April 10, 2017

McDEVITT | Sorry Russ, LeBron Is the Real MVP

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Russell Westbrook had quite the weekend. He broke Oscar Robertson’s record for most triple doubles in a season on Sunday while scoring 50 points and hitting a ridiculous game-winning shot. These theatrics are nothing new for Westbrook. The Oklahoma City Thunder guard has been turning heads for months en route to averaging a triple double for the season. This feat is certainly impressive; he is the only the second player in history to average a triple double and the first since Robertson did so in 1960-61.

Westbrook’s accomplishment makes him the odds-on favorite to win this year’s Most Valuable Player award. On the surface, this seems obvious. To accomplish something so rare surely qualifies a player to win the award generally bestowed upon the league’s best player. But Westbrook is not the best player in the league, and he is not the most valuable either.

The MVP conversation this season has been dominated by two players: Westbrook and Houston Rockets guard James Harden. Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James is noticeably absent from the conversation, despite having another incredible season.

This does not seem to make sense. If the NBA held an open draft today to build a team that could win a championship this year, nobody in their right mind would choose any player other than LeBron first overall. In evaluating who deserves this award, perhaps we should stop looking for reasons not to give it to the man who is universally agreed to be the best player in the world.

Yes, what Westbrook has done is nothing short of remarkable, but it is a bit of a distraction. The triple double is a statistically arbitrary concept. Are we to believe that averaging 10 assists instead of nine is something so incredible that it is worthy of the game’s highest honor, simply because it is a two digit number?

LeBron is averaging 8.7 assists and 8.6 rebounds each game, and he is doing so while shooting 54.8 percent. Westbrook shoots 42.6 percent. Should the distance between LeBron and the MVP award really be based on two fewer assists and two fewer rebounds even though he is shooting well over 10 percentage points better than Westbrook? This seems irrational.

When the season is over on Tuesday, Westbrook will have the second most turnovers ever in an NBA season behind only Harden, who will actually have committed the most in history by a significant margin. The notion that the two players with the most turnovers in NBA history are the ones in the conversation for the MVP award seems utterly ridiculous. Turning the ball over on offense is the single least valuable thing a player can do.

Of course, when considering who deserves the MVP award, the performance of the team should matter a great deal. Only three times, and not since 1982, has the award been given to a player on a team with a winning percentage lower than .600. The Thunder are sixth in their conference with a winning percentage of .575, while the Cavaliers are first in the East at .638.

This lends support to LeBron’s already strong case. By all accounts, he is the best basketball player on the planet, and perhaps the best basketball player in history. His statistics are more than impressive, and his team has a legitimate chance at another championship. But LeBron is not likely to win the MVP award. Westbrook has gotten too much attention this season, and it would certainly be surprising if he did not take this award home.

In recent seasons, LeBron has not been in the conversation for the MVP award nearly enough. Having appeared in six consecutive NBA finals on two different teams, LeBron’s level of dominance has become so familiar to us that it has essentially been normalized. Thus, we dismiss him as an afterthought. As this way of thinking becomes the norm, perhaps we should at least rename the award accordingly. Then again, the “Best Player Who Isn’t LeBron James” award does not have the same ring to it.