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Russell Westbrook For MVP! (Whatever That Means)

The NBA MVP derby was once a two-man race between James Harden of the Houston Rockets and Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors.

Not anymore.

After recording his fourth straight triple-double on Wednesday night with a ridiculous stat line of 49 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook is undeniably an MVP contender.

Westbrook’s recent output has been mind-blowing: He’s averaging 37 points, 13.5 rebounds and 10.5 assists per game during his triple-double streak, which began as he was closing out one of the best statistical months in NBA history. As ESPN’s Stats and Info group noted, Westbrook’s performance in February (31.2 PPG/10.3 APG/9.1 RPG) was just the second time an NBA player ever averaged 30 points, 9 rebounds and 10 assists per game over a calendar month.1 (The first — and, until recently, only — player to do it was inner-circle Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson.)

But there are barriers to Westbrook’s MVP candidacy. Algorithms based on previous MVP voting trends still consider him a long shot for the award, with Basketball-Reference.com’s MVP tracker assigning Westbrook a mere 6.6 percent probability of winning. By contrast, the tracker says it’s about 66 percent likely that either Curry or Harden takes home the hardware.

The key determinant there: Oklahoma City’s record. Both Curry’s and Harden’s teams have won in excess of two-thirds of their games — good for the first- and fourth-ranked records in the Western Conference, respectively — while Westbrook’s Thunder have a winning percentage of 55.7 percent and are clinging to the eighth (and final) playoff spot in the West. Fair or not, team performance has historically mattered to MVP voters. (Although Westbrook will likely get bonus points for keeping the Thunder afloat in the playoff race during spells in which defending MVP Kevin Durant was injured.)

Plus there’s the question of where Westbrook ranks statistically, even after his recent streak of brilliance. Single-season Real Plus-Minus (RPM), Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) and Win Shares all have Harden and Curry ranked No. 1 and 2 in terms of value produced this season. So if things hold steady over the next six weeks, Westbrook will have to overcome both the stats and historical patterns of MVP voting if he is to win the award. It’s been done before, but not all that often.

Then again, what does “Most Valuable” even mean? It’s a debate that comes up every year, in every sport, and it never ends with a satisfactory answer. The great sportswriter Joe Posnanski put it best in a podcast last fall:

I love [the MVP] because it makes us argue about the word ‘valuable.’ … When somebody named the MVP award, you know in their mind they just had: ‘Best Player.’ The best player ought to get an award, and what are you going to call it? Just call it the ‘Most Valuable Player’ award. OK, great.

And ever since then, we have been parsing that word to absolute death. I think my favorite argument against somebody winning the MVP award is when they say, ‘Look, it’s not the Player of the Year Award or the Most Outstanding Player — it’s the Most Valuable Player.’ Like there is any difference between any of those things. You’re just pulling synonyms out.

I love that, and in a way, I would never want that to change because it brings up such extraordinarily stupid arguments that just rage on and on every year.

And this year’s NBA race brings a particularly interesting twist. According to long-term predictive RPM, which is the best single-number assessment of a player’s current talent level,2 the best player in the league is still probably Cleveland’s LeBron James — as he has been for the past three seasons running.

James was so far out in front of his peers a few seasons ago that he could afford a relative down year (by his standards). But therein lies the problem — the game’s best player hasn’t quite played like it this season. By just about any metric, Harden, Curry and Westbrook have been better than James in 2014-15.

This kind of thing happens all the time in baseball, where performance fluctuates wildly around true talent. (Or did anyone really think Ken Caminiti was the best player in a league that featured Barry Bonds in his prime?) But basketball is supposed to be different — in the absence of voter fatigue, there’s a lot of crossover between MVP and “best player” in the NBA, to the point that the former can circle back to become a referendum on the latter.

So do you still give the 2014-15 MVP to the best player? OK, then give it to James. Or do you honor the player who has had the best season? Then you have to decide between Harden and Curry. Or maybe you just eschew the whole process and give it to Westbrook — if not the Most Valuable, possibly the Most Electrifying Player in the NBA right now.

Footnotes

  1. Minimum 10 games played in the month.

  2. In the sense that it best predicts out-of-sample lineup results.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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