Russell Westbrook is consistently in the MVP discussion. He was 10th in MVP voting this past season despite averaging a triple-double for the third season in a row. Before this past year, Westbrook had finished in the top five in MVP voting for four consecutive years, including winning the award in 2016-17.
Now moving on from his tenure on the Oklahoma City Thunder, Westbrook looks to have a fresh start with the Houston Rockets, who could be contenders in the 2019-20 NBA season. Paired with James Harden, the Rockets have put together a fearsome backcourt, and the only one to feature two former MVP’s.
With what seems like parity once again in the NBA, the race for a new NBA champion is wide open And so is the conversation for the upcoming season’s MVP. Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning winner of the award, will look to carry the Milwaukee Bucks to the top of the East once again. Paul George, the newest superstar in L.A., will be part of a new-look Los Angeles Clippers team that is primed to be a top contender. And Stephen Curry, a former MVP, has the reins and total control of the Golden State Warriors’ offense for the first time since before the Kevin Durant era.
With so many stars set to have dazzling seasons, Westbrook should be right in the thick of that discussion. Here are five reasons why Westbrook shouldn’t be overlooked, and could still find himself as an MVP candidate amidst a crowded field:
Westbrook is regarded as one of the sturdiest and consistent superstars in the NBA. Not “consistent” in his play on the court necessarily, but “consistent” in his appearances on it. For the first five seasons of his NBA career, Westbrook played in every single game. A knee injury plagued him the next couple of years, but then proceeded to play in 80, 81, and 80 games, respectively, over the next three seasons. And this past year, he played in 73 games.
Often an MVP candidate’s case is hampered by missed time due to injury, but that’s almost never been the case for Westbrook. You can count on him to be out there, battling each night, playing through minor injuries, and still giving his all.
Injuries can derail a team’s chances in a flash, and teams are starting to take preventative measures. In today’s era of resting stars to keep them fresh for the playoffs, Westbrook stands out as someone who will rarely take a day off. “Load management” is the term going around to describe a team sitting a star player to help them stay healthy. LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard, in particular, likely won’t be in the MVP conversation because of load management.
This past season, both Leonard and James put up solid numbers, but because of injuries and rest, Leonard played in only 60 games, and James played in 55. Which knocked them out of the MVP discussion despite stellar stats. Westbrook won’t find himself in that territory–at least not because of load management–and that should keep him in the MVP race.
4. A Wide Open West
It’s an unspoken requirement that the league MVP leads his team to a winning season and a decently-high seed heading into the playoffs. In four of the past five years, the MVP was a player on the team with the league’s best record. The one player to buck that trend was Westbrook in 2016-17. His Thunder finished sixth in the Western Conference, but the fact that Westbrook averaged a triple-double that year was the overriding factor.
This coming season, the Western Conference is wide open. The super team Warriors are no more, with Kevin Durant taking his talents to the Brooklyn Nets, and Klay Thompson out indefinitely with an injury. And the field is filled with teams loading up on talent. The Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Lakers, and Los Angeles Clippers all figure to be in the mix for the top seed, and the Rockets are right there with them.
Led by Harden and Westbrook, the Rockets will surely be a playoff team, and will likely be a six-seed or higher if they stay healthy. The Rockets’ position in the West could be a determining factor in deciding whether or not Westbrook should even be in the MVP discussion. Putting up video-game-like numbers on a losing team won’t earn you a spot in the conversation, but putting up solid numbers on a high-seeded playoff team could speak volumes.
3. The System
Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni had been opting for a your-turn, my-turn approach the past few years with James Harden and Chris Paul. They’re both isolation savants, able to take advantage of even the smallest miscue of a defender. D’Antoni used their driving abilities to open up three’s for shooters on the perimeter. Because of GM Daryl Morey’s belief in analytics, the Rockets have taken the most three’s in the NBA in five of the past six seasons.
That’s not likely to change. And while Westbrook is not an efficient three-point shooter, D’Antoni will be able to utilize Westbrook’s driving ability to continue to collapse defenses and open up looks on the perimeter for guys like Eric Gordon, PJ Tucker, and even Harden himself. Westbrook’s force in driving to the rim should draw a help defender and open up the spacing the Rockets like to operate with.
Westbrook averaged 18.4 drives per game last year, third in the NBA. The Rockets will likely continue to get Westbrook going downhill, and they’ll have shooting on the perimeter that OKC didn’t.
But the Rockets are not a fast-paced team. They ranked 27th in the league in possessions per game last season. Paul and Harden were both very methodical, electing to take their time in finding a mismatch in the half-court and exploiting it. Westbrook, on the other hand, can be a one-man wrecking ball, barreling his way down the court in transition.
Westbrook averaged seven possessions per game in transition last season, which led all players. However, his 0.87 points per possession in transition indicate that he wasn’t terribly efficient in the fast break, but his decision-making, ideally, would improve with the spacing and shooters that the Rockets will have running with him.
The Rockets aren’t likely to change into a team that runs up and down all game. But they’ll likely pick their spots to push the ball in transition, and when they do, they have a force, in Westbrook, to do so.
Expect Westbrook’s assists to hit double digits again this season. His scoring should thrive in the Rockets’ system (provided he takes less mid-range shots, which Morey looks down upon). And though there’ll be an adjustment period, he should be a good fit in the Rockets’ elite offense.
2. The Stats
Westbrook has averaged a triple-double for three straight seasons. In 2016-17, Westbrook averaged a triple-double for the first time since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62. The feat earned Westbrook the MVP award, despite a 47-win season for the Thunder. The past two seasons have seen OKC reach only 48 and 49 wins, respectively.
If the Rockets can claw their way into a high seed, Westbrook’s numbers are as good as anyone’s. Last season, he averaged 22.9 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 10.7 assists per game. His scoring was down a little bit from his previous seasons, but he led the NBA in assists for the second year in a row.
He’s a two-time scoring champ, and has shown that he can put up some big numbers even with a superstar beside him. Before Paul George the past couple of years, Westbrook put up gaudy numbers with Kevin Durant by his side. Playing alongside Harden, then, shouldn’t deter Westbrook from having some MVP-like numbers once again.
1. The Motivation
With a fresh start and a chance to be a true contender, Westbrook will have a little extra fire under him this season. He’s got something to prove, away from the confines and small market of OKC for the first time in his career. He’s out to prove that he can lead a team to a championship.
He’s out to prove his critics wrong. The critics that said he’s the reason Kevin Durant left. The critics that said his style of play is why Paul George chose to play with Kawhi over him. The critics that call him inefficient, not a good shooter, and too selfish.
This season on the Rockets will reveal a lot about Westbrook. And make no mistake, he’ll be looking to both make a statement and silence the critics.
Going into this season, Westbrook has has all of the tools to regain his MVP form. He’s in the right system, has a fellow MVP by his side, and has the motivation to set himself up for a stellar regular season.
Even in a crowded field of stars, don’t overlook Russell Westbrook. Or he’ll blow right by you.