We’re going to talk a little bit of golf here, but we’ll get to Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, and the Oklahoma City Thunder shortly. I promise. During the early goings of the recently concluded Masters Tournament, Tony Finau suffered a gruesome-looking ankle injury after scoring a hole-in-one.
He twisted his ankle so bad that he dislocated his joint. Against all odds, Finau managed to stay in the competition and even finished the event tied for 10th – even with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and ahead of world No. 2 Justin Thomas.
Now comes the part where we segue from the fairways to the basketball court.
Tony Finau in this year’s The Masters was Oklahoma City last year, when the Thunder managed to conclude the regular season with 47 wins. Winning 47 times and getting into the playoffs amid brutal Western Conference conditions were terrific accomplishments for a team that was only able to stand because of one functioning ankle – Russell Westbrook (no disrespect to Victor Oladipo).
Saving A Franchise
If it were not for Westbrook, the Thunder might have played as though they were tanking without even trying. Westbrook kept the Thunder upright in 2016-17 even though the team’s other foot was maimed when Kevin Durant ditched OKC to find greener pastures in the Bay Area.
Westbrook rescued the Thunder, made them competitive, and single-handedly kept OKC relevant. He ended the regular season by becoming just the second player in history to have the right to stare someone in the eye and say “the difference between you and me is that I averaged a triple-double in a season. In. A. Season.”
And hey, what do you know, Westbrook has done it again this year. By pulling down 20 rebounds in the last game before the playoffs, he now has a pair of triple-double campaigns under his belt. However, as counter-intuitive and ironic as it may sound given the context of how Westbrook won MVP last season, averaging a triple-double for the second time in two years might not be enough for him to take home another Maurice Podoloff.
OKC’s Big 3
If indeed someone not named Russell Westbrook wins it (and it’s very much likely not going to be him), it would be fairly convenient to say that it’s the price to pay for having him complemented by two bona fide All-Stars in Carmelo Anthony and Paul George.
To some extent, that’s true. It does not take an advanced understanding of the game to expect that some of Westbrook’s numbers would regress after OKC’s front office pulled off separate transactions to bring additional ball-dominant figures to the Thunder’s fold.
That said, the converse is also true for Anthony and George. They, too, saw their statistical productions dip in Oklahoma City. It takes a special brand of chemistry to make the three stars adapt to each other and coexist.
But, as the regular season progressed, it became clear that the Thunder would still go as far as Westbrook takes them. Oklahoma City is Westbrook’s turf, and there’s no way he’ll allow a newcomer, All-Star or not, to unseat him as his county’s sheriff.
A Tale of Two Triple-Double Seasons
Westbrook triple-doubles were not as necessary this season as they were a year ago, and while a second trip-dub campaign sure looks good on Russell’s resume, there is no agreement in place that a triple-double season automatically translates to an MVP honor. The truth is, Westbrook’s first triple-double campaign is different than the one he just had.
For one, the Thunder needed Westbrook to wreak havoc and be a full-scale Kaiju on the floor to survive in 2016-17. That season, Westbrook’s usage rate was at 41.7 percent with 13.1 win shares. Steven Adams was second on the team in win shares that season with 6.5, a huge gap that shows how seriously dependent the Thunder were on Westbrook.
In 2017-18 campaign, Westbrook’s usage rate went down to 34.1 percent while his win shares dropped to 10.1. Adams remained in second place in WS with 9.7. That’s a dramatic decrease in the space between him and Westbrook, a direct result of having George and Anthony eat up some of Brodie’s usage.
It’s also interesting to note that for all the talk about the infusion of alpha males to the team prior to the season, it was still someone from last year’s Thunder team (Adams) that finished second behind Westbrook in win shares for OKC.
Keeping up with the Jameses
Instead of looking at Melo and PG13, maybe it’s the guys on other teams that are the biggest obstacles for Westbrook winning his second MVP award: James Harden and LeBron James.
Despite the specter of Harden, Westbrook took home the honor last year because obviously, albeit unofficially, voters decided to use Brodie’s historic stat line to settle the Harden vs. Westbrook debate. (In a sense, that MVP race was similar to that of the MLB American League in 2012 when voters gave the MVP honors to triple-crowner Miguel Cabrera despite Mike Trout arguably having the better numbers in advanced stats.)
This season, Harden has upped the ante and pressed on the pedal harder. He did not reach statistical Nirvana, aka a triple-double season, but his failure to do so shouldn’t diminish his stellar numbers of 30.4 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game. He is now one of only four players ever to average at least 30 points, eight rebounds, and five assists for a whole season.
Over in Cleveland, LeBron James just keeps on LeBron James-ing in year 15 of his NBA career. At 33 and with a teenage lifespan equivalent of mileage on his body, James managed to play 82 regular season games, posting an incredible stat line of 27.5 points, 9.1 assists, and 8.6 rebounds. Going strictly by the technical meaning of the word “valuable” in MVP, one could make a solid case that James has been more of that this season to the Cavs than Harden or Westbrook have been to their respective squads.
Like it or not, team success matters for MVP voters when deliberating. When Westbrook went full Terminator mode in 2016-17, the Thunder overshot expectations by going 47-35. Prior to that season, the Thunder were given a win-total line of 43.5 – a year after they went 55-27 (with Durant, of course).
The following season, despite the arrival of Anthony and George and another monster year-long effort by Westbrook, the Thunder improved by only one win, ending up with a 48-34 record, just a bit short of bettering their preseason win-total line of 50.5.
It’s not the end of the world for Westbrook if he does not win the MVP this season. But, if the Maurice Podoloff gets handed to another man this time around, don’t say that Carmelo Anthony and Paul George were the only ones that stood in Westbrook’s way of winning his second MVP plum.