Starting Lineup: Is Russell Westbrook the Clear Cut MVP?

In this week’s Starting Five, I’ll be looking examining a case for and a case against Russell Westbrook as MVP of the NBA. Rounding out my five lists are the best teams of each conference and the worst teams in the league as we near the halfway point of the season.

Russell Westbrook and James Harden are considered the frontrunners of the MVP race among many this year. Both are putting up insane numbers but is their chance at an MVP award pure narrative or is it backed up statistically? Granted, stats aren’t everything, but when comparing some of the best players in the league, we need a measuring stick.

But how do you stack up the best players of each team against each other? Is it based on pure stat sheet stuffing? If so, Westbrook is running away with the award by a mile, at least.

Is it pure advanced stats? If so, than it’s a tighter race than you’d think.

Or is it a combination of both sprinkled with a mix of efficiency?

You can put up all the volume of points, assists, rebounds, blocks and assists that you want – but if that comes at the detriment of your team, should you deserve the MVP award?

5 Reasons Russell Westbrook Could Land the MVP Award

History in the Making

Westbrook is set to become just the second player in NBA history to average a triple double for an entire season. The only other player to do so is Oscar Robertson. Westbrook isn’t quite as prolific as Robertson’s 1961-62 season, but the only other player to average a triple double in a season is quite ground-breaking

A Point Guard that Rebounds

Westbrook’s 10.5 rebounds per game is the 11th best mark on the season so far. The next highest mark for a guard just this season is Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 8.7 rebounds per game. No guard has averaged 10.0 rebounds per game since Robertson during the 1962-63 season.

Triple Double Machine

Before last year, Magic Johnson held the record for many years with 17 triple doubles in a season. Westbrook beat that out by one in 2015-16 and already has 20 this year alone through just 43 games. He’s set up to obliterate the triple-double record. To put that number in perspective, 13 other players have put up a triple double this season. James Harden has put up 13 and the rest of the league has put up a combined 18 triple doubles.

Leading Scorer

Nine players are currently averaging 25.0 points per game or more on the season. Antony Davis and James Harden are doing their best to challenge Westbrook, but Westbrook is averaging 30.7 points per game compared to Davis’ 29.0 and Harden’s 28.4 points per game. Westbrook could become just the second guy since 2006-07 to average over 30.5 points per game.

Leader in Advanced Stats

Advanced statistics are my bread and butter when comparing players or teams. There are 63 players with that play at least 19.0 minutes a game and have tallied at least 3.0 WS on the season so far and Westbrook is among the top 10 in Win Shares, PER, BPM and VORP. In fact, Westbrook is the leader in PER (29.7), BPM (13.9) and VORP (6.8) – highly productive and hard to replace makes a strong case for the MVP award.

5 Players That Should Be In the MVP Conversation

Despite all the stats I went through above, I can’t justify picking Westbrook as my MVP right now. Records are meant to be broken. But it doesn’t mean you’re the automatic MVP. Stats can be accumulated; but it doesn’t mean an inefficient stat stuffer (which Westbrook is definitely more than that) should be handed the MVP.

Westbrook leads the league in shot attempts per game at 23.7 per game, nearly 3 attempts more per game than DeMar DeRozan. Not even James Harden shoots that much (18.6). This leads to Westbrook’s low 46.8 eFG%, worst among the 63 players I pulled from for my top-5 candidates. His low efficiency knows him down my rankings despite all his other numbers, barely staying in the top-10. 5.4 turnovers per game throw up a red flag as well.

Without further ado, here are my top-five MVP candidates:

Kevin Durant
25.8 pts/gm|8.6 reb/gm|4.7 ast/gm|1.1 stl/gm|1.7 blk/gm|8.1 WS|23 Net Rtg

Apparently sharing the ball in Golden State isn’t a problem at all. Durant and Curry are shooting the ball, on average, 17 times per game each. Durant has just been that much better. Durant is the most effective shooter of my MVP candidates and in the top-15 in eFG in the league. Durant is also just one of two players to be averaging over 20 points per game, 8.0 rebounds per game, 4.0 assists per game, 1.0 steals per game and 1.0 blocks per game. Westbrook may be Mr. Triple Double, but you could almost label Durant as Mr. Efficiency.

Kawhi Leonard
24.8 pts/gm|5.7 reb/gm|3.1 ast/gm|1.8 stl/gm|0.7 blk/gm|7.6 WS|22 Net Rtg

The first thing that sticks out for the new face of the Spurs is Leonard’s 102 Defensive Rating; it’s one of the best in the league and his 123 Offensive Rating is just behind Durant’s. The Klaw’s points per game are fair and while his rebound and assist numbers aren’t out of this world, he makes it up with 1.9 steals per game and just 1.8 turnovers per game, the best among the MVP candidates listed. His WS are in line with Westbrooks and his WS/48 is a big jump over Westbrook’s. Leonard’s all-around game will keep him in MVP conversations for a long time.

James Harden
28.7 pts/gm|8.3 reb/gm|11.7 ast/gm|1.4 stl/gm|0.4 blk/gm|8.7 WS|12 Net Rtg

Harden is a slightly more efficient version of Westbrook this year. His points and assists per game top this MVP list. He also has more assists per game than Westbrook and his eFG% is just under the league average. One thing holding Harden down is his 5.8 turnovers per game, which is affecting his Net Rating. However, the Beard will continue to put on amazing shows like Westbrook, but with some holes in his overall game, he may have to battle for second in MVP talks.

Giannis Antetokounmpo
17.5 pts/gm|5.3 reb/gm|9.7 ast/gm|2.2 stl/gm|0.1 blk/gm|6.9 WS|25 Net Rtg

This spot was reserved for Chris Paul until he was declared out for up to two months due to thumb surgery. The Clippers will definitely miss Paul’s all-around game, but this spot allows the Greek Freak to move up in the standings. Why Antetokounmpo though? Well, the young star of the Milwaukee Bucks is the other guy I referenced with the 23/8/4/1/1 line. Better known as the Greek Freak, he can do it all for the Bucks, playing point or the 2-guard spot and even filling in as a small forward. The Greek Freak isn’t putting up as many points as Durant, but does have him beat in assists, rebounds, steals and blocks per game. He’s not quite as an effective shooter, but his eFG is third among my MVP candidates. Can the fourth-year player win it this year? Probably not – but he shouldn’t be dismissed with stats he’s putting up.

Jimmy Butler
23.4 pts/gm|8.7 reb/gm|5.6 ast/gm|1.8 stl/gm|2.1 blk/gm|6.8 WS|16 Net Rtg

This last spot could have gone to a flurry of candidates – LeBron James, Kyle Lowry or, of course, Russell Westbrook (who is seventh on my list after Paul dropping from the list). But Jimmy Butler has kept himself in the hunt thanks to a solid Net Rating. If his Defensive Rating was just a little better (it barely beats out Harden’s) he could be higher as his points per game is the same as Leonard’s and his WS beats out Leonard’s by 0.1.

5 Best Teams in the West

(These rankings consist of a formula based on a team’s Net Rating and each of their Four Factors: their offensive and defensive eFG%, Rebounding % & and TO %)

Spurs – A lower turnover percentage and slightly better on the boards defensively give the Spurs an ever so slight edge over Durant and company

Warriors – They own the top Offensive Rating, Net Rating and the best record in the league. They won’t be 1B in the West for very long

Rockets – They actually shoot and rebound better than their in-state rival Spurs, but a high Defensive Rating doesn’t do them any favors

Clippers – How quickly and far will they fall with no Griffin and two months without Chris Paul? A great turnover percentage with the ability to get to the free throw line more than most teams are keeping them near the top

Jazz – Rudy Gobert is making his mark on the league, but they don’t look like they’re ready to compete with the top three just yet.

5 Best Teams in the East

(These rankings combine a team’s Net Rating, and three of Four Factors: their offensive and defensive eFG%, Rebounding % & and TO %)

Raptors – Better Net Rating gives the dinos a push to the top with only one win separating them and the Cavs

Cavaliers – They’re essentially 1B in the East right now – tough loss to the Warriors doesn’t help matters

Celtics – They don’t have quite the team to compete with Toronto and Cleveland, but they don’t have much competition for the third best team in the East either

Hawks – They turn it over a lot, but rebound well and have the best Defensive Rating in the East. Their Offensive Rating is less than desirable though

Bucks – third best Defensive Rating in the East and a middling Offensive Rating. They could make some noise in the playoffs, but they don’t appear to be ready to become big contenders just yet.

5 Worst Teams in the NBA

(These rankings combine a team’s Net Rating, and three of Four Factors: their offensive and defensive eFG%, Rebounding % & and TO %)

Nets – The only team without double-digit wins so far

Suns – Worst turnover percentage in the NBA

Lakers – Hot starts don’t win games in the middle of the season; they have the league’s worst Defensive Rating

Heat – Does anyone want to score for this team? They have the second lowest points per game on the season

Timberwolves – Slowest pace and the second-lowest defensive efficiency in the league; get KAT some help!

All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference’s Play Index

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