Russell Westbrook, unsurprisingly, won MVP at the NBA’s inaugural awards ceremony on Monday. Hats off to him. Even though I’ve been on record saying his historic season was overrated, he still had, well, a historic season! He made a 30-10-10 stat-line seem rather normal. 30-10-10!
What I still can’t wrap my head around, however, is how LeBron James and Kevin Durant, unequivocally the two best players in basketball, were left off the final ballot that included Westbrook, James Harden, and Kawhi Leonard. Completely left off the final ballot!
We all saw what transpired in the Finals. KD was unguardable, averaging over 35 points on 55% shooting from the field and 47% shooting from downtown. LeBron was nearly as dominant, becoming the first player in Finals history to average a triple-double for the entire series.
But Mando, this is a regular season award. That’s why Westbrook, Harden, and Leonard got the nod as finalists over James and Durant. You’re right (sort of). This is a regular season award, so it technically doesn’t matter what happened in the playoffs (although it does make you wonder how the league MVP could play for a team that was bounced with relative ease in the first round). So let’s look at what LeBron and Durant did in the regular season.
First, LeBron averaged over 25 points per game for the thirteenth consecutive season. More importantly, he did so on 54.8% shooting; and of the 57 players who averaged at least 13 shots per game this season, LeBron’s field goal percentage was 1st (Westbrook’s, for the record, was 54th among that group of 57). Moreover, in terms of rebounds and assists, he set career highs in both categories with 8.6 and 8.7 per game, respectively.
Most telling of all, though, was LeBron’s on/off court differential. With James on the floor, Cleveland’s offensive rating (also known as points per 100 possessions) was +8.4. When he was off the floor, their differential was a horrific -8.6! Remarkably, LeBron’s +17.0 on/off differential was essentially the same as Westbrook (+12.5), Harden (+3.0), and Leonard’s (1.6) differential’s combined!
As for Durant, his case to be an MVP finalist is not as convincing as LeBron’s. However, as we saw throughout the playoffs, Durant was this year’s most dominant offensive player–and his regular season stats support this claim, too. Excluding centers (because they don’t typically venture outside of the paint), KD had the league’s highest true shooting percentage by a wide margin. In addition, Durant also finished with the league’s second highest Player Efficiency Rating, behind Westbrook. And similar to LeBron, he had a much better on/off court differential than Harden and Leonard. In other words, Durant, even in the regular season, was more outstanding and more valuable than certainly Leonard, and probably even Harden and Westbrook, too.
The oddsmakers essentially believe the same thing, particularly with regard to The King. According to My Top Sportsbooks, LeBron is already the clear favorite to win his fifth MVP award next season, while Durant is not far behind.
Everyone agrees that LeBron and Durant are the two best players in the NBA, particularly after what we saw in the Finals. Yet what people should also realize is that they had proven this long before that series took place by having spectacular, MVP-worthy regular seasons in 2016-17. Plus, based on what the oddsmakers say, it’s clear they’ll be the best players in the NBA next year, and perhaps the year after, and maybe even the year after that.
So what happened? Why weren’t either of them, particularly James, recognized as simply one of the three best players from this past season? Well, clearly there’s a different standard–a higher standard–for two of the ten most dominant players in NBA history.
Westbrook photo courtesy of NBA.com