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Friday, January 13, 2017

Russell Westbrook Versus James Harden: Should the MVP be Selected Based on Analysis or Narrative?

It has become apparent that, barring injury or some unlikely and unforeseen circumstance, either Russell Westbrook or James Harden will win the 2016-17 NBA regular season MVP award. My default position regarding the NBA regular season MVP award is that the recipient should be the league's best all-around player, unless there is a player who is so dominant in one or two categories that his dominance outweighs all other considerations; Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are prototypical examples of the former type of player, while Shaquille O'Neal is a prototypical example of the latter type of player.

It is obvious that the media members who annually vote for this award do not share my criteria. Bryant and O'Neal only won one regular season MVP each despite being, respectively, the best all-around player and most dominant player in the NBA for several years. James has fared somewhat better in MVP voting than Bryant and O'Neal but James--who inherited best all-around regular season player in the league status from Bryant circa 2009 or 2010--arguably deserved even more than the four MVPs he has received. Three years ago, many voters became tired of voting for James and looked for narratives (excuses) each season to elevate at least one player above him. James has finished second, third and third in the MVP race the past three years, even though he has led his team to six straight NBA Finals and three championships while clearly establishing himself as the best all-around player in the league.

James' Cleveland Cavaliers once again sit comfortably atop the Eastern Conference but there is virtually no chance that James will win the MVP award this season. The media voters prefer to create and then validate a narrative. Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry each won at least one MVP because the media determined that in a particular season or seasons those players represented the league's most compelling narrative.

This season is providing narrative overdrive but two narratives have gathered the most attention; you could call those narratives "Angry Russ" and "Revenge of the Beard."

I have already explained why I would select Russell Westbrook as the 2016-17 NBA MVP. I rank James second this season but not because I have been seduced by a narrative or because I am tired of picking the same player (which is a stupid reason to not vote for a worthy candidate); I acknowledge that James is a better all-around player than Westbrook but that gap has closed, Westbrook is having a historic season and Westbrook plays hard every game while James often enters self-described "chill mode." I would take James in "chill mode" as the MVP in most seasons but not when Westbrook is making triple doubles look effortless.

The "Angry Russ" MVP narrative received a lot of play early in the season. That narrative stipulates that Westbrook is angry at the world because Kevin Durant joined the Golden State Warriors. "Angry Russ" will therefore exact revenge on the entire league.

Westbrook cannot be a media darling for the long haul, though. He is too intense, too competitive and too dismissive of stupid questions asked by media members. Westbrook is singlehandedly carrying the Oklahoma City Thunder--a team so bereft of talent and depth that they literally need for Westbrook to put up 30-10-10 every night just to have a chance to win--but instead of acknowledging that reality, the media nitpick Westbrook's shot selection and decision making.

Thus, a new narrative is gaining popularity: "Revenge of the Beard." We all saw James Harden spend last season not playing defense, getting two coaches fired and running his most talented teammate out of town. No one made up any of that. It all happened--but because the Rockets are enjoying early season success in 2016-17, we have a narrative emerging that Harden was somehow disrespected and is now exacting revenge on the league and anyone who dared to question his greatness.

Narratives are inevitably simple and simple-minded, so expect much to be made of the fact that Harden's Houston Rockets won the head to head regular season series versus Westbrook's Thunder two games to one. Never mind that it took Daryl Morey several years to put together a supporting cast that fits with Harden's quirky skill set, while Westbrook's supporting cast contains some mismatched parts and was definitely not built around his skills (Westbrook should be surrounded by shooters and/or by athletic players who can run the floor with him). Never mind that Westbrook is responding to adversity by elevating his game, which is exactly the opposite of the approach that Harden took last year.

Above all, don't expect anyone to point out that Harden actually had a negative plus/minus number in those three head to head games that many media members will likely weigh heavily when casting their MVP votes. The Rockets were outscored by the Thunder when Harden was in the game; they beat the Thunder based on overall talent and depth, not based on what Harden did (this is reminiscent of the Rockets' fluky run to the 2015 Western Conference Finals, when Harden rode the bench during many of the most critical possessions and moments of key games). Harden averaged 20.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg and 12.3 apg in the three games versus the Thunder this season, while shooting .291 from the field, .217 from three point range and .793 from the free throw line.

What about the way that Harden recently led the Rockets to 19 wins in a 21 game stretch? Did you know that during those games the Rockets performed better with Harden on the bench than with Harden on the court? I have to admit that Morey has put together a better team top to bottom than I thought--at least in terms of regular season play. I expected Harden to put up astronomical individual numbers in Coach Mike D'Antoni's system but I did not expect the Rockets to win as many games as they have thus far. D'Antoni has the Rockets running and gunning from all angles, which is the last thing that an opposing team wants to deal with while playing a fourth game in five nights, but we all know what happens when a good team with at least one day of rest between games and a chance to prepare for "seven seconds or less" faces D'Antoni's squads in the playoffs.

By the way, Westbrook had a positive plus/minus number in those three head to head matchups with Harden. Westbrook averaged 35.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg and 8.0 apg versus Houston, while shooting .418 from the field, .385 from three point range and .882 from the free throw line. When Westbrook and Harden were on the court, Westbrook put up better numbers than Harden and Westbrook's team had the advantage--but those games will cost Westbrook in the MVP race because Houston's second unit is better than Oklahoma City's and the simple/simple-minded narrative is "Harden trusted his teammates and won; Westbrook played 'hero ball' and lost." Splice that narrative together with a video of a couple highlights cherry-picked to "prove" that Westbrook committed some basketball sins and you have what it takes to be an esteemed member of the basketball media.

So how should these players be compared? The same way that any players should be compared--objectively evaluate their skill sets:

Scoring: Harden is a better three point shooter than Westbrook but Westbrook is quicker, more athletic and more dangerous from more areas of the court. Every year in the playoffs, we see the defensive game plan that works against Harden: force him right, deny him wide open three point shots and when he gets into the lane meet him with high hands while sidestepping his flopping/flailing attempts to draw fouls. The game plan against Westbrook is concede the three point shot, pray that he settles for it and pray really hard that he does not make it, because when Westbrook is making that shot he is completely unguardable.

Rebounding: They are both excellent rebounders for their position but Westbrook has the edge in this department. Harden's rebounding numbers this season are a little inflated based on Houston's pace of play (his offensive rebound rate has nearly doubled, because Houston shoots so many long shots and long shots typically result in long rebounds that can be snared by guards). Westbrook attacks the boards like a shark smelling blood and he would be a terrific rebounder in any system and any era.

Passing: Harden averages more assists than Westbrook but Harden plays in a system that breeds assists for the primary ballhandler and he plays alongside better shooters. Westbrook can make any pass that Harden can make. If Westbrook and Harden traded places then Westbrook would easily match or exceed Harden's assist numbers but Harden's assist numbers would drop.

Ballhandling: Westbrook is explosive, while Harden is crafty (and a bit quicker than he looks at first glance). Both players have high turnover rates: Westbrook tries to do too much at times, while Harden is often shockingly careless with the ball.

Defense: Harden's defensive shortcomings are obvious and notorious. Westbrook is not an All-Defensive Team caliber defender but he plays with much more passion and energy at that end of the court than Harden does. You could put Westbrook on the opposing team's best perimeter player for a few key possessions and expect good results; no one would dream of doing likewise with Harden.

Attitude/Leadership: Harden talked his way out of one city, he ran two coaches out of Houston and in four full seasons as the top player in Houston he has exited the playoffs in the first round three times. His supporters will say that he has emerged as a leader this season; I say let's wait and see until Houston faces some adversity, because that is when we will find out if Harden is a leader or a front runner. Westbrook plays hard and he inspires his teammates to play hard as well. Westbrook has been a top level performer for a team that advanced to at least the Western Conference Finals four times in six years (and likely would have made it even more often were it not for injuries that he and Kevin Durant suffered during that time). Poor leaders do not take their teams to the NBA's equivalent of the Final Four on a nearly annual basis.

Some might say that playoff success--whether past, present or projected in the future--has nothing to do with being the regular season MVP but I disagree; if a player has a pattern of putting up gaudy regular season numbers that are rarely if ever validated by postseason performance (individually and/or collectively) then the MVP voters should take that into account. Not every 25-30 ppg season is created equally; Michael Adams was a very good NBA player but his 26.5 ppg in 1990-91 while playing for Paul Westhead is not equivalent in impact to the 24.7 ppg that Stephen Curry is averaging this season.

Overall: Harden is an unorthodox but effective scorer and playmaker. He is bigger than Westbrook and he rebounds like a small forward. He has little to no interest in playing defense. Westbrook is perhaps the most explosive athlete in the NBA and one of the most explosive, powerful athletes to ever play point guard. Westbrook has demonstrated that he can thrive as the first or second option for a playoff bound team, while Harden chafed at being the Thunder's third option but has yet to prove that he is capable of consistently leading a team very far as the first option. If Harden leads the Rockets to 55-60 wins and homecourt advantage in the first round this season then he will have no excuses if he suffers his typical early postseason exit.

Harden is having a career year in a system designed to inflate the statistics of the team's primary ballhandler but Westbrook is having a historic season while surrounded by a supporting cast that is almost helpless when he is not in the game. Even if one would say that Harden and Westbrook are equal as scorers/playmakers--and I would dispute that notion--Westbrook has a clear edge as a rebounder, defender and leader.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:34 AM

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