Recently, Bovada, the online gambling site based out of Las Vegas, released their NBA MVP odds for next season. Leading that list was current league MVP Russell Westbrook, at 7/2 odds. Former league MVP and Westbrook’s former teammate, Kevin Durant, was second with 9/2 odds.
The fact that Bovada would have Westbrook listed as their leader for MVP odds seems a litte strange to me. Not in the fact that Westbrook doesn’t have the credentials to be an MVP-worthy candidate. That, he definitely does. But in the fact that, with the Oklahoma City Thunder’s moves this offseason, an MVP season for Westbrook this year will look completely different than the MVP season from last year.
Last year’s MVP was won, in part, because of the historical significance of Westbrook’s numbers. The averaging of a triple-double for an entire season had only been accomplished one other time in league history. That, of course, was by Oscar Robertson in the 1961-62 season. Making the accomplishment even more impressive for Westbrook was the difference in pace from the NBA game back then to the game now. The Cincinnati Royals had a pace factor (an estimate of possessions per 48 minutes) of 124.9 during Robertson’s historic season. The Thunder, on the other hand, had a pace factor of 97.8 last season. Robertson had over 27 more possessions per game to get his numbers.
In addition to the raw numbers themselves, the actual breaking of the triple-double record was very significant. As Westbrook progressed through his triple-doubles, he toppled names like Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, and the aforementioned Robertson. Names that any NBA player would love to be associated with.
And he did it all while having to be the best player on the floor nearly every game. It was very rare the night that Westbrook did not have to completely dominate in order for the Thunder to even be in contention to win a game. He was the end all, be all for the Thunder last season, as proven by his usage rate of 41.65%, which is the all-time mark for a season. Usage is defined as the percentage of team possessions that end with said player either shooting, drawing a foul, or turning the ball over. Westbrook was, by definition of value, the definite MVP for his team.
But the outlier in Westbrook’s MVP season was the team’s win total. The Thunder finished with 47 wins, which was only good enough for the 6th seed in the Western Conference. In the 62 year history of the league, only four other MVPs (Moses Malone did it twice) have ever won the award on a team that won less than 60% of its games. Team success is such an integral part of the MVP award, that for someone to win it on a team with a less than stellar record, it would require a historic season.
And that’s what Westbrook did last season. Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey, whose own player, James Harden, finished 2nd to Westbrook in the MVP voting, seemed to champion that criteria in questioning why his player didn’t win the award.
“Given that the criteria seems to be shifting away from winning, I would guess that [adding Chris Paul] probably doesn’t help anyone’s chances on our team,” Morey acknowledged. “That said, I don’t think anybody really cares [going forward]. James definitely cared and I think we all cared [about the 2017 MVP]. But we’ve moved on since the award isn’t focused on winning any more. Let’s just win and not worry about it.”
Let’s for a moment gaze into the crystal ball and allow this upcoming season play out. If Westbrook is to be in contention for the MVP award this season, his numbers are likely to look extremely different from last season. The Thunder, as a whole, are an entirely different team. The additions of Paul George, Patrick Patterson, and Raymond Felton should solidify a lot of the holes the team had last season.
George, especially, should cause Westbrook’s usage rate to drop down to a more acceptable level around 32-34%. In the last three seasons in which Durant played at least 50 games with the Thunder, Westbrook’s average usage rate was a shade under 33%. One of the biggest similarities between Durant and George is the fact they are able to handle the ball from the SF position and run the team for short spurts on the offensive end.
With the weaponry and spacing Westbrook will likely have around him, it isn’t outside the realm of possibility that Westbrook may challenge for the league lead in assists per game. With Chris Paul and Harden sharing ball-handling responsibilities in Houston, both their assists numbers may dip below their career averages, while still remaining highly efficient.
Rebounding likely won’t be as important a statistic for Westbrook this season as it was last season. Half-court offense wasn’t the Thunder’s forte last year, but athleticism was something they could definitely take advantage of. A bulk of the Thunder’s offensive game plan last season involved getting the ball down the floor as quickly as possible in an effort to locate mismatches or get a fast-break going. The catalyst to that was usually a Westbrook rebound. That likely won’t be necessary next season. George and Patterson give the Thunder the pieces necessary to run a good half-court offense. And with that, the necessity for a Westbrook rebound gets muted.
Scoring is something that will likely decline for Westbrook this season, but his efficiency will likely go up. Unlike last season, defenses won’t be able to focus their entire gaze on Westbrook this season. The middle of the floor should open up, and one of the best 1 on 1 players in the world will likely find himself in advantageous situations, matchup-wise.
Statistics aside, if there is going to be one thing that propels Westbrook into the MVP discussion this upcoming season, it’s going to be team success. The “he is playing with nobody” excuse will no longer work. George is a Top-15 player in the league. Patterson is an upgrade over Domantas Sabonis. And Raymond Felton is an upgrade over Semaj Christon. Add to that another year under the belts of Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, Alex Abrines, and Jerami Grant, and you are looking at a solid team with an outside chance of contending. If Westbrook is able to push this team from outside chance to contender within the season, there is no doubt he will be in the MVP discussion.
So what does a regular Westbrook MVP season look like? Probably 26 points, 7 rebounds, 11.5 assists and 57 wins for the Thunder. The team wins, though, will likely be the crux in the MVP narrative. People loved the Westbrook Show last season. It was cutting edge and dangerous. It was the antithesis to the Golden State Warriors; the rap/hard rock hybrid compared to the Bay Area Orchestra. But it was a show born almost out of necessity. If the second season of the Westbrook Show is similar to the first one, the viewing public will probably leave disappointed and uninspired. Efficiency and team success are the next steps in the evolution of Westbrook. Without those, the award winning show will likely be left empty-handed next year.