Usually Chris Hanneke writes the Russell Westbrook appreciation columns around here, but these days, he isn't the only one talking about Westbrook for MVP. Of course it's too early for such a conversation, with Westbrook having played just 11 games on the season so far after a spell on the sidelines with a broken hand. The production he's put in of late, however, has people talking anyway.
The Thunder have railed off seven consecutive wins after last night's nationally televised triumph over the Sacramento Kings, pulling themselves to a half-game back of the eighth seed after an injury-riddled start to the season that had people panicking early. Westbrook has spearheaded the charge back into the playoff picture. He's scoring 26.4 points per game, which would lead the league if he met the minimum for games played (70% of his team's games – he's played just fewer than half so far), with peripherals of 6.8 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 1.9 steals. This managed while playing a hair less than 30 minutes per game.
As we already know, the magic of small sample size can enable some mind-bending statistical aberrations. Last January, when Westbrook was out following knee surgery, Kevin Durant racked up 35.9 points per game in 16 games. His already impeccable shot-making percentages were up across the board in that month, despite having to fill his co-star's shoes as well.
After missing 17 games to start this season, the reigning MVP has rejoined the active lineup as well. Durant hasn't quite picked up where he left off, but he's still offering elite production that's being suppressed by a minute restriction as much as anything else. The reason nobody's talking about Durant for MVP right now, and that they are about Westbrook, has less to do with Durant's play and more to do with Westbrook's.
The two have always handled the task of producing in very different ways. Durant has historically been the model of efficiency between the two, an incisive and mechanical scorer. Westbrook relies on sheer volume – he's a spree killer, always keeping the tempo cranked to breakneck so he can outrun, outshoot and outwork opponents.
That's not to say Westbrook can't be efficient (nor is it to say Durant won't let loose 25 shots in a night). He's posting career-highs in shooting percentages across the board this season and loading up on more valuable chances at the free throw line. Don't discount the value of that refined approach in Westbrook's early surge, especially as his minutes are being monitored.
But Westbrook's true brand of efficiency is different than Durant's. He prefers packing production into his minutes, not his shots – he'll trade two makes on two shots for three makes on five. His natural impulse to push the pace might shave his points-per-possession mark down a couple hundredths, but taking more shots can be a hoops virtue too.
Westbrook's first game back from injury against the New York Knicks was a microcosm of the way he overpowers opponents. In that game, he became the first player in the shot-clock era to record 32 points and eight assists in fewer than 24 minutes of playing time (officially he played 23:48, taking 17 attempts from the field in that time). For good measure, he threw in seven boards as well.
Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
There's something more imposing about Westbrook running his opponents into the ground over and over again than there is to Durant drilling jumper after jumper. Perhaps it's seeing the physical exhaustion of those that try to keep up with Russ, or perhaps it's watching the feeding frenzy continue possession after possession after possession.
It isn't just an aesthetic distinction. Durant may be able to outscore his opponents with that robotic jumper of his, but Westbrook is able to break his opponents down to nuts and bolts. The methodology is different, and perhaps Westbrook's route is more effective through moderated playing time. He's held the lion's share of touches even after Durant's return - he's got an NBA-high usage rate of 38.2 - and with every mad dash to the rim, every sudden pull-up jumper, his opponents' chances of keeping up with him gradually grow slimmer. The #LETWESTBROOKBEWESTBROOK battle was one fought and won long ago, but Westbrook has never launched an assault on the league like this.
Durant's road to recovery is, by the nature and timing of their injuries, a longer one than Westbrook's. Maybe by the end of next January, we'll be championing him as the MVP again. Westbrook won't command this much of the offense forever, and the shot-making efficiency that is Durant's forte originally almost always proves supreme in the NBA. By any objective measure, it's too early to be calling Westbrook the MVP.
But while we're here, let's enjoy the ride for as long as it goes. Westbrook is a shot of adrenaline, a voracious and primal force amid the more refined superstars of the modern NBA. He's fun in a way very few other players can even attempt to be these days. And if he's still shredding through the NBA after another month or two, then let's talk MVP.