For as long as the NBA has been around, fans have debated the meaning of “Most Valuable Player.” Should the award go to the best player in the league? What about the player who makes the team the best it can possibly be? Does defensive ability matter? How important is scoring? Despite the persistence of the arguments, the league has never seemed to come to a consensus.
This year, different understandings of MVP have come in contrast with one another when referring to Russell Westbrook. It’s no secret that Westbrook has had a ridiculous season, averaging a triple-double while putting Oklahoma City completely on his back. If statistics were a measurement of value, the point guard for the Thunder would absolutely win.
Detractors of Westbrook’s cause, though, will argue that his inflated numbers come as a result of selfish play. He leads the league in usage rate by a wide margin, and one only has to watch a game to notice that OKC big men will box out their opponents in order to let their superstar grab the rebound. While statistics are important, critics say, they don’t always tell the whole story.
Such a statement could absolutely be said about the performances on display in Game 2 of the Rockets-Thunder series. Westbrook scored more points in a playoff triple-double than any other player in history, and yet the team still lost. Is it because the Thunder’s supporting cast is so bad that not even a 51-point showdown could save them from mediocrity? Not really.
For the first three quarters of the game, Westbrook was phenomenal; entering the fourth, he was 13 for 26 from the field and had already achieved the triple-double. At the time, the Thunder led by six. However, in the last twelve minutes he took an outrageous 17 shots, many of which were off-balance and well-defended, and made only three of them. Before long, the Thunder had lost both the lead and the game.
Meanwhile, the Rockets only got better as the game progressed. James Harden put up great numbers, putting up 35 points, four rebounds, and eight assists, but perhaps he was most effective when he wasn’t dominating the ball. During Houston’s explosive fourth quarter, Harden scored only seven points on three shots. He was content to spread the floor and let competent teammates like Eric Gordon, Lou Williams, and Patrick Beverley share the workload. By not playing hero-ball and forcing the defense to consider all five players to be scoring threats, Harden was able to make his team better and mount a successful comeback.
As players, Harden and Westbrook are both similar and different. Obviously they play under different coaches with different schemes and teammates, but they play a similar game. Both tend to thrive when the offense revolves around them, as they can score and distribute as they please. That said, Harden has a better basketball IQ. He knows when he can rely on his team to put points on the board, and when he has to do it himself. Westbrook, on the other hand, only knows one speed. That disparity was certainly on display in Game 2.
Going into the next phase of the series, the Rockets should feel comfortable with their standing. They are up two games to none, and know they just have to keep playing their game in order to move on in the playoffs. The Thunder, meanwhile, have some important decisions to make. While it’s great to rely on a superstar when he’s playing well, the team shouldn’t have to suffer when he’s not making his shots. Oklahoma City needs to come up with a game plan to spread the responsibility, allowing players like Andre Roberson and Steven Adams to play meaningful minutes. Then they need to get Westbrook to enforce that plan.
The Most Valuable Player should not simply be the most important player to a team; he should be the player who best allows his team to win. With Westbrook’s 51 points on 43 shots last night, he proved that his selfishness might ultimately be his downfall. If he wants to turn this series around, he’s going to have to learn to occasionally take a backseat. His teammates are pretty good too.
Oh, and Harden for MVP.
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