Russell Westbrook’s Oklahoma City Thunder will visit James Harden and the Rockets at Toyota Center on Thursday evening, and it’s already being hyped nationally as a showdown in a Most Valuable Player (MVP) race that could go either way.
“You guys are going to have a tough decision to make on that MVP award,” Washington head coach Scott Brooks told Houston reporters before his team’s loss to the Rockets on Monday. It was likely a diplomatic answer, since Brooks previously coached both guards in Oklahoma City and remains on good terms with each, but it’s an answer that mirrors much of the national framing.
There’s just one problem with that made-for-TV narrative, though: The race really isn’t that close.
Or it shouldn’t be, at the very least. And nothing that happens on the court Thursday should lead to any sort of substantial change in the dynamics.
Because if there’s one thing history has taught us with the NBA and MVP voting, it’s that individual numbers are only part of the equation considered by media voters. Sure, it’s great that Westbrook averages a triple-double on more than 30 points per game, just as it was impressive when Kobe Bryant scored 81 points in a game in 2006 and averaged over 35 points per night. But it was Steve Nash (coincidentally, then guided by current Houston head coach Mike D’Antoni) who took home that season’s MVP award, largely because he put up his numbers within the framework of a legitimate title contender in Phoenix. That label wasn’t applicable to Bryant’s 45-win Lakers.
At the moment, the Rockets (27-9) — with no other All-Stars, besides Harden — are on pace for a 62-20 season. On the other hand, Westbrook’s Thunder (21-14) are tracking toward 49-33.
While Houston is currently positioned as the West’s No. 3 seed — and only 1.5 games back of San Antonio for the No. 2 spot — Westbrook’s Thunder are in the No. 7 slot. In fact, the Rockets are substantially closer to the Golden State Warriors for the No. 1 seed and the NBA’s best record (3.5 games back) than the Thunder are to the Rockets (down 5.5 games).
When the numbers are close, history shows us that team success often tips the scale. And in this case, the statistics are very close.
Similar Individual Numbers
First things first: Russell Westbrook is having a phenomenal season. There’s no disrespect intended to him through making the case for Harden as MVP. Westbrook is worthy of enormous praise for the job he’s done keeping Oklahoma City competitive after the offseason departure of Kevin Durant.
Here’s a look at the two through Tuesday’s games, using both traditional and advanced metrics:
Westbrook (traditional): 30.9 points (42.8% FG, 32.5% 3-point FG), 10.5 assists, 10.4 rebounds, 5.4 turnovers per game
Harden (traditional): 28.4 points (44.5% FG, 35.6% 3-point FG), 11.9 assists, 8.2 rebounds, 5.7 turnovers per game
Westbrook (advanced): 30.1 PER, 54.3% TS, 5.5 win shares, 14.2 BPM, 4.9 VORP
Harden (advanced): 28.3 PER, 61.4% TS, 7.6 win shares, 10.5 BPM, 4.1 VORP
Pick your metric. Westbrook has a slight edge in many counting stats because he takes a higher volume of shots, while Harden has a small edge in efficiency. Both grade out as capable, but not great, on the defensive end — although much of their defensive mediocrity is simply due to the enormous burden placed upon each on the offensive end. No matter the angle, their lines look remarkably similar.
Each guard has won a separate NBA Player of the Month honor this year, while Harden has three Player of the Week titles (including this week) to Westbrook’s two. Again, the margin is razor-thin.
There’s one area, however, where the gap isn’t small. Fortunately for Harden and the Rockets, it’s also the one category that has frequently served as tiebreaker in most close MVP races throughout the league’s history.
Team Play Breaks the Tie
The popular argument that Oklahoma City “needs” Westbrook more than Houston needs Harden shouldn’t hold up. The over/under projections from Las Vegas opened for this season with 45.5 wins as the baseline for Oklahoma City and 41.5 for Houston — so to act as if Houston has a vastly superior overall roster just two months later is quite disingenuous. In fact, heading into the year, the Vegas projections show that most actually preferred OKC’s roster.
Houston’s roster did have more talent than most national writers believed in October. But it’s also not as loaded as the record now might make it look. The truth, as is often the case, is found in between.
Yes, general manager Daryl Morey added more shooters with Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. Yes, D’Antoni officially moved Harden to “point guard.” But it’s still up to Harden on a nightly basis to operate as the straw that stirs the drink. He’s the one finding the shooters and drawing attention from opposing defenses, thus giving Gordon and Anderson the room to operate that they lacked in New Orleans. He’s the one finding big men like the raw, undersized Montrezl Harrell on pick-and-rolls, enabling the second-year center to score a career-high 29 points — even against DeAndre Jordan.
“He’s the hardest player to guard in this league,” Brooks said afterHarden posted his ninth triple-double of the season — and third in a row — in Houston’s come-from-behind win over the Wizards on Monday.
Another way to look at it: If the NBA had a draft this week with all active players available, would anyone on Houston’s roster besides Harden go in the top 50? Sure, Trevor Ariza has been a top-50 overall player this season, given his defensive impact. But he’s a 31-year-old role player with limited upside. Perhaps Gordon is also close, considering his ability to score in bunches. But there’s not a clear secondary option, like Durant and LeBron James have in Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving, respectively. Excluding Harden, no Houston player is in the All-Star conversation. Nor is anyone on the roster likely to develop into one.
Prior to the broken fibula of starting center Clint Capela, some argued that he could be Houston’s second-most important player — and the Rockets are actually winning at the same clip (6-2, .750) without Capela than they were with him (21-7, .750).
Why? Because Harden.
“He’s an unbelievable player,” D’Antoni said after Harden’s historic 53-point, 17-assist, 16-rebound game in a win over the Knicks on New Year’s Eve, when both Capela and Pat Beverley (wrist) were out due to injury.
“From day one, he's embraced the point guard role,” the coach observed in December. “He's done everything humanly possible to make us a good team, and our record reflects that. That's the whole key. Ownership, management, your star player — they have to buy in.”
Houston’s roster is deeper than a year ago, and D’Antoni deserves Coach of the Year consideration for getting all of his players to buy into those roles. But it’s not a 60+ win roster. It’s not a group that, on paper, looks to be elite. In an NBA where supposed contenders have at least three All-Stars on the same team, and possibly four, the Rockets have one.
But they’re still elite. Because Harden.
The history of the MVP race shows that winning at a high level matters. Two years ago, Harden clearly did more for his team individually than Curry did for the Warriors — but Curry took home the award with ease, based on his team’s superiority. In other words, he was the best player on the best team.
If this year’s race is indeed between Harden and Westbrook, why shouldn’t the same logic apply? The Thunder are on pace to be a quality middle-of-the-pack playoff team, winning roughly 50 games. The Rockets are on course to win 60+, which would place them 40 games over .500 and in the top three of a loaded Western Conference. The Rockets’ roster may not be great, but the results are.
Unless that dynamic changes, it’s hard to see what the argument for Westbrook is. The MVP award typically combines individual excellence with team impact — and while both players are having historic individual seasons, Houston is clearly a tier ahead of Oklahoma City in the West.
Because that’s how an MVP lifts his team. Because Harden.
Harden’s Rockets return to the court Thursday night at Toyota Center against Westbrook’s Oklahoma City Thunder. Listen to all of the action on your home for the Houston Rockets, SportsTalk790!