I normally don’t get too worked up about MVP awards in any sport. They are fun to argue about, and I’m sure they look nice in a man cave, but true great athletes strive for championships, not personal awards. And in the NBA, we’re reminded who the best player is in the playoffs and the Finals, and it’s pretty much always LeBron James. This year the NBA MVP conversation has been particularly interesting. No player has averaged a triple-double at the end of a season since Oscar Robertson in 1962. Russell Westbrook just did it while leading the league in scoring. James Harden’s stats were equally impressive (29.1 points, 11.2 assists, 8.1 rebounds). So they’re the top two scorers in the league, one averaged a triple-double, the other led the league in assists. One of these guys is going to win MVP. But should they?
First, let’s define the “V” in MVP. I often hear people claim that the award should go to the player who is most valuable to their specific team. In this case, it would be Westbrook, since he doesn’t have the talent around him that the other candidates do and his team would be out of the playoffs without him. I interpret the word “valuable” as the player who has the most value in the league in general, and that player is LeBron James. I think we all agree that the Thunder and Rockets would both be better teams if they swapped Westbrook or Harden for LeBron, and either team would make that trade in a heartbeat, because LeBron is simply more valuable than any other player in the NBA.
I know what you’re thinking, even though LeBron is the best player in the league, Westbrook and Harden had more impressive regular seasons. Just look at the stats! Not so fast.
In an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Dennis called out Mac for only working out his glamour muscles. Much like Mac, Westbrook and Harden have been padding their glamour stats all year. Let’s just compare LeBron and Westbrook. It’s hard to get past the fact that Westbrook is ahead of LeBron in all of the three major categories (Westbrook: 31.6 points, 10.4 assists, 10.7 rebounds vs. LeBron: 26.4 points, 8.7 assists, 8.6 rebounds). But let’s take a closer look and find out who’s been working out their core. Westbrook is shooting 42.5% from the field vs. LeBron’s 54.8%. A pretty massive difference. Harden comes in at 44%, just under the league average of 45.7%. And while so much attention has been paid to Westbrook’s record-breaking year, LeBron quietly became the first player in NBA history to average over 25 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists, while shooting over 54% from the field. I know, that’s an obscure list of numbers to combine in order to create a milestone, but a triple-double is no more relevant to success in the NBA.
With all the positive milestones Westbrook and Harden have reached this year, there’s one record they would rather not hear about. James Harden’s 464 turnovers were the most in a single season in league history. In case you were wondering who was number two on that list, it was Russell Westbrook, also this year, with 438. That came out to 5.7 per game for Harden, and 5.4 for Westbrook, compared to 4.1 for LeBron. Typically the guys who lead league in turnovers are the guys who are asked to do the most on offense, so it makes sense that two players with such historic offensive numbers would break this record. On the other hand, if other players were asked to keep shooting and creating offense on every play, even if it meant shooting below the league average and giving the ball to the other team more frequently than anyone ever has, maybe we would see more players average triple-doubles.
No, I’m not trying to discredit the incredible seasons Russell Westbrook and James Harden have had. Nor am I trying to claim LeBron James should win the MVP. If I had a vote, it probably would go to Russell Westbrook because he tried so damn hard to win it. My point is, if LeBron James really dedicated a season to averaging a triple-double regardless how many shots he missed, or how many turnovers he committed along the way, he would’ve done it three times by now. Russell Westbrook will likely win the MVP, but LeBron James is the most valuable player, and has been for over a decade.
Oh, and I almost forgot about the all-important “rest” debate. LeBron only played in 74 games out of 82 this year, while Harden and Westbrook both played 81. If he was more devoted to the game, and not so soft, he wouldn’t take so many games off, right? Let’s not forget, LeBron James has played 199 career playoff games, compared to 82 for Westbrook, and 77 for Harden. If resting in an occasional regular season game against the Hornets is what it takes to stay fresh for six-straight NBA Finals runs, I think we can all live with that. As for Westbrook and Harden, they’ll get plenty of rest after the second round, when they can kick back with a cold one and watch LeBron make yet another run at an NBA title. Sure, in the regular season it was all about Westbrook and Harden, but in the playoffs, it’s always all about LeBron.