Russell Westbrook is fixin’ to win the MVP

May 24, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) reacts after a play against the Golden State Warriors during the third quarter in game four of the Western conference finals of the NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
May 24, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) reacts after a play against the Golden State Warriors during the third quarter in game four of the Western conference finals of the NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports /

Russell Westbrook is mad.  I mean, he’s real mad.

Mad Russ
Mad Russ /

The Brodie just found out that his No. 1 bro, Kevin Durant, has ditched him in Oklahoma City.
It’s not just that Durant left, though; it’s that he left to join those attention-hogging, nut-punching, goody-two-shoed Warriors. That’s what really hurts.

Two months ago, Russ, KD, and the Oklahoma City Thunder were playing at the peak of their collective powers, stomping the Warriors in Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference Finals — and seemingly on the verge of getting over that first-championship hump — when Golden State’s improbable comeback from 3-1 brought the Thunder crashing back down to earth. Thanks to the Warriors — first the players and now the front office — it seems unlikely that Russ will ever win a championship with KD; who knows, maybe he’ll never get such a good opportunity to win it all again in his entire career.

I’m sure Westbrook is furious. It’s cool though, he’s good without KD.

Russell Westbrook is good without Kevin Durant

Westbrook has played his entire career with Durant. Since he was drafted by the Thunder in 2008, wherever there was Russell, there was also Durant. As a result, Westbrook is sometimes unfairly portrayed as the sidekick toiling in Durant’s superhero shadow; but, actually, Russ has excelled when given the opportunity to play without his long-time running mate.

For example, many of Westbrook’s most explosive scoring outings have come with KD on the bench. Over the past three seasons, Westbrook has scored at least 35 points on 24 different occasions. He eclipsed that mark 18 times when Durant was unable to play and only 6 times when he was playing alongside KD. Because he played with Durant more often than not (in 144 of his 192 games, 75 percent), the discrepancy in scoring is even more striking when presented as a rate, i.e., Westbrook scored at least 35 points in 38 percent of his games without KD and in only 4 percent of the games they played together.

Points scored by Russell Westbrook in games with Kevin Durant (dark circles) and without him (white circles), 2013-14 to 2015-16. Three solid lines indicate average points per game for the three time periods.

Russ game log
Russ game log /

During the 2014-15 season, Westbrook played an extended stretch — 27 games from February 21st to the end of the season on April 15th — without Durant’s help. Over that run, Westbrook averaged 31.3 points per game, which was a substantial jump from his 23.8-point average during the season-and-a-half preceding KD’s foot injury and better still than the 23.5-point average he posted in the subsequent 2015-16 season.

As soon as KD went down, Russell stepped up his production. During the first ten games of Durant’s extended absence, Westbrook averaged a triple double — 32.8 ppg, 10.6 rpg, and 11.2 apg — and posted six individual triple-doubles. He had at least 20 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists during each of those ten games, as part of a 17-game streak of 20-5-5. According to Basketball-Reference, only three other players have ever posted 20-5-5 in ten or more games: LeBron James (5 times, in 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013), Larry Bird (2 times, in 1987, 1988), and Michael Jordan (2 times in 1989). The 18-game streak put together by young-Jordan is the only one longer than Russell’s 17-game streak in the Spring of 2015.

It’s easy to pass off Westbrook’s KD-free productivity as “just” volume scoring in a vacuum. But, according to data from, that’s not the whole story. Here, check out some of Russell’s scoring stats during the 2000-plus minutes he played without Durant over the past three seasons:

Russell Westbrook with-or-without Kevin Durant, 2013-14 to 2015-16

Russ WOWY KD /

When Durant wasn’t around, Westbrook was responsible for more of the Thunder’s offensive load and he had a chance to end more of the team’s possessions, as evidenced by the increase in his Usage Rate from 32.7 percent to 41.6 percent. For context, Russ’s 41.6 percent Durant-free Usage Rate over the past three seasons combined is larger than any single-season Usage Rate posted by anybody that played at least 2000 minutes since 1977-78 (the period for which data is available from Basketball-Reference; max=38.7 percent by Kobe Bryant in 2005-06). Not surprisingly, Westbrook’s increased usage translated directly to a big jump in his Points Per Minute rate from 0.66 to 0.89. However, what is most impressive is that, despite the increased scoring burden, Westbrook was actually MORE efficient without Durant, as characterized by his true shooting percentage (54.5 percent vs. 53.4 percent) and his points per shot (1.09 vs 1.07).

Next year, the Thunder are going to need Westbrook to do a lot for them once again. He’s often going to have the ball in his hands and he’s going to be forced to create much of the team’s offense, just like he did in 2015. If Westbrook can return to the world-beating form he displayed in the last 27 games of the 2014-15 season, he’ll be in serious contention for the MVP Award.

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Of course, he didn’t win the award in 2015. He didn’t receive any first-place votes either, but he tallied 5 second-place votes (worth 7 points each), 33 third-place (5 points), 41 fourth-place (3 points), and 29 fifth-place (1 point) for a total of 352 points. That’s the equivalent of 27.1 MVP Shares (i.e., 27.1 percent of the maximum score of 1300 points = 130 voters x 10 points for each first-place vote), good enough for fourth place behind Stephen Curry, James Harden, and LeBron James. Not bad for a guy whose team didn’t even make the playoffs.

You already know that an unfettered Mad-Russ is going to try to single-handedly burn the league to the ground next season. If, along the way, he can manage to drag the Thunder back to the postseason, he’ll deserve every bit of the 2107 MVP Award.

Kevin Durant probably won’t win the MVP

Because Russell Westbrook is entering the final year of his contract, it is possible that the Thunder will opt to trade him during the season rather than allowing him to walk as a free agent this summer. Alternatively, the Thunder may bring in another star to replace Durant in hopes of reassuring Westbrook that he should stay in OKC. In either case, if Westbrook is paired with another ball-dominant player, it might hamper his ability to morph into the type of usage monster that shoots counting stats out of his eyeballs and eats MVP Award Shares for breakfast.

Even if Westbrook doesn’t win the MVP, he can at least take solace in knowing that Durant probably won’t either.

The last time that an MVP winner used his free agency to change the team for which he played there was a swift and vociferous backlash. Above and beyond the tearful Cleveland fans burning No. 23 jerseys in the street, when LeBron left the Cavs to join Dwyane Wade in Miami, the public reaction was overwhelmingly negative. Of course, some of the hubbub was directed at the insensitive tone of the “taking my talents to South Beach” press conference, but there was other fuel for the outrage, too. LeBron’s machinations were seen by many as anti-competitive and unbecoming of the world’s greatest player. I believe that the negative perception of LeBron’s Decision to switch teams cost him the 2010-11 MVP Award.

But how to prove it?

Well, one — admittedly imperfect — way to objectively determine who “should” have won any given MVP Award is the summary statistic, Win Shares, developed by Justin Kubatko of Basketball-Reference. Win Shares factor in a variety of individual statistics: points produced (scored + assisted), shooting efficiency, rebounds, defensive rating, etc. to divvy up team wins. Thus, players who make large contributions to teams that win a lot of games collect a large number of Win Shares. These are the same kinds of players who deserve to win the MVP. So, to visualize the impact of the media’s hard feelings towards LeBron we can compare his year-to-year Win Shares versus his MVP Award Shares.

Year-by-year Win Shares and MVP Shares for LeBron James and the rest of the NBA, 2003-04 to 2015-16.

LeBron MVPs
LeBron MVPs /

LeBron led the league in Win Shares for five straight years from 2008-09 to 2012-13. During those five seasons, he won the MVP Award four times. The only time he didn’t win the MVP was in 2011 when he was bested by Derrick Rose (and Dwight Howard, too). Not coincidentally, 2010-11 was the season immediately following The Decision.

There are at least three ways to interpret these observations:

1. The media was turned off by LeBron’s decision to join the Heat and they penalized him for it by choosing not to award him the MVP the following season,
2. Joining the Heat made LeBron a less convincing MVP candidate strictly for basketball reasons, or
3. Numbers aren’t everything.

In reality, all three factors probably played a role in LeBron losing the MVP with the importance of each factor varying between individual media members. Perhaps these comments from Bill Simmons will suffice as a representation of the prevailing sentiments of the media in 2011:

“I know computer programs are spitting out LeBron’s numbers as evidence that he’s the leading MVP candidate, but how can anyone watch Miami for six straight months and come to the conclusion that LeBron was even 0.00000000001 percent more important to Miami than Wade?”

In other words, it was LeBron’s inability to distinguish himself from Wade as his own team’s MVP that cost him a shot at winning 5-straight league MVPs. Durant will face the exact same challenge, of course, as he joins fellow superstar, Stephen Curry next season. Curry’s odds of winning the MVP might also take a hit now that he’ll be sharing the limelight with Durant.

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Part of what made Curry such a standout MVP candidate last year and what allowed him to become the first unanimous MVP selection, was the impression viewers had when watching the Dubs that he was going to make every important shot for his team. As I detailed here, Curry made 43 percent of the Warriors’ field goals to tie or take the lead in the last six minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime in 2015-16. In fact, the only player to account for a larger share of his team’s clutch buckets last season was LeBron (46 percent). But, back in 2010-11, LeBron and Wade were basically splitting the big-shot responsibilities down the middle, with LeBron taking 30 attempts (32 percent of the team total) to tie or lead in the last six minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime and Wade taking 27 (29 percent). Similarly, Durant and Westbrook split the clutch workload last season with each making about a quarter of their team’s biggest baskets. It is likely that Durant and Curry will likewise share the late-game scoring opportunities next season and this may be one consideration that will prevent either from winning the MVP Award.

An earlier historical comp for Durant

Despite what you may have heard, super teams are not a recent phenomenon. They have existed for decades. And I’m not even talking about those stacked teams from the 1980s, such as the Showtime Lakers, who were compiled the hard way with good, old-fashioned front-office string pulling. I’m going back even earlier in NBA history; all the way back to the 1968-69 season when Wilt Chamberlain joined the Los Angeles Lakers.

According to Dr. Jack Ramsey (in his book “Dr. Jack’s Leadership Lessons Learned From a Lifetime in Basketball”, for the relevant excerpt go here) — who was Chamberlain’s coach during his final season in Philadelphia — Wilt forced himself into a trade from the 76ers to the Lakers by threatening to jump ship for the ABA. In the 1968-69, the 33-year-old Wilt joined a 30-year-old Jerry West (in his prime) and a 34-year-old Elgin Baylor (at the tail end of his prime); two star players who had each placed as high as second in previous MVP races. It was this Lakers squad, then, that was perhaps the first super team whose construction was heavily influenced by its players themselves.

In looking at Chamberlain’s year-by-year Win Shares versus MVP Shares comparison below, you can once again see the negative effect that membership on a super team seems to confer on MVP voting; analogous to what we observed with LeBron above. Specifically, Wilt led the NBA in Win Shares for three consecutive seasons from 1965-66 to 1967-68 and he won the MVP Award during each of those seasons. After joining the Lakers in 1968-69, Chamberlain again finished in a virtual tie for the league Win Share lead with Willis Reed, but he did not receive a single MVP vote.

Year-by-year Win Shares and MVP Shares for Wilt Chamberlain and the rest of the NBA, 1959-60 to 1973-74.

Wilt MVPs
Wilt MVPs /

During Wilt’s era, the MVP Award was decided by a player vote, but you can infer the same thought process for the players in 1969 that we attributed to the media in 2011. Wilt didn’t win the MVP because he couldn’t distinguish his personal contributions from those of his teammate, West; but also, maybe his peers felt he didn’t deserve to win because of the way he relinquished his leadership role when he joined the Lakers.

In 1971-72, Wilt, West, and the Lakers established a new standard for regular season success with a best-ever (at that time) 69-13 record. They also ripped off a best-ever (at this time) 33-straight wins. Despite their collective dominance, neither Laker star was recognized with the MVP Award that year; they split the vote with West earning 0.48 MVP Shares and Wilt garnering 0.36. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won the MVP.

Even more so than LeBron and D-Wade, Wilt and West may be a telling historical precedent for KD and Curry. With both likely to contribute significantly to the Warriors’ success next season, how will either one earn a consensus as the most deserving MVP candidate? If history repeats itself, neither Durant nor Curry — the league’s past two MVPs — will win the award next year.

Well, I don’t think anybody is going to cry a river for the future Dub duo, certainly not Russell Westbrook, anyways. While I’m excited to see KD and Curry try to one-up each other with ridiculous shot-making next season, I’m also excited to see Mad-Russ go on his rampage. He might average 30+ points per game for the first time next season and he might just be on his way to becoming the second-ever unanimous MVP.

Next: Does Durant make the Warriors a better shooting team?