In one of the most hotly contested races in history, Russell Westbrook wound up winning the NBA's MVP award in a relative landslide, as was announced on the league's first-ever awards show on Monday night. Westbrook finished with 69 first-place votes to James Harden's 22 and Kawhi Leonard's nine.
Before we go any further, all three of these guys, obviously, had amazing seasons and, more importantly, are amazing players. For some reason, that tends to get lost in these conversations that become more about pointing out players' deficiencies than celebrating what makes them great. We don't do this with other things. When a group of actors are nominated for an Oscar, we don't spend months picking apart every last flaw of each performance. We accept that they were all great in their own way, that somebody will ultimately win for some reason nobody can truly quantify, and that's the end of it.
The difference with the NBA's MVP debate, particularly one as fundamentally debatable as this year's race, is that we feel the need to prove our opinions right, and in doing so, the only thing that ends up being proven is that we really have no idea why we voted the way we did in the first place.
The contradictions are everywhere, beginning with the most glaring:
- A media that has spent the last several years telling us that efficiency is king just voted a wildly inefficient player, a guy who shot 42 percent from the field and missed more shots than anyone in the league, as its most valuable player.
- The same people who have consistently told us the most valuable shot in basketball is the 3-pointer, to the point that shooting anything else besides a layup is statistically stupid, just said there is no player in the league more valuable than a 34-percent 3-point shooter.
- After being told time and again that defense matters, that two-way players are the most coveted, valuable assets when it comes to building a team, a guy who more or less played zero defense this year -- ranking 32nd among point guards in defensive real plus-minus while contesting fewer shots than anyone in the league that played at least 30 minutes per game -- just won MVP.
To this last point, if two-way stars are indeed such irreplaceable assets, then how come LeBron James, whose all-around dominance speaks for itself, and Kevin Durant, who was universally praised for his elite defense this year, weren't even nominated? How come Leonard, who Gregg Popovich said was , who was a Defensive Player of the Year nominee and also had a higher offensive rating than both Westbrook and Harden this year, finished a distant third in the voting and never realistically had a chance of winning?
A lot of people will say Leonard is a product of the Spurs' system. But go back and look at all the articles that were written after Leonard went down in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, articles like this one, and , and this one, all more or less saying the exact opposite: that the Spurs, who coughed up a 25-point lead to the Warriors in less than a half after Kawhi went out with an injury, actually had no chance to win at an elite level without Leonard.
So which is it?
This is another illustration of how much we contradict ourselves in these MVP debates: We love to talk about players making the players around them better as one of the most important factors in determining value, as evidenced by how much you hear about Harden leading his team to 55 wins (a 14-win improvement from the previous year) and Westbrook dragging the Thunder to 47 wins after Kevin Durant's departure. And clearly both Harden and Westbrook did make their teams better -- particularly Westbrook by at least one statistic, as the Thunder were over 12 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor as opposed to off.
But then, Stephen Curry made the Warriors 19 points better than their opponents when he was on the floor, which was the best net rating in the league. You might say that Curry's production, like Kawhi's, was a product of his team, but in fact, when he was off the court, the Warriors scored just one point more than their opponents per 100 possessions. In other words, with Stephen Curry, the Warriors were one of the best teams in history. Without him, they were barely a winning team. Yet he wasn't even talked about in this MVP discussion, let alone nominated.
The message here is as clear as it is contradictory: Make your team good, but not too good, because then somehow your value will be diminished -- which was likely at least part of the reason LeBron wasn't even nominated, despite the fact that his supposedly super Cavs went 0-8 in games he didn't play, and in almost complete ignorance of the fact that he had maybe the best statistical season of his career. To that latter point, you could say, perhaps, that voters didn't value statistics as much in this particular MVP debate, but of course, the foundation of Westbrook's victory was his averaging a triple-double -- a rationale made all the more contradictory by the quiet fact that Harden actually accounted for more combined points, assists and rebounds.
In fact, let's talk about Harden for a second. Given how much we romanticize the importance of sharing the ball and court these days, how much we love to talk about the wealth-spreading modern superstar, one would think Harden's MVP case would be heightened by the fact that he put up his gaudy numbers with a significantly lower usage rate that Westbrook, whose 41.7 usage rate is the highest of all time. For years, we have killed guys who dominate the ball like that. Carmelo Anthony has become tattooed with the brand of losing basketball for his isolation ways, yet Melo, as it turns out, was one of 99 players this year who shot a better percentage than the guy we just said is more valuable than anyone else.
This all sounds like a knock of Wesbrook's victory, but it's not. It's merely to point out the inconsistencies and contradictions in the reasoning that he won. It's going to make you wonder next time all these writers who voted for him start talking about the value of efficiency. It's going to make you wonder the next time you hear someone say it's all about winning, because four players, two of which were Harden and Leonard, were responsible for more wins than Westbrook this year, even relative to the teams they played on.
Ultimately, the voters likely chose Westbrook as their MVP for largely the same reason voters choose Oscar winners -- because his performance, pretty simply, impacted them a little bit more than the others, all of which were great. They saw what he did averaging a triple-double and just said to themselves, "Wow. That's the winner." It was a gut thing. And that's fine. Westbrook is an undeniably phenomenal player, and he won the award. Let's just not pretend any of us can explain, with any sort of consistency, the reasons why.