The whole #Russ4MVP movement began as a joke, more or less. You had a headstrong personality in Russell Westbrook, who never shied away from the spotlight, despite playing with the pretty-much-consensus second-best player on Earth. Then, you had that now-infamous meme, the one where Westbrook is eyeing the MVP trophy during Kevin Durant's speech the same way a dog eyes a steak being pulled off the grill. You know, this one:
It was all in good fun until right up until the season started and Durant went down with an injury. At that point, though still a gigantic longshot, it suddenly seemed at least the tiniest bit possible that Westbrook may actually be a viable candidate. After all, here was a perennial contender that was losing the reigning MVP, and if somebody came along that could keep them afloat, that would certainly be an achievement worth celebrating. Of course, Westbrook got an injury himself two games into the season, and that quickly went away.
It was when he came back, though, and played in those first few games without Durant, when the idea started to look less like a joke. Our own Kevin Yeung joined in on the fun, acknowledging what most of the rest of the country was, as well, that "hey, this guy is playing really, really good basketball." That was mid-December, though, and the caveat even at the time was that even though he looked great then, it was a long season and it would take a lot to maintain that pace.
January came and cooled off the red-hot Westbrook, who averaged 21.1 points/7.6 assists/6.4 rebounds for the month. Those are far from poor numbers, but he did it on just 37.6 percent shooting and 22.2 percent from 3-point range. Not coincidentally, the Thunder found themselves struggling to get back into the playoff race following their dismal start without Westbrook and Durant, and barely managed a 7-7 record for the month. No matter how fun it was, the narrative began to fade, especially as guys like James Harden and Stephen Curry began to break through and not only put up absurd numbers, but put their teams right in the heart of contention.
With February, though, Westbrook has not only surged ahead, he's making his most convincing bid yet that he should be all the way at the top of the list. At his best, Westbrook has always been a fireball of emotion and athleticism, and when he finds the perfect balance and meshes those two together, it is an unparalleled level of expolsiveness. The biggest knock, of course, has been that he shoots and misses too much, and his inefficiency does too much harm to be placed in the same strata as Curry or Harden.
Knock on this. In nine games in February, Westbrook is averaging 30.6 points, 10.1 assists, 7.9 rebounds and 1.6 steals. Those are video game numbers in themselves, but then you look at the percentages: 49.4 percent from the field, 39.4 from 3-point range, and 92.5 from the free throw line (Sunday night against the Nuggets he snapped a streak of 45 consecutive made free throws), that's near 50/40/90 for the month. Add to that the fact that the Thunder have vaulted from 4 games back of the 8-seed, to holding a two-game lead over the now-ninth-place Suns, and all of a sudden Westbrook's candidacy is looking bright as ever. Last night, he once again did something that he seems to do periodically every single season - accomplish something that only the NBA's most legendary players have done:
Russell Westbrook: 2nd player in NBA history to have at least 20 pts, 15 assists, 5 rebounds in <30 min Other: Magic Johnson (via ELIAS)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 23, 2015
Of course, just as was the case in December, it takes a season of performing at a high level to be truly worthy of the MVP. The best case you could make for Harden and Curry is that neither missed a significant stretch during the season, and they are on teams with really good records, to boot. Both guys have had to play significant stretches without their centers, as well, making their ability to put up numbers and pile up wins all the more impressive.
Which brings us back to Westbrook. The injury to Durant is huge for the Thunder for so many reasons, not the least of which being HE'S THE REIGNING MVP OF THE LEAGUE AND A ROBOT SCORING MACHINE. But while we're crafting narratives, if the Thunder keep running over opponents the way they have been, and Westbrook keeps leading the charge with outrageous numbers like this, it's going to be harder and harder to write him off simply because he missed 15 games due to injury.
Narratives aside, the numbers as whole favor Westbrook way more than you may expect. Harden leads the league in scoring at 27.2 points per game, but Westbrook is right behind him at 26.1. Westbrook is doing it on two more shots a game, though, and his percentages are the lowest between guys like Harden, Curry and Lebron James, who has also surged into the MVP race due to tremendous play of late. If you're making an argument against Westbrook, the missed games, along with the whole "he shoots a lot so he better score a lot of points" thing, are definitely your two strongest cases.
That aside, Westbrook not only stands tall against the other contenders, he may even exceed them in most cases. In assists per game, Westbrook holds a slight edge over Curry with 8.0 to 7.9 (James with 7.3 and Harden with 6.8). In rebounds, Westbrook's 6.3 leads the pack.
Looking at advanced metrics, Westbrook's PER of 29.2 is second in the league only to Anthony Davis, ahead of Curry, Harden and James. His box plus/minus of 11.1 is tops in the league, and though his usage rate of 37.4 (also tops in the league) is often used as a criticism, it should be seen as a testament to his ability to manage a game effectively while controlling a bulk of his team's possessions.
Durant's absence is a factor, like it or not, and Westbrook is one of the only - if not THE only - players on the Thunder capable of creating offense entirely on his own with Durant out. That's evidenced by his assist percentage (46.2), also NBA-best, which estimates how many of his teammates field goals he has assisted on. Basically, when Westbrook is on the floor, it's up to him to get points for his team, and he is doing that at a higher rate than anyone in the league, both by scoring and by passing, not to mention all of those rebounds he gobbles up to create extra possessions.
Of course, there's a defensive side of the ball, too, and Westbrook's 2.1 steals per game are second in the NBA to Curry, though his steal percentage actually ranks higher than Curry's. Still, Curry's defense as a whole has been exceptional, and his defensive rating of 96.5 is 8th-best in the entire NBA, far beyond any of the other MVP contenders. That gives Curry the edge in defense, but Westbrook's defense has been good enough that you certainly couldn't write him off as a one-sided player. Though it's worth acknowledging that Harden, often maligned for his defense, actually posts similar defensive metrics to Westbrook, so I wouldn't use defense against him, either.
Taken individually, as a scorer, a shooter, a passer, a defender, Westbrook may not win any one category. But taken as an entire package, no one else in the league is bringing more to the table than Westbrook. He's an elite scorer that is assisting teammates as well as anyone else in the league, along with being an above-average defender that rebounds as well as anybody at his position in the history of the NBA.
In fact, take a look at just how rare Westbrook's jack-of-all-trades act has been this year. In the history of the NBA, only two other times has a player finished with 26 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds and 2 steals per game: Michael Jordan in 1988-89 and Lebron James in 2004-05. Only Jordan did it with a PER over 28 (it was actually 31.1, which is nuts).
The MVP race is as wide-open as it's been in years. Last season, it was a red-hot January that got the MVP chatter rolling in Durant's direction. Unfortunately for Westbrook, it took him a month later to have a similarly-absurd month, and it just so happened that his two biggest opponents for the award had excellent Januarys themselves
Westbrook's February can't be denied, though, and his numbers on the year are already reaching near-historic proportions as a result. Should he manage to use this as a taking-off point, keep up this pace while his reigning MVP teammate heals, AND keep vaulting the Thunder up the standings? Well, then, Westbrook shouldn't just be in the MVP conversation at the end of the year. He should be the MVP.
stats as of 2/23 courtesy of basketball-reference, nba.com/stats and ESPN