Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook continues to flirt with history. As of Monday morning, Westbrook is averaging a league-high 31.7 points per game along with double-digit assists (10.0) and rebounds (10.6), setting him on a course to join Oscar Robertson (1961-62) as the only other player in NBA history to average a triple-double for a season.
That alone is enough for many to put Westbrook in the conversation for the league’s Most Valuable Player Award, but Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban remains unconvinced, stating that the award came down to the Houston Rockets’ James Harden and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James, not Westbrook.
Mark Cuban says MVP is a toss-up between James Harden and LeBron James. Where is Russell Westbrook in that mix? "He's not."
— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) March 6, 2017
Last year, he even called Westbrook “an all-star but not a superstar,” per Tim MacMahon of ESPN.com. That’s a tad extreme, but when it comes to the MVP vote, Cuban is right — Westbrook doesn’t deserve to be named the MVP and the voters for the award will likely agree.
Westbrook’s usage rate is at a league high 42.1 percent, meaning he finishes a large portion of Oklahoma’s City’s possessions when he is on the court. His true shooting percentage, a measure of shooting efficiency that takes into account two-point field goals, three-point field goals, and free throws, is just 54.6 percent, 142nd out of 271 players qualifying for the scoring title this season. The last league MVP to win the award with a true shooting percentage under 55 percent was Kevin Garnett in 2004.
Dean Oliver, the “godfather of basketball analytics” who has served in front office roles with the Sacramento Kings, Seattle SuperSonics and Denver Nuggets, highlighted shooting as the most important factor in terms of winning games, which is why Westbrook’s MVP chances must be discounted compared to Harden, James, and even Isaiah Thomas of the Boston Celtics, Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors and Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs, who all have a true shooting percentage of 61-percent or higher this season.
Westbrook’s triple-doubles are also inflated by his ability to grab uncontested rebounds — he is leading the league in uncontested defensive rebounds per game (7.8), ahead of some of the best rebounding big men in the league such as Hassan Whiteside, Anthony Davis and DeAndre Jordan. Westbrook also has the lowest contested defensive rebound percentage among any player grabbing at least five rebounds per game, meaning that a low share of his total rebounds come from winning a battle for a loose ball.
Plus, Westbrook gets an additional 1.1 uncontested rebounds per game off missed free throws, nearly double the rate of Whiteside (0.6) who has the second-most uncontested defensive rebounds after Westbrook. And this is by design: Oklahoma City will generally concede these rebounds to Westbrook, thus padding his stats.
There’s also the fact the Thunder aren’t winning many games despite Westbrook’s pursuit of the triple-double.
Historically, the league’s MVP has come from a team that, as Cuban points out to Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News, wins at least 50 games (or a similar pace) during the regular season. You have to go back to Moses Malone (1981-82) to find an eventual MVP who was on a team with fewer than 50 wins on its resume. The Thunder are 35-28 this season with 45 projected wins by season’s end. Their net rating (minus-0.9, 17th in the NBA) also puts them among the fringe playoff teams rather than the top contenders, giving further credence that Westbrook’s amazing season might not be that valuable to the team.
According to win shares per 48 minutes, an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player, Westbrook is the least valuable player among the top six candidates for the MVP award, trailing Leonard and Harden by a wide margin.
ESPN’s Real Plus Minus, a player’s estimated on-court impact on team performance, measured in net point differential per 100 offensive and defensive possessions, after taking into account teammates and opponents, doesn’t even consider Westbrook (plus-6.26) the most valuable point guard, let alone the most valuable player in the NBA. Los Angeles Clippers’ Chris Paul (plus-8.33 RPM) grades higher at the position. Overall, Chicago Bulls’ forward Jimmy Butler (plus-6.91) and the aforementioned James (plus-6.69) rate higher.
Cuban may have gone a little far when he said Westbrook isn’t a superstar, and if Westbrook does manage to average a triple-double for the season it should be considered one of the greatest individual seasons of all time, just not one of the most valuable.