The 2016-17 season is the closest MVP race in modern NBA history. It's March, and there are four contenders with legitimate claims to the award. This week, VICE Sports is going to make the case for each one. You can find more here.
Russell Westbrook started Tuesday night's game against the visiting Portland Trail Blazers by making a pair of pull-up jumpers in the first quarter, the type of shot which he and his father had nicknamed "the cotton shot" in his youth because the ball nestled through the nylon so often. Westbrook would hit a lot of cotton shots, and a whole bunch of others on his way to a career-high 58 points. But his Thunder still lost the game, 125-121, despite outscoring the Blazers by 7 points when their only All-Star was on the court.
After the game, Westbrook dressed up his insane performance by saying, "We're not good enough to take nights off defensively."
That comment alone isn't going to win him the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, so let's ameliorate his argument for MVP.
Tuesday's game was a microcosm of Westbrook's season, one which NBA fans may never see again. He's averaging 32.1 points per game, the best in the league. Oh yeah, maybe you've heard about the other component of Westbrook's season, just don't tell Russell: he's averaging a triple-double through 64 games, wrangling 10.5 rebounds per contest, while dishing 10.0 dimes. He's got 30 triple doubles in 64 games, the most ever in the modern game and most since Wilt Chamberlain had 31 in the 1973-74 season.
Oscar Robertson's 1961-62 campaign with the Cincinnati Royals has been legend for half a century simply because it's the only time an NBA player averaged a triple-double for a full season. Russ has 18 games left at his current pace to do it in 2017. It's a statistical anomaly akin to Usain Bolt breaking first the 9.7 second barrier and then the 9.6 barrier in rapid succession when he set the 100 meter world record in 2008 and then again in 2009. Basically, what Russ is doing redefines what athletes are capable of achieving.
The difference between Brodie and the big Jamaican sprinter who has been the fastest man alive for three consecutive Olympics, is Russ plays basketball, so he shares the court with four other players. Sure, those teammates are no slouches, but additionally, you're already pretty decent at basketball by virtue of being on an NBA roster.
That difference is easy to spot in the numbers, too. The Thunder get outscored by over 11 points per 100 possessions when Russell Westbrook sits. When he plays, they outscore opponents by 2.7 points per 100 possessions.
While it's true Kawhi Leonard's Spurs and James Harden's Rockets are all performing better than Westbrook's Thunder, and both players are shooting substantially better from the field, they have better teams around them. By default, Russell's astronomical usage is the best chance OKC has of winning, and that's where Tuesday night's game comes back into play.
Hold your chuckles for a second, but Skip Bayless thinks Russ hurt himself in the MVP debate with a weak fourth quarter showing on Tuesday: He was just 6-of-15 from the field in that session, and—despite finishing with an absurd shooting line of 21-of-39 overall—he did miss four big shots in the last 83 seconds.
Unfortunately for Skip, that poor performance in the clutch is the outlier. During the last five minutes of regulation and overtime in close games—i.e. within five points—Russell has the highest net rating among players with a usage percentage of 30 percent or higher, the highest usage overall (over 60 percent!), and the most points scored. That's even more than Isaiah Thomas and his fire-emoji fourths. When both Mark Cuban and Skip Bayless are trolling you, you know you're doing something right.
Mark and Skip are fans, just like the fans who failed to vote Russell Westbrook in as an All-Star game starter this season. The players and the media all knew the real deal though, which is why Russell Westbrook is your 2017 MVP.
All stats are as of Wednesday and courtesy Basketball-Reference, unless otherwise noted.