Russell Westbrook is having the greatest season the NBA has ever seen, and broken Oscar Robertson’s unbreakable single season triple-double record – a record that stood for 55 years. Westbrook also joined Robertson as the only players to average a triple-double over the course of a season.
Westbrook for MVP is self-evident. His season-long triple-double is a historic accomplishment, and its grandeur only grows when adjusted to account for the way the game is played today. Here are the top seasons for the triple-double stats sorted by John Hollinger’s Versatility Index, which shows how good players are at those three metrics, combined1, which adjusts for pace:
|PER 100 POSSESSIONS|
|SEASON||PLAYER||POSS. PER GAME||PTS||REBOUNDS||ASSISTS||VERSATILITY INDEX|
No matter how you look at it, Westbrook is having an historic and entertaining season.
Nevertheless, clucking about the righteousness of one MVP candidate over another inevitably returns to an epistemological debate about “value.” And there are a variety of cases to be made for players who had less outstanding, but perhaps more “valuable,” seasons than Westbrook did. James Harden moved to point guard and turned in a season that was two parts Steve Nash, one part Corey Maggette, and his Houston Rockets have faint yet plausible finals hopes. LeBron James had the best statistical season of his career at age 32, in his 14th year in the league. And Kawhi Leonard squeezed 61 wins out of a depleted San Antonio Spurs roster on which Dewayne Dedmon has a reasonable claim to being the second-best player. Each of those players’ teams has a far greater chance than Westbrook’s Oklahoma City Thunder of making the finals and winning a championship.
But what if a player is uniquely valuable when the stakes are highest? We’ve seen an example of this before: LeBron James during the 2015 Finals. During that series, James took two games against the ascendent Warriors basically all by himself. James led all players in points, rebounds and assists, and did so while carrying a true shooting percentage of 47.7 and a usage percentage of 39.3. It was a marvelous series for James despite his poor efficiency, in part because his efficiency remained basically in proportion to what’s expected of the most efficient stars despite an altogether absurd workload.
Russell Westbrook has done over 82 games what James did for six. He has scrambled our sense of what game-altering dominance looks like in the age of advanced stats, and he’s done it largely without the benefit of the most important tool of the modern game: reliable 3-point shooting, from himself or his team. Westbrook’s success this season has argued convincingly that top-end efficiency isn’t an absolute requirement for success in today’s NBA, so long as you can make up for a dip in quality with sheer force of quantity.
Many argue that James Harden should be the MVP over Russ, but you need to consider the fact that the Thunder aren’t a team built around their star in the way Houston has done for Harden. Oklahoma City was designed for Westbrook and Durant, and when KD broke up the band, Westbrook was left with the pieces. Also, when you look at estimated wins added, Russ is at 28, which leads the NBA, while Harden is at 24.
Others say LeBron should be the MVP. How can LeBron be the MVP when the Cavs have been a .500 team for more than half the year?
Over their last 45 games, the Cavs are 23-22, which is just the 14th-best record in the NBA. Teams with better records over that stretch? The Heat, Nuggets, Bucks. Oh, and the Thunder.
So while Durant is enjoying the benefits of playing alongside Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, LeBron has Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love backing him up, and Harden has a team that was built strictly to allow him to succeed, Westbrook is willing his team into the playoffs while averaging a triple-double and is expected to apologize for it?
In general, the more possessions a player uses,2 the less efficient his personal offense becomes. You can see the frontier of exceptional player seasons forming a rough diagonal, sloping down from Kevin Durant’s 2016-17 in the upper left to Westbrook’s in the lower right. Generally, that’s the frontier of achievement for maximizing efficiency and usage, and anything that breaks past the outer rim is in the running for the best season in NBA history. Curry’s 2015-16 was more or less unprecedented, but was followed up quickly by Isaiah Thomas and Harden this season, each putting up absurd efficiency numbers with what have traditionally been extremely high usage rates. Then there’s Russell Westbrook.
While a glance at the advanced stats (55.4 true shooting; 41.7 usage percentage) will give you the gist of the relationship — less efficient, more usage — they mask just how far out of the norm Westbrook has been. He has bucked the trend that’s afflicted super-high-usage NBA players for as long as the league has existed: Westbrook’s usage has exploded … and his efficiency hasn’t really changed. As a challenge to the basic makeup of NBA efficiency trends, Westbrook’s season is just as much of an aberration as Curry’s 2015-16.