2017 NBA MVP Race: The definitive case for triple-double machine Russell Westbrook

In 2013, I first described Russell Westbrook’s game as punk rock. At the time, I meant it in regards to how people experienced his game. You either get it or you don’t. There’s no way to explain to you what punk rock is or make you appreciate it. It’s just something you’re either into or you’re not. 

If Russell Westbrook is punk rock, then this season is his self-titled album. (Think “Ramones” by the Ramones or “The Clash” by The Clash.) It’s wild, it’s unfiltered, it has zero regard for what you think of it. This is the most in-your-face season in NBA history. If Steph Curry’s unanimous MVP season in 2015-16 was a beautiful symphony bound by the wondrous arcs of 3-pointers and graceful style, then Westbrook’s 2016-17 campaign is like getting kicked in the face and then tagged with graffiti. 

Westbrook is 100 percent rock star this season and on pace to make history. I made this point a few weeks ago, and Andrew Sharp at SI.com wrote the same, Westbrook doesn’t need the MVP. No matter if he wins or not, you’re going to look back and remember him this season. Becoming the second player in NBA history to average a triple double, and doing it while leading the league in scoring, that’s going to last way longer in people’s minds than getting the trophy. 

That’s the key argument to his MVP candidacy, that he is making history, crossing barriers thought untouchable. On Wednesday night, he’ll go for the record for most triple-doubles in a season, and he’s a near-lock to average a triple-double for the season. It’s not the only argument for him, however. We’ll give an overview of his pros and cons for discussion purposes, and then we’ll cover things in detail. 

For more on Westbrook’s incredible triple-double season, check our post on his season by the numbers

Westbrook’s MVP resume

Arguments in favor

  • Second player in NBA history to average a triple-double
  • Did so while leading the league in scoring
  • Third in assists, second in assists per 100 possessions, trailing Harden by just 0.3 assists
  • Tied Oscar Robertson for most triple-doubles in a season (41) with four games left
  • Thunder record when Westbrook has a triple double: 32-9 (.780 win percentage)
  • Ninth in rebounds per game
  • No. 1 in PER
  • No. 1 in VORP (Value Over Replacement Player)
  • No. 1 in Offensive Box-Score Plus-Minus
  • Carried Thunder to a likely top-six seed and 44-plus wins the season after Kevin Durant shockingly left the team
  • Thunder offense is 11.2 points per 100 possessions worse when he’s on the bench
  • Thunder net points per 100 possessions is plus-3.5 when he’s on the court, and a minus-9.2, effectively the worst team in the league per 100 possessions, when he’s on the bench
  • Sheer force of will to accomplish history
  • In “clutch time” (defined as a five-point game inside five minutes), Westbrook leads the league in points per 100 possessions (72.4), shooting 44 percent from the field and OKC is a plus-24.9 per 100 possessions with him on the court in such situations
  • Recorded the highest-scoring triple-double in NBA history with 57 points.
  • Has single-handedly won games for the Thunder in a capacity no other player has

Arguments against

  • Has annihilated previous records for usage. No one has had as many possessions as he has in NBA history
  • Shooting 42.5 percent from the field, 34.0 percent from 3-point range. Not the most efficient shooter.
  • Second in total turnovers, and turnovers per 100 possessions
  • Leads the league in uncontested rebounds. (Note: Westbrook is second among players under 6-foot-7 in contested rebounds per game via NBA.com)
  • Shooting efficiency not comparable to other candidates
  • Worst record of other leading candidates
  • On-court net rating worst of leading candidates
  • Clearly does pursue his triple-double. (Note: Westbrook has 10 assists and 10 rebounds only in the final three minutes of a game where OKC leads by at least 10, per Basketball Reference.).

Offense

There is nothing subtle about Westbrook’s offensive season. It is not full of nuance and trickery. There’s no delicate manipulation of the defense or the need to talk about “gravity” as a substitute for actual playmaking. Westbrook’s game is a kick to the face. It’s blatant and explosive. 

It is, first and foremost, speed. Watch this clip and notice how many times he shifts gears. Westbrook is able to slide between defenders at top speed and has the ball control to finish in insane ways, like in this clip. Oddly enough, Westbrook is the only player in the top 10 of drives per game this season who is shooting worse than 50 percent on drives. He is, however, tops in free throws drawn from drives per game. His speed is just too much for guys to handle

Shooting-wise, while he matches up well with Harden overall, he’s still not an efficient shooter. 

Westbrook is 47th percentile as a jump-shooter this season, per Synergy Sports, and shooting 36 percent from mid-range. So while his 3-point percentage is at a career high, he’s below 50 percent on drives and poor from mid-range. However, give him a screener and it’s a different story. Westbrook is 73rd percentile out of the pick-and-roll this season as a scorer. He’s actually scoring more efficiently (on account of that improved 3-point mark) on jumpers than he is on drives out of the pick-and-roll. 

Westbrook offensive numbersPoints per possessionNBA-wide percentile

Pick-and-roll ball-handler (including passes)

0.967

73rd

Transition

0.976

29th

Isolation (including passes)

0.961

71st

Post-up

0.832

36th

Spot-up

1.185

90th

Catch and shoot

1.137

75th

Dribble jumpers

0.866

61st

Some of this has to do with the lack of spacing the Thunder offense provides. But I tend to come down on the side of holding the player responsible. I can’t credit the player for having bad teammates, just as I can’t punish a player for having good teammates. You play the best you can with what you’ve got. 

As a passer, Westbrook is often ahead of his teammates with his thinking. He catches guys off guard, passing to them late in his move or early off the screen. He’s always looking to get ahead of the defense. Sometimes, it creates moments of opportunity in chaos, like here. Other times, it leads to passes behind his man on the roll, or with them having to unexpectedly adjust for a shot. 

If there’s one criticism with Westbrook’s game, it’s this: Westbrook is so aggressive, all the time, that it borders on recklessness. He throws himself into multiple defenders, because he does have the ability to slide between them at times and finish, but that “Now I do what I want,” “Keep it 100” approach means he’s also prone to turnovers like this one

If you’re building an argument between the unstoppable fury of Westbrook and the dynamic brilliance of Harden offensively, you can either say that Westbrook is relentless or reckless. If you value each and every possession, even though Harden has more turnovers, stylistically you would prefer Harden. If you value the ability to simply dominate with sheer will, you go with Westbrook. 

One final note on the usage elephant in the room. As stated above, no one has ever had the ball more than Westbrook. This is seen as some sort of way to cut him down. As if having the ball is a bad thing. Having the ball, having high usage, is not a good, or bad thing. It’s what you do with it that matters. If you are a low-efficiency, low-production player with the ball all the time, you’re a drag on your team’s potential. You cannot argue that with Westbrook. 

It is not as simple as “if you shoot enough times.” Westbrook faces multiple levels of defense night after night after night, all keyed in on one primary approach: stop Westbrook. And not only does he produce enough scoring to lead the league, but he racks up double-digit assists as well. Westbrook’s usage can be used as a plus in his book, saying, “Look how much of a burden he has and how he delivers.” It should not follow that he should have these kinds of numbers with his kind of usage, because while no one’s ever had the ball this much, no one’s ever had this kind of production, either. There’s nothing empty in Westbrook’s game this season. 

Defense

Whoa, boy. You want the good news first? 

The Thunder are 2.5 points better defensively per 100 possessions with Westbrook on the court. They have the eighth-best defense in the NBA, overall. It is impossible to argue that Westbrook’s poor defense hurts the Thunder’s defense.

Now here’s the bad. Per Synergy, Westbrook is in the 38th percentile defensively on an individual level. There are a lot of issues with NBA.com’s defended field goal percentage, but it also has opponents shooting 3 percent better against Westbrook. Much of this is because Westbrook simply falls asleep off-ball. He is constantly ball-watching, looking for opportunities to go the other way. Some of it is scheme. The Thunder collapse the paint about as much as any team in the league, and Westbrook routinely finds himself buried in the paint while guarding a weak-side shooter. But even when he recovers, he often takes a bad angle, like here

One league scout said that Westbrook’s constant gambles for steals weren’t enough of a negative because of his conversion rate. And Westbrook is tied for ninth in steals per game at 1.7. That’s 0.1 less than Kawhi Leonard, by the way. 

But sometimes, he’s just flat napping. Some of it is mentioned here (in a wildly overreactive and way too critical Reddit post) but Westbrook’s contest rate on 3’s is just not good. And that’s a problem in today’s NBA. 

The Thunder do a good job hiding Westbrook. He’s only been put into defending isolations 56 times this season as Andre Roberson and Victor Oladipo do the heavy lifting on the wings. And again, the Thunder defense is still good with him on the floor and elite overall. You cannot say that Westbrook hurts the Thunder defense enough to make it bad. He’s not James Harden in 2016. 

He is, however, comparable to Harden in 2016. What Harden lacks in physical ability on that end, he makes up for with a higher defensive focus this season. And what Westbrook lacks in attention to detail and understanding of the situation, he makes up for with insane playmaking ability. They both grade out as “fine.” They’re not straight-up terrible defenders, they can both be caught unaware, they frequently completely give up on the play, and they’re both focused on offense. They’re fine. Which is probably enough, given each of their offensive brilliance, to justify the MVP. 

Intangibles and other notes

One thing about that keeps bugging me, though. The Thunder have won this year with defense. That’s not really up for debate. And Westbrook’s impact is on the offensive end, where they have been mostly average. They’ve improved as the year has gone on and are still only 16th. So if Westbrook is an offensive dynamo, and the Thunder offense isn’t good, and Westbrook is at best a mediocre defender, and the Thunder win with defense ... then what are we really talking about here, in terms of impact? 

But then you get back to the historic level of production, and the cycle starts all over again. 

Westbrook’s leadership deserves a mention here, too. When Durant left, he could have bugged out. But not only did he sign the extension, he embraced the challenge. He took on being the leader of this team, without question, head on. He’s always been considered the real locker room leader, but he went to another level this year. 

The best argument for Westbrook is that he’s doing what has never been done before, going further, and those efforts have netted wins. The correlation, causal or not, between his triple-doubles and the team’s winning percentage in those games (.780) gives a strong sense that his production does help the team win. 

Oklahoma City exists in this weird spot. Their roster is so short on offensive firepower that it makes it seem like Westbrook is carrying the 2009 Bobcats to the sixth seed. Except that’s not the case. They have tried and tested playoff veterans who can defend, run the floor and finish. They have good screeners. They have skilled players. They’re just low on shooters. Furthermore, I reject the notion that this should matter. If we say that Westbrook deserves credit for having bad teammates, if in fact he did, then it would follow that James Harden should be punished for having better ones, or Kawhi Leonard, or LeBron James for that matter. 

Yes, valuable is a vague term, purposefully used to create constant debate on its definition and true nature. But we do know we’re evaluating how players play, not how bad their teams are relative to them. Otherwise Anthony Davis would be in these conversations. 

Westbrook’s case is superb. He’s having a historic season, the Thunder are winning games, Westbrook has gotten better as the season went on. People doubted he could sustain his rebounding rate, he has. People thought he would get worn down, he hasn’t. Westbrook’s season defies belief and asks for no forgiveness. His flaws are endemic to his genetic basketball makeup, and that same DNA is the engine of arguably the best individual performance, production-wise, in NBA history. 

Westbrook is worthy of the MVP. But is he most willing? Check back soon for our profiles on Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James and James Harden, and for our wrap-up column breaking down who should win the coveted MVP award. 


Statistical support provided by NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Synergy Sports. 

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Moore's colleagues have been known to describe him as a "maniac" in terms of his approach to covering the NBA, which he has done for CBS Sports since 2010. Moore prides himself on melding reporting,... Full Bio

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