The Oklahoma City Thunder have nine regular season games remaining, and the countdown to Russell Westbrook’s triple-double-clinching rebound and assist is on. As is now being widely-cited, Russ needs to average just 5.8 rebounds and 6.9 assists per night from here on out to achieve a milestone previously considered unreachable in the modern era.
There are also just nine games left for Westbrook to make his case as the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. Despite averaging a triple-double, Westbrook is not the favorite for the MVP award. That distinction goes to James Harden, whose Rockets have locked up the 3rd seed in the Western Conference and appear to be at least a somewhat viable threat to the Warriors and Spurs in the playoffs.
The Rockets’ success is, indeed, a legitimate argument for James Harden, and it’s not the only one. But even still, there seem to be fewer arguments for Harden than there are against Russell Westbrook.
I wanted to face the anti-Westbrook arguments head-on, so I dug deeper into Westbrook’s numbers to find just how valuable his gaudy statistics have been. Have the triple doubles really mattered? It’s now common knowledge that the Thunder generally win when Westbrook has a triple double (they are 30-7), but what teams are these triple-doubles coming against? And what about the whole uncontested rebounding thing people keep talking about?
Using a slightly modified game log worksheet from basketball-reference.com, I ran various correlations using Westbrook’s numbers. I wanted to find out why and under what circumstances the Thunder have won against good teams. I wanted to find out if Westbrook’s historically-itchy trigger finger actually does cause him to pass less. More than anything, I wanted to find out if the case against Westbrook is actually valid. In case you'd like to run your own numbers, you can download my modified worksheet here.
Below is what I found when I ran these correlations, and how they fit into common narratives explaining why Westbrook should not be MVP. This is Russell Westbrook: The Numbers by the Other Numbers.
1. "He pads his stats against bad teams"
Let’s get this one out of the way first. The Thunder are 18-23 against teams currently in playoff positioning as of March 28th. Of Westbrook’s 37 triple doubles, 18 of them have come against playoff teams. In other words, nearly 49% of Westbrook’s triple doubles have come against teams in the top 53% of the NBA – not exactly the kind of drop-off against top talent that some may have you believe. Furthermore, Westbrook has triple doubled in 12 of OKC’s 18 wins against playoff teams, and only 6 times in OKC’s 23 losses.
What does it all mean? The Thunder have won 44% of their games against playoff teams. When Westbrook posts a triple double, the chances of an OKC victory against playoff teams shoot all the way up to 67%. When he doesn’t, the chance of victory plummets to 22%. When OKC takes on a quality opponent, it’s on Russ to pull off a triple-double. When he does, they frequently win. When he doesn’t, they almost always lose.
2. "I saw on Twitter that Westbrook grabs 8.5 uncontested rebounds per game – do those even count?"
Yes, they count.
Of Westbrook’s 10.5 rebounds per game, 2.1 of them are contested and 8.5 of them aren’t, putting his contested rebounding percentage at 19.7%. What Twitter often fails to mention is that James Harden posts 1.7 contested and 6.3 contested rebounds per game, respectively – good for a 20.9 contested rebound percentage. So yes – 1.2% more of James Harden’s rebounds are contested. Cling to that 1.2% if you must, but Westbrook still pulls down 0.4 more contested rebounds per game, and 1.8 more uncontested rebounds per game.
Additionally Westbrook’s 2.1 contested rebounds per game equals that of Marc Gasol – you know, the former Defensive Player of the Year – and is a higher number than LeBron’s 2.0 average.
3. "They lose sometimes because he shoots too much"
The classic anti-Westbrook argument. The only problem is that, at least this year, it isn’t completely true. Yes, there is a relatively strong 0.41 correlation between Westbrook’s assist totals and OKC wins, but there is actually a negative correlation (-0.29) between his shot attempts and assists. What does this mean? The Thunder DO win when Russ racks up assists, but those assists DO NOT come as the result of him shooting less. Even his raw field goal attempt numbers have a negative correlation (-0.16) when paired with Thunder wins.
The takeaway? Westbrook’s shot attempts, statistically speaking, have little-to-no impact on game outcomes, and even when he does take more shots, it is not at the expense of getting more assists. Assists dry up because teammates miss shots, and not because Russell takes them.
4. "His assist numbers are inflated because he only passes when an assist is possible"
There have been rumblings of this over the years, and a quick visit to NBA.com shows that Russ has a 17.1 assist-to-pass percentage (in other words, 17.1% of his passes are assists). That number falls right between John Wall’s 18.2% and James Harden’s 16.9% – numbers from two players who receive no such criticism.
5. "Harden’s leading his team to wins"
Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), is defined by basketball-reference.com as "a box score estimate of the points per 100 TEAM possessions that a player contributed above a replacement-level (-2.0) player, translated to an average team and prorated to an 82-game season." It’s not the only way to measure the overall caliber of a player, but it’s a pretty good place to start.
The average non-Harden Houston Rocket this year has posted a VORP of 0.53. The average Thunder player has posted a VORP of -0.04. The total VORP provided by non-Harden Rockets this year is currently 7.5. The total VORP from Thunder players this year is currently -0.7.
So while Bill Simmons may argue that Westbrook’s supporting cast is no longer a crutch because Taj Gibson played well that one time against the Celtics, his VORP with the Thunder has been -0.2, which would put him a 3-way tie for 15th on the Houston roster along with Corey Brewer (now with the Lakers) and Bobby Brown, and leave him slightly worse than guys like Chinanu Onuaku and Kyle Wiltjer.
The Rockets are having an unbelievable season, and James Harden – a player the team has spent the past several seasons building around - is the reason why. They’re defying all expectations – and that’s exactly the problem. The Rockets are very, very good, but is too much made of that because everyone expected them to just be very, very above average? The Thunder, meanwhile, still have a fighting chance at homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs, and are doing it with an inferior cast of players featuring a guy who, going back a calendar year, was supposed to be only the 2nd best player on their 2016-17 roster. Houston has done a nearly perfect job of playing to Harden’s immense skillset, while the Thunder, with their oft-noted lack of shooting, is only now starting to construct a team with Westbrook as the leading man.
James Harden will probably win MVP, and it won't be a travesty. By all accounts, he is having a season that results in a unanimous MVP award most years. The only problem is that the cases made against Westbrook, when truly and thoroughly examined, actually make the case for Russ even stronger.