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Monday, April 10, 2017

Westbrook Sets Single Season Triple Double Record in Electrifying Fashion

By today's twisted NBA standards, Sunday's game between Oklahoma City and Denver was "meaningless" for Oklahoma City, as the Thunder were already locked into the sixth seed and a first round playoff matchup with third seeded Houston. Thus, the Thunder "should" rest Westbrook--but the Thunder do not operate that way and Westbrook would not stand for it if they did. He not only played in the game but he scored the Thunder's final 15 points as they roared back from a 14 point fourth quarter deficit. The Thunder trailed 105-98 with just :47 remaining but then Westbrook sank three free throws and scored on a driving layup before capping off the festivities with a 36 foot game-winning three pointer at the buzzer. By the way, this game was most assuredly not meaningless for Denver or Portland, two teams locked in a battle for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff berth. Westbrook's dagger knocked the Nuggets out of the playoffs. Watching Westbrook and the Thunder give their best effort in a "meaningless" game for them that had meaning in the overall standings sure felt much better than watching Cleveland Coach Tyronn Lue bench his best players and thus hand a win to his buddy Doc Rivers, whose L.A. Clippers may get homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs thanks to Lue's gift.

This is the third recent game in which Westbrook has saved the Thunder after they seemed to be hopelessly behind; we have not seen a player repeatedly and almost singlehandedly alter the outcomes of games in this fashion since Kobe Bryant did this--and Bryant typically did it primarily by being an unstoppable scoring machine, while Westbrook not only is an unstoppable scorer (it seems like almost an afterthought to mention that he has clinched his second scoring title) but also a tremendous rebounder and passer.

Westbrook finished with 50 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists--his third 50 point triple double this season, which is more than any other NBA player has posted in his entire career. This was also Westbrook's 42nd triple double of the season, breaking his tie with Oscar Robertson for most triple doubles in one season. The Thunder are 33-9 in those games. Not surprisingly, they enjoyed a +10 scoring margin with Westbrook on the court versus Denver and were outscored by nine points during the 11 minutes he was not in the game (a pace which adds up to a 39 point loss when projected over 48 minutes).

During Friday night's loss to the Phoenix Suns, Westbrook had already clinched averaging a triple double for the entire season, a feat previously only accomplished by Robertson. It is bizarre to hear anyone speak of the triple double as being an "arbitrary" statistical milestone; no one had said such a thing when players such as Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd racked up triple doubles. The Westbrook haters cannot seem to decide if it is better to minimize the importance of the triple double or to emphasize that James Harden has also had a large number of triple doubles this season; it is funny to hear anti-Westbrook arguments that veer wildly across the landscape like a drunken sailor: "Triple doubles don't matter but Harden has over 20 of them this season and if Harden had just 160 or so more rebounds he would have averaged a triple double as well and almost averaging a triple double is just about as impressive as actually averaging a triple double." Huh?

On Sunday night, a Houston reporter lobbed a softball question to Harden about how much winning should matter in the MVP race and Harden tried to smack it out of the park by saying that winning should matter more than anything. OK, fine--then the MVP this season should be Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry. There is just no way to twist the numbers or the facts to make Harden the MVP this season and it is a relief that the voters seem to finally be understanding that, at least if the most recent unofficial poll is correct in projecting that Westbrook has taken the lead over Harden.

While Harden begged for MVP votes, Westbrook responded to similar softball questions by repeatedly stating that he has been blessed and that he feels blessed to compete at the highest level. He did not ask for anyone's MVP vote because he lets his game do his talking, yet another way that he resembles Kobe Bryant.

I am not a big fan of per-minute projections but it is worth noting that if Westbrook averaged the same mpg as Robertson did during his triple double season in 1961-62 while maintaining his current production then his numbers would be 39.9 ppg, 14.6 rpg and 13.3 apg.Westbrook is putting up astounding individual numbers and his triple doubles are highly correlated with the Thunder's success. If the Thunder win their last two games they will finish with 48 victories, an amazing accomplishment one season after the departure of MVP candidate Durant and defensive anchor Serge Ibaka.

If you are an MVP voter who every year has voted for the best player on the best team and this season you vote for Durant, Curry or Leonard I cannot be mad at you--but no one else has a valid reason or excuse to not select Westbrook, who has set individual records while carrying what would otherwise be a Lottery team to the sixth best record in the Western Conference.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:42 AM

11 comments

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11 Comments:

At Monday, April 10, 2017 3:36:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

"If you are an MVP voter who every year has voted for the best player on the best team and this season you vote for Durant, Curry or Leonard I cannot be mad at you--but no one else has a valid reason or excuse to not select Westbrook, who has set individual records while carrying what would otherwise be a Lottery team to the sixth best record in the Western Conference."

I would add (though for the record I personally would vote for RWB this season if given a vote), that if you are an MVP voter who consistently votes for the best player (regardless of numbers/wins), and you vote for Lebron, then it is probably unfair to be mad at you.

I do think by most metrics besides the two above- or any that specifically excludes RWB as a function of their structure (i.e., I know people who do not think the MVP should come from a sub-50 win and/or "contending" team no matter what, or what have you)- RWB pretty much has to be it this year.

I have a very hard time conceiving of a rational argument for taking Harden over RWB that is not a stronger argument for taking someone else over Harden. I would be surprised if anyone but RWB wins this year, and I will be disappointed (but not surprised) if Harden even takes second.

My personal ballot, if I had one, would likely be RWB-Lebron-Kawhi-Durant-Curry, though the last three are largely interchangeable in my eyes and I'd probably agonize over their order.

 
At Monday, April 10, 2017 7:42:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Westbrook is the MVP of this SEASON, Lebron is the MVP in the NBA.

 
At Monday, April 10, 2017 11:34:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

I unironically agree with Anonymous.

That said, I wouldn't fault anyone who picked Lebron/Curry/Durant/Kawhi on the logic above. I fault anybody who picks Harden above any of those four (I guess taking him ahead of one but not both of the Warriors is potentially defensible even if I disagree), and I *especially* fault anybody who artificially vaults Thomas or Kyrie into the top 5 (and just wait, there will be a couple idiots for each).

Top 5 votes for Wall, Derozan, Hayward, George, or Butler will be met with an extremely skeptical open-mind, I guess. I could see the argument (even if I disagree with it) for any of those five as the fifth pick ahead of Harden and whichever Warrior you like less, but pretty much balk at seeing any of them ahead of RWB/Lebron/Kawhi this season.

I'm coming off perhaps as bashing Harden here, but that isn't my intent, at least not in any malicious way. I just don't know what logic anyone could use that props him up beyond more than one of the other top candidates; he didn't do more with less than RWB, he didn't win more than Kawhi/Warriors, he didn't have the same impact on his team as Lebron, and he's by a decent margin the worst defender of the bunch*. Among the top 6, he's the one who could most easily be replaced by a competent player at his position; RWB/Wall/Paul/Curry/Conley/Lowry/Walker/Dragic/Thomas/Irving/Lillard could all replace him and HOU would still be a no-question playoff team (and in some cases probably better).

* Owing to his size/length, he's arguably a microscopically better man-to-man defender than RWB (who's weirdly hesitant to contest, struggles with screens, and can be baited relatively easily with a good fake), but off-ball he's a near league-worst defender while RWB is about average or a little below in that category, but at least, you know, tries.

TL;DR: Any pick but Harden is probably defensible, but the pick that makes the most sense by the most metrics is definitely RWB.

 
At Tuesday, April 11, 2017 1:09:00 AM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Westbrook's greatest accomplishment this year? Making Nick and Anonymous agree!

@Nick, some part of you wrote the rest of that last post about Harden being no better than sixth just to troll Anonymous into responding. Admit it :)

 
At Tuesday, April 11, 2017 2:51:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Jordan-

Honestly no.I was a little drunk and trying to adequately articulate my "Harden really doesn't make sense" case and got kinda rambly. Mea culpa.

I stand by it, though. I get if the offense-first crowd would put him a bit higher than I would, but I'll die happily on my "defense really freaking matters" hill, and I agree with David that D'antoni makes him look better than he is.

 
At Tuesday, April 11, 2017 9:51:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The argument for Harden is a two-parter. Part one is that the reasonable candidates sort into two groups: one is players who have real talent around them (Lebron, Curry, Durant, Leonard) and the other is those who don't (Westbrook, Harden).

It's simplistic to just say "wins vs. stats." The argument for Harden is that (part 2), in the category of "journeymen around him," he had a phenomenal year *and so did his team.* His statistical year is comparable to Westbrook's, because his scoring efficiency was much higher. But more to the point, his team, having lost (by the estimates of many people on this board) its "best" player in Dwight Howard, and replaced him with never-have-beens, has been one of the best half dozen teams in basketball.

Now, I think Westbrook should win the MVP, and I don't think it's all that close. But it's not at all unreasonable to put Harden squarely in the debate, or to put him second. It takes great contortions, IMO, to say that Westbrook is clearly the MVP but Harden isn't top 5, as seems to be the view of David and his most loyal fans on this board.

Harden's numbers are also historic (in a way that none of the other non-Westbrook contenders are), and his team did much better than OKC, even though the talent around the two players is comparable. Yes, Houston is better constructed--and that matters. But let's not go too far with that. Hard to call Harden's stats empty when the team has done so very well, with only role players around him.

 
At Tuesday, April 11, 2017 10:48:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

As much as it pains me to say this (as Harden is probably my least favorite good player playing right now) I have to agree with Anonymous here. I agree that Westbrook is the MVP, but putting Harden behind Lebron James and Curry/Durant, just doesn't make much sense to me.

Harden is not better than any of those guys, but in terms of production, he's been nearly as dominant as Westbrook and has outproduced Lebron in the wins column in the tougher west with less top shelf talent around him (though, his team is far better constructed to fit his skillset). If the Rockets somehow made it to the Finals to face Lebron, they'd have homecourt (assuming Lebron makes it there, and that is a huge assumption at this point).

I'm not sure using the hypothesis (no matter how legitimate) that a number of other players could fill Harden's shoes and match or even out-produce him is a good argument to prove that he isn't the MVP--because there's no way to prove if that's true or not. Yes, D'Antoni's system amplifies his point guards stats. But, Harden is having a historic season statistically. And, his predecessor has 2 Podoloffs earned with shallower casts but better top shelf teammates.

And, both Curry and Durant should be pushed out to the very fringes of the MVP talk as they are both former MVPs in their primes playing with this year's likely Defensive Player of the Year, sixth man of the year (and finals MVP), and another all-star.

I mean, Durant just missed 20 games and after a bumpy start without him (partly due to the crazy arduous schedule they had to play) the Warriors rattled off a season best 13-game win streak.

For me, it's Westbrook, Leonard, Harden, Lebron, Curry, Wall.

 
At Wednesday, April 12, 2017 12:14:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

Reasonable men can differ, I suppose. I just can't put a guy who's THAT bad on defense playing in a custom-made system where half the guys at his position could probably come within five wins of his output ahead of generational talents like Lebron/Curry/Durant. Most of the guys I listed probably wouldn't put up quite the same scoring or rebounding he does, but all but Lillard, Thomas, and maybe Irving would save HOU a bunch of points on the other end.

I just can't see taking a dude with a giant black mark like Harden's defense who's playing in the best possible (gimmicky) situation above guys who are actually, you know, great.

On the other hand, I'd probably put Mike D third on my CotY ballot, if I had one. Talk about getting the most out of your roster.

 
At Sunday, April 16, 2017 12:02:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

In a typical season, I would agree with your reasoning about LeBron and voting for the "best player" to be the MVP but for this season I think that Westbrook has been a better player than LeBron. Westbrook outdid LeBron as a scorer, rebounder and playmaker this season and LeBron did not make up that gap with his defense, as LeBron's defense was not nearly as good as usual.

 
At Sunday, April 16, 2017 12:18:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

The argument for Harden is nonsensical no matter how many parts you divide it into and no matter how you twist/manipulate the facts:

1) If you are voting purely for "the best player" then this season that would be Westbrook, who has clearly outperformed every other player in the league statistically and has in fact posted one of the greatest single seasons in NBA history.

2) If you are voting for the best player on the best team then you are voting for Durant (or possibly Curry, if you are impressed by Golden State's winning streak sans Durant).

3) If you are voting for the best two-way player among the league's elite performers then you are voting for Kawhi Leonard.

There is no way that Harden is among the top five players in any objective evaluation of those three categories. Forget the Morey/D'Antoni inflated numbers and try to make a coherent case that, based purely on skill set strengths and weaknesses, Harden is a better basketball player than Westbrook, LeBron, Durant, Curry, Leonard (I could add a few more names where this might be a closer call but the answer is clear with these five). What exactly does Harden do better than those five players? He is the worst defensive player of the group by far (Curry would be next but I would take his intelligence, proper positioning and effort level over Harden any day) and he is not the best player in that group in any one meaningful category (Westbrook is a better scorer, LeBron is a better passer, Westbrook is at least as good of a passer).

Comparing Westbrook directly to Harden (which is relevant if for no other reason than the simple fact that the media voters who will determine the MVP winner decided months ago that this is a two horse race), Westbrook is a better scorer, rebounder and defender. We can call playmaking a draw (Harden averages more assists but he plays in a system and with teammates that all but guarantees a double digit assist average for any competent playmaker). Both players commit a lot of turnovers but Harden's turnovers seem careless while Westbrook's are usually the result of aggression. You may say that the cause does not matter as much as the result but my counter to that would be that Westbrook's aggression puts pressure on the defense over the course of a game even when sometimes the result is a miscue, while Harden's sloppiness results in some empty possessions that did not put much pressure on the defense. We can call ballhandling a draw if you like but I would argue that Westbrook's pure speed and extreme athleticism make him harder to guard and harder to game plan against than Harden's herky-jerky, gimmicky style.

Harden is an All-NBA player this season based purely on numbers but any rational GM who is interested in winning a title would not take him ahead of the top five players on my MVP list.

 
At Sunday, April 16, 2017 1:35:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

David-

I have RWB as my MVP this year as well, so I personally agree. I would not laugh out of the room however someone who pointed out that James scored five fewer points on 6 fewer shots, and still put up a near triple-double average himself. He also had an even better On/Off rating than RWB, despite his allegedly superior supporting cast (which should lower his On/Off, not raise it). Also, while I agree that his defense this year was not the same as his apex defense, it was still clearly lightyears ahead of RWB's.

Again, I've got RWB by a nose for MVP myself. But I don't think Lebron is by an means an indefensible pick in the way Harden or Thomas might be.

 

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