cog in coach Gregg Popovich’s system and Leonard’s subdued attitude and ordinary production relative to Harden and Westbrook does not make him an appealing candidate to voters.
LeBron James posted 26.4 points, career-highs with 8.7 assists and 8.6 rebounds and shot 55 percent from the field while playing 37.8 minutes per game in his 14th season. At 32-years-old, his consistency and ability to shift into fifth gear when needed is unmatched. James’ +16.2 on/off net rating dwarfs Harden and Westbrook and he is expected to compete in his seventh straight Finals. Yet, the Cleveland Cavaliers stumbled through the final 46 games of the season, finishing 23-23 and tied for fifth-best record in the league. He voluntarily sat eight games while Harden and Westbrook played in 81 of 82 games. No longer the prodigy darling of the NBA, James seems to need supernova performances just to catch the eyes of voters.
In the 2016 Finals, James tapped into his reserves and willed the Cavaliers to a legendary comeback. His total dominance across the final three games of that series was a defiant reminder to the league of his greatness. Westbrook replicated that dominance for an entire season as the only All-Star on his roster. He was an unstoppable vortex of reality-bending speed, petrified defenders and buoyed the Thunder when no one else on the team could. He was the MVP.