Sports Reference Blog

Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and the Unconventional MVP Race

Posted by Jonah Gardner on March 3, 2017

Russell Westbrook has broken a lot of things this year: triple-double records, Basketball Twitter, the lengthy drought of NBA players failing to appear on-stage with Migos. However, there's something a little less well-publicized than those that we can add to the list: Basketball-Reference's MVP Projections.

The MVP Projection uses a model that's based on previous MVP winners to use stats like points, rebounds, and assists, as well as team win-loss record, to determine which players voters are likely to target this year. And, as you can see below, it has a minor disagreement with the consensus on Westbrook's odds:

Top Candidates Table
Rk Player Tm Prob%
1 James Harden HOU 41.0%
2 Kevin Durant GSW 20.7%
3 LeBron James CLE 11.7%
4 Russell Westbrook OKC 8.3%
5 Kawhi Leonard SAS 7.2%
6 Stephen Curry GSW 5.0%
7 Isaiah Thomas BOS 2.6%
8 Kyle Lowry TOR 1.5%
9 John Wall WAS 0.9%
10 Jimmy Butler CHI 0.9%
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 3/3/2017.

The Internet has noticed this disparity

While I don't quite agree with Chris' entire take on the model, he's right that it seems to be significantly underrating Westbrook's odds at winning the trophy. However, I'm not sure that's really a reflection on the model. Westbrook's mind-boggling production, combined with some of the non-statistical factors, make Westbrook's case completely unique among past MVP candidates.

But does he actually deserve to win the NBA Most Valuable Player award? Or should the trophy go to James Harden, who's also putting up insane numbers on a team that also happens to be winning a lot more. And are those really the only two candidates for the trophy or is this narrative leaving others off?

Per Game Table
1 James Harden 2016-17 62 36.5 8.1 18.6 .437 3.2 9.1 .351 .523 .853 8.0 11.3 1.5 0.5 5.8 28.8
2 Russell Westbrook 2016-17 61 34.8 10.1 24.1 .420 2.3 6.6 .343 .467 .836 10.6 10.1 1.6 0.4 5.6 31.4
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 3/3/2017.

Starting with the two frontrunners, you can get a pretty good idea of the broad strokes of each player's case by looking at their basic per-game stats. Both are ball-dominant players shouldering a massive scoring load while also serving as their team's main distributor. Westbrook is scoring more, but Harden's shooting is much more efficient. Harden's chalking up an extra assist per game, but Westbrook's 2.5 rebound advantage also means he's averaging a triple-double.

In short, Westbrook and Harden are both having the platonic ideal of what a Westbrook and Harden season should be. For Harden, that means lots of three-pointers, lots of free throws, and plenty of drives to create wide open threes for his teammates. In Westbrook's case, he's dominating the game with reckless abandon and stuffing box scores in a way we haven't seen in over 50 years.

Which brings us to the first reason the B-R MVP model is down on Westbrook: it's not programmed to notice the triple-double. On the one hand, I see its point. If Russ was averaging 9.9 assists per game, a matter of just ten fewer assists over the course of his season to date, would it matter? Should it matter?

But, at the same time, the season-long triple-double has loomed over basketball for the last 50 years as a seemingly unreachable milestone, the same way that the Triple Crown did in baseball until Miguel Cabrera finally won it. And drilling into how Westbrook's season compares to Oscar's deepens our understanding of what Russ is achieving this year.

On the surface, it would seem like, while Westbrook's season is awesome, it doesn't quite measure up to Oscar Robertson's 1961-62:

Per Game Table
1 Oscar Robertson* 1961-62 79 11.0 22.9 .478 8.9 11.0 .803 12.5 11.4 30.8
2 Russell Westbrook 2016-17 61 10.1 24.1 .467 8.9 10.6 .836 10.6 10.1 31.4
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 3/3/2017.

Westbrook's numbers are impressive, but he still trails Oscar by a full assist and two rebounds, more than enough for Big O to make up for Russ' slight advantage in points. But there's one stat missing from this comparison that adds much needed context to it: minutes played.

Oscar averaged an insane-by-today's-standards 44.3 minutes per game, nearly ten minutes more per game than Westbrook.

On a per-36 minutes basis, the comparison looks quite different:

Per 36 Minutes Table
Rk Player Season G MP FG FGA FG% TRB AST PTS
1 Oscar Robertson* 1961-62 79 3503 8.9 18.6 .478 10.1 9.2 25.0
2 Russell Westbrook 2016-17 61 2122 10.5 25.0 .420 11.0 10.5 32.5
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 3/3/2017.

This can cut both ways. On the one hand, you can argue that Oscar's numbers were inflated by his higher minutes total and the Westbrook is the true triple-double champion. On the other hand, you could just as easily point out that managing to carry an unthinkable offensive burden while playing nearly all 48 minutes every night makes Oscar's season even more amazing. My opinion, if you can handle the heat of this take, is that both Westbrook and Robertson were awesome and comparing the different challenges each player faced only deepens my appreciation of what both have been able to achieve.

Still, even if you think Westbrook's season doesn't quite measure up to Oscar's 1961-62, it's inarguably closer on a numbers level than Harden's. But, in an interesting bit of argumentative ju-jitsu, Westbrook's critics have used that fact against him by arguing that Russ is only averaging a triple-double through stat-padding.

While he's closer to dipping below double-digits in assists than rebounds, it's the rebounds that have become a lightning rod in the Westbrook debate. Researchers from Tom Haberstroh to /u/lolathon234 on Reddit, have pointed out that Westbrook leads the league in uncontested rebounds, indicating that he's padding his stats by grabbing easy rebounds instead of winning the 50-50 balls that actually swing a game's outcome.

But because this data is based around recently installed technology, there's simply no way to know how it measures up to the degree of difficulty Oscar faced in pulling down his rebounds. And because we're not in the huddle with Billy Donovan and the Oklahoma City Thunder, it's difficult to say for sure how much of this is due to a strategy on the team's part.

What we do know, however, is that the Thunder are a better rebounding team when Westbrook is on the floor. Their rebounding rate increases by 4.3% with Westbrook on the floor, despite the fact that many of the team's most-used Westbrook-free 5-man lineups include a twin-towersish pairing of Enes Kanter and Joffrey Lauvergne.

And if Westbrook is abandoning his other defensive duties to hunt rebounds, that's also not showing up in the numbers. The Thunder's defensive rating is nearly five points per 100 possessions worse when Westbrook sits. In contrast, the Houston Rockets' defense improves by nearly five points when Harden is not on the floor. Harden's rebounding impact is also smaller, as Houston's TRB% only goes up by 1.3% when he's on the floor.

But these on-off stats aren't the end-all be-all, because they tend to be noisy, especially given the fact that both Harden and Westbrook spend a ton of time on the floor. It may be tempting to look at the fact that the Thunder are +14.1 points per 100 better with Westbrook on the floor, while the Rockets are just +1.3 better with Harden, and hand the trophy over to Russ. But that's ignoring the fact that Houston plays much better overall with Harden than OKC does with Russ. The Rockets have a Net Rating of +7.7 when Harden plays, while the Thunder's NRtg is +3.8 when Westbrook plays.

This gets at the second reason why the MVP projection is so down on Westbrook: the Thunder's middling placement in the Western Conference. Since 1985, the MVP has come from the team with the best or second best record in its conference in every year but one. The exception, Michael Jordan's 1988 MVP season, came from the third-ranked team in the East.

However, that Chicago Bulls team's .610 winning percentage isn't that far off from the Thunder's .587. And while the Thunder may rank 7th in the West, they're only two games away from stealing fourth-place from the Utah Jazz, which, while still unusual, would look a little more respectable.

But the actual performance on the floor indicates that the Thunder may be more likely to stay in 7th than move up. Their Simple Rating System score of 0.82 indicates that they're just barely above average and nearly six points worse than Harden's Rockets (6.61). According to their Pythagorean record, the Thunder have played more like a 31-29 team.

But the problem is less that the Thunder haven't been good and more that the Rockets have been great. Houston has been the third best team in the NBA by just about any measure you want to use and they've done so without the star power of the Golden State Warriors or the unparalleled coaching and organizational stability of the San Antonio Spurs.

But there's more to Harden's case than just "His Team Wins a Lot." As mentioned earlier, Harden leads the NBA in assists, improving by nearly four assists per game from his 2015-16 mark. The Rockets have generated 1,693 points from Harden's assists, compared to 1,384 for Westbrook. If you add points and points from assists together, Harden more than makes up for the gap in raw scoring, beating Westbrook 3,476 to 3,256.

Efficiency has always been a hallmark of Harden's game, but this season, he's taken it to new heights. Since 1973, the first year that Usage Rate can be calculated, the gold standard for combining usage and efficiency has been Michael Jordan's 1988-89 season, when he paired a 34.1% USG with a .603 True Shooting Percentage. This year, Harden's right there in usage and ahead of him in TS%:

Query Results Table
Criteria Totals
Player Season Age Tm TS% USG%
Michael Jordan 1987-88 24 CHI .603 34.1
James Harden 2016-17 27 HOU .614 34.0
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 3/2/2017.

And if you've been reading diligently, you may remember that MJ also finished in third place in his conference that year, but won MVP anyway. And that was while averaging a mere 5.9 assists per game, barely more than half of Harden's load as a distributor.

So far, this blog post has treated the MVP chase as a two-man race, but is that really the case? Basketball-Reference's projection doesn't think so, for the reasons we've gone into. Even beyond underrating Westbrook, it still only puts Harden's odds of winning around 40%, meaning it's still taking the field over The Beard.

Part of that is because, in the past, the best team in the league would usually be fielding a top candidate for the award. However, that ship may have sailed for the Warriors. Their best candidate through the end of February was Kevin Durant, who was on-pace for his own sort of efficiency/usage history. However, Durant's injury makes it unlikely that he'll play again until the playoffs.

More to the point, his candidacy was always going to be more problematic than the MVP model, which ranked KD second, could tell by the numbers. The model can't see that Durant joined a team that won 73 games the previous year and already boasted a trio of all-stars and one of the most devastating lineups in league history.

This is also the third reason why Westbrook's odds are so much lower in the model than in the popular imagination. For many voters, Russ deserves credit for leading the Thunder through such a difficult period and keeping the team in the playoff chase after they lost an MVP in his prime to their direct rival. Fair or not, Westbrook's getting a big boost from the kind of narrative factors that no model could really quantify.

Durant's injury will mean Stephen Curry's numbers could go up, as he returns to being the focal point of Golden State's offense, but I doubt voters will target someone who was perceived to be deferring for the first two-thirds of the season. In filling out a full five-player ballot, it'll be interesting to see if voters choose to reward Curry for a full season's worth of production, Durant for being the alpha dog for the two-thirds that he played, or neither through some definitional parsing of the word "valuable."

Strangely, I've gotten 2,000 words into a column on the MVP race without mentioning the NBA's best player. But LeBron James absolutely needs to be in the conversation, perhaps even more so than in the last two years.

While he's played fewer games than Harden or Westbrook, he's averaged more minutes per game than either of them. He's also subtly shifted his game, becoming more of a facilitator. He's averaging 8.9 assists per game, a career high, and, over the last 21 games, that number's actually in double-digits. He's also matched his career high in rebounds per game and is beating both Harden and Westbrook in True Shooting.

There's one other player who deserves to be in this discussion, even though the B-R model has him ranked fifth. Too often, Spurs get left out of discussions for individual awards, because of Gregg Popovich's unparalleled ability to win with seemingly any set of players on his team.

But this year, Pop seems to have decided that the best way for the Spurs to win is by giving Kawhi Leonard the dang ball. Kawhi has more 30-point games this season than Durant, Curry, or James, and he's scoring nearly as many points per 36 minutes as Harden. Leonard lacks the playmaking and rebounding, but he's one of the league's best defensive players who, after an early season slump, is back to his high level. But, Leonard's played fewer games than LeBron and only averages around 33 minutes per game, which simply isn't enough in light of what Harden and Westbrook are doing this year.

One last candidate who deserves a mention: Isaiah Thomas. Remember that stat about Harden and Jordan's combination of efficiency and usage? Well, Isaiah's actually outdoing them both:

Query Results Table
Rk Player Season Tm TS% USG%
1 Isaiah Thomas 2016-17 BOS .622 34.4
2 Michael Jordan 1987-88 CHI .603 34.1
3 James Harden 2016-17 HOU .614 34.0
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 3/2/2017.

In fact, you can construct a pretty solid ballot of five votes without even having to deal with the Golden State conundrum:

Advanced Table
1 Russell Westbrook 2016-17 29.5 5.4 3.4 8.7 .201 9.8 4.5 14.3 8.6
2 James Harden 2016-17 27.2 9.0 2.8 11.8 .251 8.4 1.3 9.8 6.7
3 LeBron James 2016-17 26.4 7.0 2.5 9.5 .220 6.3 1.8 8.2 5.3
4 Kawhi Leonard 2016-17 28.1 6.9 3.3 10.2 .272 6.5 1.2 7.7 4.4
5 Isaiah Thomas 2016-17 26.9 8.7 1.0 9.7 .236 9.1 -3.7 5.4 3.7
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 3/2/2017.

Westbrook has the edge in the advanced stats that don't account for team wins, like PER and Box Plus/Minus, while Harden leads in Win Shares.

So who would get my hypothetical vote? A couple of weeks ago, I'd have said Harden. As of right now, I'd lean ever so slightly towards Westbrook. Two weeks from now, who knows? In a race this close, every single game matters. The only real guarantee is this: whoever wins MVP will definitely have earned it.

3 Responses to “Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and the Unconventional MVP Race”

  1. Jeffrey Amos Says:

    I use a model based on personal efficiency rating (PER), win shares (WS), value over replacement player (VORP), and minutes played. Here's my top 20 for Mar.4

    1. Russell Westbrook
    2. James Harden
    3. Kevin Durant
    4. LeBron James
    5. Giannis Antetokounmpo
    6. Kawhi Leonard
    7. Kyle Lowry
    8. Jimmy Butler
    9. Isaiah Thomas
    10. Karl-Anthony Towns
    11. DeMarcus Cousins
    12. Stephen Curry
    13. Rudy Gobert
    14. Anthony Davis
    15. Gordon Hayward
    16. John Wall
    17. Marc Gasol
    18. Nikola Jokic
    19. Otto Porter
    20. Kemba Walker
    honorable mentions - D.Jordan, D.Green, C.Paul, M.Conley, E.Bledsoe, D.Lillard, K.Irving

  2. Craig Verduin Says:

    Westbrook and Harden are also likely to shatter the individual season record for turnovers held by the great but often out of control George McGinnis in the ABA who actually has the 3 highest season turnovers in history.

  3. Jeffrey Amos Says:

    Mar.9 - (PER,WS,VORP,MP)

    1. Westbrook
    2. Harden
    3. Antetokounmpo
    4. LeBron
    5. Durant
    6. Leonard
    7. J. Butler
    8. Isaiah
    9. Gobert
    10. Towns
    11. Curry
    12. Lowry
    13. Cousins
    14. A. Davis
    15. Hayward
    16. Wall
    17* M. Gasol
    17* K. Walker
    19. Jokic
    20. O. Porter (extremely underrated)