Russell Westbrook has taken control of the 2016-17 NBA season with the same kind of relentless and frenetic energy he’s come to be defined by during his exemplary career. With Kevin Durant moving on as a free agent to join the Golden State Warriors, Westbrook has put the Oklahoma City Thunder on his back and carried them in a way only he can. His pursuit of a triple-double average over the course of an entire NBA season — something only Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson has ever done, and something no one really expected could be achieved — has captivated the league in the same way Golden State’s pursuit of an NBA-record 73 wins did a season ago.
Averaging a triple-double is the NBA’s version of baseball’s triple crown, only perhaps more rare. Robertson posted his triple-double average in 1962. Since that time, three different baseball players have won the triple crown, leading the league in batting average, home runs and RBI. The most recent of which, the Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera, won the American League MVP in 2012 on the strength of that crown, despite the play of advanced-stat sensation Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels.
It turns out, however, that achieving the unthinkable and averaging a triple-double may not be enough to become the NBA’s MVP in 2017 — not in a season featuring the most competitive race for the award in recent memory.
This was the backdrop for Thursday’s thrilling showdown in Houston, where Westbrook and the Thunder took on his friend and former teammate, James Harden, now the star attraction for the Houston Rockets and Westbrook’s chief rival for MVP honors this season.
And, as the game’s final seconds ticked off Thursday night, it was fitting that the game came down to the two leading MVP candidates, Westbrook and Harden, taking turns trying to win the game for their respective teams. How each of them approached those possessions was a window into how they’ve approached their record-breaking seasons, and why it is Harden, not Westbrook, that is the current favorite to walk away with the award.
Westbrook got the opportunity to go first, and there was little doubt about what was going to happen. For all of the talk about Westbrook’s triple-doubles this season — he’s now up to 16 — and his routinely insane stat lines, arguably the most impressive part of his performance this season has been his ability to carry the Thunder home on multiple occasions this season. Westbrook single-handedly brought Oklahoma City back from double-digit fourth quarter deficits to beat the Denver Nuggets and Washington Wizards earlier this season. His normally high usage rate skyrockets in the game’s final minutes, when Thunder Coach Billy Donovan hands the keys to Westbrook and the all-world point guard never gives them back, either shooting or passing for a shot on virtually every possession.
Some have viewed it as ball-hogging and stat-chasing, but in reality it’s a necessity on a Thunder team with only one other player, Victor Oladipo, who can reliably create his own shot. It’s also the main reason the Thunder entered Thursday with a 21-15 record and solidly within the Western Conference playoff picture.
But on this night, on the road against Harden and in the midst of one of his best scoring performances of the season, with eight three-points contributing to his 49 points, there was little doubt Westbrook was going to yield possession. And that was especially true when he held the ball, defended by his MVP rival on the right wing with the score tied at 116 with under 10 seconds to go.
Westbrook opted to pullup for what would have been a dagger three-pointer. But despite his hot hand from behind the arc Thursday night, Westbrook’s season average of 31.6 percent from three-point range came back to haunt him. The ball clanged off the back of the rim and back to the Rockets, giving Harden a chance to have the final shot at winning the game.
Receiving the inbounds pass, Harden didn’t fire up a contested shot against the onrushing Steven Adams and Andre Roberson. Instead he tossed a pass over their heads to his center, Nene, whom Adams had left to chase Harden. Nene was fouled at the rim and made a pair of free throws, the difference in a 118-116 Rockets win.
The difference in how the two handled their final possessions Thursday night is what separates the two in the MVP race, and illustrates an impressive evolution from Harden.
Harden has been known as one of the league’s elite scoring guards for years. After leading the Rockets to the second spot in the West, a trip to the Western Conference finals and finishing as runner-up to Stephen Curry in MVP voting in 2015, both Harden and the Rockets fell off a cliff. Harden’s defense was openly mocked last season, he and Howard openly feuded, Kevin McHale was fired as the team’s coach in the opening weeks and Houston limped into the playoffs as an eight seed.
Houston went out and hired Mike D’Antoni this summer, who immediately said Harden was going to be his point guard. Some were skeptical, saying Harden and his ball-pounding ways were going to be a bad fit for D’Antoni’s famed “Seven Seconds or Less” system that he perfected with Steve Nash in Phoenix. Instead, it’s turned out to be a match made in heaven. Harden immediately looked at home playing for D’Antoni, and with offseason additions of Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon providing three-point shooting and holdovers Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza and Clint Capela all providing stout defense. The Rockets shot out to a 27-9 record entering Thursday’s action that had them comfortably in third place in the Western Conference. Harden has been at the very center of that, both as a scorer and a facilitator.
It may have just been one regular season game in early January — though a wildly entertaining one — but it also was a symbolic one in terms of looking at the MVP race. Despite all of Westbrook’s exploits, Harden is the leader for the award — something that was reinforced by the Post’s utterly unscientific straw poll of a combination of 90 coaches, scouts, executives and media members from across the NBA universe the past two days.
While Harden emerged well ahead in the poll, virtually everyone who submitted a vote said they had a tough time deciding between two or more of the four leading candidates: Harden, Westbrook, Durant and LeBron James. Harden finished the voting with 61 out of 90 votes, followed by Westbrook (18), James (six) and Durant (five).
Despite the margin of victory, though, there’s still plenty of time left in the season for different developments on the court. But, as of now, in a league where stars are putting up video game numbers on a nightly basis, averaging a triple-double alone won’t be enough for Westbrook to walk away with the award.
For every remarkable thing that’s happening in the NBA at the moment, that just might be the most amazing of them all.