It’s finally that time. After careful thought, I’ve picked James Harden as the NBA’s Most Valuable Player

(Note: stats are accurate from Tuesday, Apr. 11.)

The consensus around the league is that Russell Westbrook is bringing home the MVP. He’s had the best season, no doubt, but, even the strongest argument for his winning has an equally strong counter-argument. That’s not just for Westbrook. LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Harden all have people picking them for MVP, and they, too, have strong arguments and counter-arguments.

Leonard has the least likely chance of bringing home the award this year. If we go by winning alone, which a lot of people aren’t, Kawhi and the Spurs have the best record of the four respective teams, but how many games worse would the Spurs be if they didn’t have him? They’d be short a couple of wins, but the Thunder without Westbrook, Rockets without Harden and Cavaliers without LeBron get reduced from the playoffs to the draft lottery.

I want it to be abundantly clear that I have no issues with any of these four getting the award. They’re all deserving. If Westbrook wins, I won’t be mad. If LeBron wins, I won’t be mad.

A lot of weight gets put on Westbrook’s triple-doubles. And those who base his candidacy off of them alone has no business picking him. Yes, it’s impressive that he broke the single-season triple-double record, but the MVP was always about how that player impacted his team, and it feels like a lot of people are getting away from that because of how sensational Westbrook has been. Voting that way is wrong.

I’m not belittling Russ’ accomplishment. I’m belittling the argument that triple-doubles by themselves get him the award.

I get that the Thunder are better off with him putting up those numbers, but if he only averaged nine rebounds and nine assists on a 47-win team, would he still have this much of a backing? I don’t think so, especially when Houston, Cleveland and San Antonio are all contenders.

Above are the eerily similar stats between Harden and Westbrook. The anti-Westbrook tribe likes to nit-pick at his shot-chucking and turnover-riddled style of play when discussing others as the MVP. That’s a decent thesis if you’re picking an inhumanely efficient winner like LeBron, but it’s an argument that I can’t use because Harden has the same style. Both guys shoot a ton of shots while committing more than five turnovers a night, but Westbrook certainly has a more questionable shot chart.

Harden shoots a lot of threes because of analytics. Westbrook shoots a lot of threes just because. Mike D’Antoni‘s adoration with the three is a huge reason why Harden’s overall shooting percentage is just 43.8. The two-point clip favors The Beard, and Westbrook misses his fair share of easy shots around the basket. On attempts inside of three feet, Harden converts on 68.1 percent; Westbrook’s at 57.5.

Furthermore, the percentage of attempts coming from that zone aren’t drastically different — 24.1 percent for Harden and 29.5 for Westbrook.

Simply put, Harden gets easier looks at the basket. The hyper-aggressive, I’ll-knee-you-in-the-mouth-if-you-attempt-to-take-a-charge attitude from Westbrook creates harder shots because it’s wild and out of control. This is nothing new. For his career, Westbrook shoots 57.7 percent inside of three feet.

In conjunction with his two-point efficiency, Harden gets to the line more than Westbrook and hits at about the same clip, thus creating a higher true shooting percentage — 61.2 to 55.5.

After efficiency, debaters will look at the teams of each candidate, and the Thunder and Rockets are constructed differently while serving the same purpose. The personnel is meant to complement the superstar, but how they do so are worlds apart. Houston surrounds Harden with shooters because he can penetrate whenever he wants; Oklahoma City relies on guys hanging out around the basket to get the dump-off passes from Westbrook.

Record-wise, the Rockets are much better, but the actual talent levels are closer than many would think.

The two have played four times this year. Houston won two games by a combined five points and the Thunder’s lone victory was by two. The only blowout was a 12-point win for the Rockets. These teams are evenly matched, and Westbrook actually outplayed Harden by most metrics:

  • Harden: 20.5 points, 12.3 assists, 7.3 rebounds, 34.3 field goal percentage
  • Westbrook: 36.3 points, 9.3 assists, 9.0 rebounds, 44.7 field goal percentage

“Zach! How can you give the MVP to someone who got outplayed by another candidate???????”

Well, it’s because Harden still had an impact on the game and the Rockets aren’t winning without him. After the conclusion of the series, Harden finished with a plus-minus of plus-10 while Westbrook was a minus-two. It’s not the greatest stat in the world, but the Rockets were obviously better with their leader on the court than the Thunder were.

I can’t overlook Westbrook’s heroics in the fourth against Houston, and it’s something that he’s done all season long. But poor play in the beginning and middle of games often forces him to come alive at the end. I can’t critique Harden like that because he was consistently underperforming throughout the four games.

Winning close games comes down to the supporting cast. On paper, the Rockets have better pieces outside of Harden than the Thunder do. With Eric Gordon, Lou Williams, Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza, among others, the Rockets are a matchup nightmare, and a huge reason for that is because they all of those guys can play off of each other.

Oklahoma City has their own Sixth Man of the Year candidate in Enes Kanter, a possible All-Defensive First Team selection in Andre Roberson, Steven Adams (his mustache speaks for itself) and Victor Oladipo. Admittedly, there’s a dropoff in the second unit, but that’s far from a shabby five. However, knock against them is that they’re unable to make plays by themselves.

Because Westbrook is a ball hog, guys can’t get into a rhythm because the shots they’re shooting just aren’t good shots most of the time, and this is something Bill Simmons alluded to for The Ringer.

Houston’s seventh in the NBA with 87.1 shot attempts a night, and Oklahoma City is right above them at 87.3. Harden leads the league in assists a game with 11.2 and Westbrook’s third with 10.4. The teams a whole are entirely different, and the Rockets average 25.1 dimes a night (fourth) compared to 21.0 (25th).

When teams play cohesive basketball, the ball swings without hesitation as it searches for the best shot possible. Great point guards make passing infectious while making their team and their teammates better.

Russell Westbrook undoubtedly makes the team better, but can we say the same for the players around him?

The thing that made guys like Michael Jordan and LeBron great is that they actively looked to get their guys involved, albeit for different reasons. Jordan would use quarters one, two and three to be a facilitator before ripping the faces off his opponents. James does it because it’s his nature.

Working to get those around you involved makes your life easier. If Oladipo and Adams were more sought out on offense, Westbrook might’ve been able to average 35 points a night because his looks would’ve been cleaner and they would’ve been way fewer 1-on-3 attempts at the rim. Further, he wouldn’t have to settle for contested threes when teams overload the weak side.

The Harden-Westbrook debate can go on for hours, and by no means is Harden the clear-cut MVP. However, his team is better because of him, and nobody expected the Rockets to be one of the top three teams out West. We all expected Westbrook to take his anger out on the league while leading the Thunder to 46 or 47 wins, and they did just that.

This MVP was absorbing. My only wish is that next year is half of what this one was.

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