Westbrook: Most Valuable Questions
Let me begin by making something as clear as I can, as early as I can, what Russell Westbrook is doing is amazing! If there were an award for most impressive individual season, or best statistical accomplishment, maybe even most enjoyable to watch (not for me, but for a lot of us who get enthralled with gaudy numbers), Russell Westbrook deserves all those accolades. If the NBA joined every other professional league in differentiating offensive statistical accomplishment, from overall value, he’d be our silver slugger, our Offensive Player of the Year, our Golden Boy. But in reality, Russell Westbrook’s year feels to me somewhat like us lauding Kim Kardashian for being otherworldly on the attractive scale. She was always attractive, but she, like Russell’s year, is also the by-product of intentional manufacturing and pandering to a panting public.
So with that said, the following will not be some stat-laden counter argument as to why I don't think Russ should be the MVP. If you desire that, there is a bevy of articles that make strong cases for both sides. But I do have legitimate questions about Russ’ MVP candidacy that his stats don't sufficiently answer. So that's what I'm endeavoring upon here.
So, we always knew Russ to be capable of gaudy numbers, in fact I would argue that what he did last year on a far better team, is much more impressive considering that he had to relinquish the steering wheel every once in a while. But part of why we disliked him was his affinity for excessive ball-pounding and selfishness. This narrative was used as a weapon in the tool belt for those who were anti-Russ last year, yet now the same behavior is representative of the team's need for Westbrook; some type of critical batarang.
But let’s back-up for a second. This is not a chicken or the egg scenario. This team was composed in a way to optimize Russ’ usage. I know the loss of an all-world player in Durant severely changes a team, but all the subsequent moves have been for the benefit of a Russ-driven experience. The Thunder have brought-in players to compliment this style. It doesn't make the style somehow less flawed just because Russ’ numbers seem to denote the deficiency of his teammates. If Russ were LeBron, would he still feel the need to turn every possession into his opportunity to get his (I understand Russ’ assist numbers look great, and I will freely admit that he is a markedly improved passer from who he entered the leagues as, but there is definitely some Rondo in his passing game)? Or would we be talking about the improvement of players like Domatas Sabonis, because LeBron understands how to utilize them better? I'm not arguing that his teammates are some great compliment of players, but we have seen great players take rosters like the Thunder’s far deeper than we expect Russell to take them. Doesn’t that tell us something about Russ’ value? This narrative also does a disservice to the fact that this roster was built this way because of Russ and that he has already shown that he struggles to efficiently utilize players of higher caliber and often alienates them due to his ball-hogging.
Stats aside, the optics tell you that Russ is doing a lot, they also tell you that he is doing way too much. And for everyone ready to anoint Russell as the MVP, perhaps you should step-back and look at the totality of his work. And how it is we got here.
Just so we’re clear, I ascribe to the notion that a triple-double is a somewhat arbitrary statistic, conjured in an effort to quantify something that is no more valuable than say a 11-10-9 stat line or a 13-8-9, or any variation thereof that provides a player with a collection of positive stats that produces an aggregate of 30 within the framework of what we constitute as value stats. Now that being said, I do understand that Russ’ triple-double’s come with a bit more statistical oomph than say a Michael Carter-Williams version. But I do think the fact that they are still relatively achievable for any player speaks to the truth that we may be be overvaluing what they really mean. We had to design a way to quantify something that looks good in the stat box, and once we came-up with a cute name for it, well you had the type of branding that makes it seem so much more impressive. I mean if Russ had averaged 31-11-9 would his accomplishment be diminished? Yes, but it shouldn’t be. And because Russ is smart enough to know that he had a shot at history in a way that could be easily packaged, he and the organization went for it.
Even in an age of abject cognitive dissonance, I find it hard to believe that anyone could argue against the fact that both Russ, and the Thunder as a team, share the mutual goal of having Westbrook average a triple-double. And hey, I don't blame the player or the team for that. That's great business for both individual and franchise. But it's a composed narrative. It's a bit fraudulent in its nature, because they set out to do this. We are acting surprised that Westbrook could pull this off, but he was close last year. Shouldn't we maybe gain some perspective and be honest that he's not a more valuable player this year than last, but rather that he is benefiting profoundly from the compatibility of opportunity and freedom of shaming. Do we think Russ is a less-selfish player now? No, we just give less scrutiny because his ball-hogging doesn't look as bad when it comes at the cost of opportunities for Victor Oladipio opposed to Kevin Durant. But is he now somehow a more valuable player? To fantasy owners, yes. To an NBA team, no. And yet that doesn't have to detract from Russ' greatness or the incredible feat that he has accomplished. Those things can exist in the same world where we can say that this was a designed achievement and that it doesn't necessarily fully define value. And can't all of that give some perspective to the fact that some of what we've defined as increased value is far more just a product of an intentional effort to pad-stats by an incredibly gifted player?
So with that as the prevailing notion, do any of us think that LeBron, or Harden, or Durant, couldn't average a triple-double if that was the team imperative? Doesn't the fact that we know it's a bit contrived skew the impressiveness of it? Isn't the potency of the narrative somewhat lessoned every time we watch Steven Adams or Enis Canter box-out their man and just watch the ball occupy space until Russ swoops in for another spurious rebound? Part of what made Oscar's achievement so great, was that he did it out of necessity, and while there is some cogency to the thinking that so is Russ, don't we feel a little manipulated by the blatant manufactured nature of it all?
There is some duality here, what Russ is doing can be both incredible and inauthentic at the same time. Think Pamela Lee Anderson in the mid-90's. Or Vanilla Ice's early success. But doesn't that then also tell us that what we perceive as value is being manipulated by the bloating of numbers? Can't that also give way to a parallel duality where we can say that what Russ is doing is all-time great, but it is not as intrinsically valuable as what Kawhi Leonard gives you in all aspects of play (there needs to be some discussion about the fact that Kawhi’s cast of characters isn’t really that great and that his team will win significantly more games this year)? A 50 point triple-double is an amazing achievement. But is it really better than what we saw Kawhi do against the Rockets earlier this season, all while playing the best perimeter defense in the world-and doing so within a framework that you harmoniously coalesce into, in the case of Leonard and the Spurs, opposed to having to hijack the style of play the way Russ does?
Most importantly, we have allowed the shininess of Russ' numbers to distract us from the fact that for all intents and purposes he only has a positive effect on one-side of the floor. If I told you that you could flip a coin, but we're only allowed to pick heads, wouldn't you feel a bit cheated? And that's at the crux of the issue with Russ as an MVP, for as amazing as he is, if value is defined comprehensively, then Kawhi is the truly more valuable to his team. Kawhi's numbers don't jump off the page the way Russ' do-and very few players in history ever have. And that's part of the problem with the perception right now. Because I can fully quantify what Russ does for his team offensively (while neatly hiding his abysmal number of turnovers-434, and his awfully bad 43% from the field), but there is no simple stat to show that Russ consistently allows lesser players to get there’s and that players like Steph light him-up, or that Kawhi is going to switch-off to the oppositions best player in the times that mean the most. Isn't it more valuable to have arguably the best player on both sides of the floor every night? That's never even a question with Russell Westbrook. He is a below average defensive player when he's engaged and he's awful when he's over-gambling in an effort to get steals. But he plays hard and we confuse effort with efficacy.
Kawhi plays a near perfect brand of basketball in terms of his ability to drastically effect all aspects of play. He makes teammates better, whether he is operating from the elbow and distributing, or while switching out on a pick-and roll and pushing the ball-handler beyond their bounds of comfort, or if he is coming over to recover and get a big-time block, or if is in the corner draining 3's. If you asked me who I needed to get a big defensive stop, or a key rebound, or even who I needed to take the last shot all within the same series of possesions, I feel more than comfortable that Kawhi is up to the task. Russ is a big risk/reward stock. Kawhi is a Warren Buffet mutual fund. For my money, I feel as though I know which has more value.
And finally and most telling, if I told you you could have Kawhi, or LeBron, or Harden, or Westbrook, right now to lead the exact same band of players into a playoff series, would anyone really choose Russ first? Because that is my last and most valuable question.