By: Cory Vest

Russell Westbrook or James Harden? The debate over who should be the MVP of the NBA was a heated one, in fact it still is even though ballots have already been submitted. Unfortunately, the official results will not be announced until June 26th, so the debate may continue.               

 So, who is your pick? Initial knee jerk reaction would have people picking Westbrook, considering he did something only one other player has done in the history of the NBA. Westbrook managed to average a triple double on the season. The last time a player averaged a triple double for the season was in 1961-62, 55 years ago, when the “Big O”, Oscar Robinson accomplished the impressive feat. With 31.6 points per game (1st in the league), 10.7 rebounds per game (10th in league), and 10.4 assists per game (3rd in league), there is no denying Westbrook’s value to his team. Is he the most valuable however?

Oddly enough, averaging a triple double for the season has not guaranteed Westbrook the MVP. Many believe that Harden deserves the honor. The year Oscar Robinson averaged his triple double, he finished third. Robinson was behind Wilt Chamberlain, and that year’s winner, Bill Russell.

A quick look at Harden’s stats for the season will show that he averaged 29.1 points per game (2nd in league), 8.1 rebounds (22nd in league), and 11.2 assists (1st in league).

So, Westbrook has Harden beat in both points per game and rebounds per game, but Harden has the edge in assists. Of course, only looking at these three stat categories doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what goes into determining the most valuable player of the league.

Let’s delve deeper and really get into the stats. We’ll start by taking a look at Russell Westbrook. His team finished sixth in the Western Division with a record of 47-35. Of those 47 wins, Westbrook was in the line-up for 46 of them. Of those 46 games, Westbrook averaged a triple double in 33 of them. In 71.7% of OKC’s wins, Westbrook averaged a triple double. Westbrook had a total of 42 triple doubles on the season. This means, when Westbrook averaged a triple double, the Thunder were a hard to beat 33-9. Oklahoma City’s record when Westbrook didn’t average a triple double? They were a bottom dwelling 13-25. Here is a quick recap, 33-9 when Westbrook averages a triple double, 13-25 when he doesn’t.

Westbrook wasn’t too shabby come clutch time either. By clutch time, we’re talking about five minutes or less to go in the fourth quarter or overtime and neither team holding more than a five-point advantage. During that time, Westbrook had a league leading 247 points on 44.6% shooting. Harden had 150 points while shooting 35.5% from the field during clutch time. In the last minute of the game, Westbrook shot 36.9% while Harden shot 23.1%. Again, a quick recap; Westbrook had a better shooting percentage and had more points during clutch time than Harden. To add to this, the Thunder had 12 fourth quarter comebacks, tied for the league lead, as evidenced by the stats above, Westbrook played a good-sized role in those comebacks.

James Harden did lead the Houston Rockets to a 55-27 record, good for third in the Western Division. Harden made the move to point guard this season which led to him handing the ball a lot more. In fact, Harden led in the league in possession time per game with an average of nine minutes. Harden made the most of his time with the ball, as he created shots for both himself and his teammates. Harden’s ability to dribble, pass, and shoot, helped to create one of the better offenses in the league. A big argument in favor of Harden earning MVP honors has to do with the team’s ability to win with Harden at the helm. Harden himself stated that the MVP should be more about wins than individual stats.

Although Harden has his team in position to make a deep run in the playoffs, Harden’s team does have a more talented supporting cast. Comparing strictly wins is difficult when you consider the skill level and contribution of the others on the team. Overall, Houston has a more talented team than Oklahoma City.

With that being said, we’ll go back to comparing individual stats. Rapid fire style this time. Harden holds the edge in shooting percentage with a mark of 44% compared to Westbrook’s 42.5% from the field. From behind the arc, the two are about dead even. Harden shot 34.7% while Westbrook shot 34.3%. There isn’t much separation when it comes to free throw percentage either. Harden made 84.7% of his free throws while Westbrook made 84.5%.

Harden had slightly more turnovers 5.70 while Westbrook had 5.38 turnovers. When looking at efficiency, Westbrook has a mark of 33.96 while Harden has a 32.44. Efficiency basically adds points, while considering field goals and free throws taken/made, assists, rebounds, steals, blocks, and turnovers. A more detailed look at shooting percentages will show that Harden has the upper hand. In effective shooting percentage [ (field goals made + (0.5*3-point field goals made)) / field goal attempts ] Harden is shooting at 52.5% compared to Westbrook’s 47.6%. In true shooting percentage [ points scored / 2* (field goals attempted + 0.44* free throw attempts) ] Harden stands at 64.1% while Westbrook is shooting 55.4%. Harden also leads in plus/minus (the player’s impact on the team while on the court) with a total of 425 and 5.25 per game. Westbrook had a total plus/minus of 251 and 3.10 per game.

An argument can be made for either of these all-stars, as both are worthy of recognition. To me Westbrook deserves the award though. It took Westbrook averaging a triple double for OKC to make the playoffs, so what did Westbrook do? He averaged a triple double. He had 42 triple doubles on the season. He contributed in all aspects of the game, his defense lacks yes, but he gathered up double digit rebounds, he dished out double digit assists, and led the league in scoring. Westbrook elevated his game in order to elevate the team. The MVP goes to the player who was the most valuable in the league. If you remove Westbrook from the Thunder, they are a last place team. If you remove Harden from the Rockets, they still have a squad made up of three-point specialist Ryan Anderson, former sixth man of the year Lou Williams, what should be this year’s sixth man of the year Eric Gordon, and other viable players.

It is hard to vote against a guy who averaged a triple double while ranking 20th in the league in minutes per game. Russell Westbrook was the most valuable player for his team, more valuable than any other player in the league. Without Westbrook, the Thunder do not stand a chance at making the playoffs. With Westbrook, they claimed the sixth seed in the Western Conference.