The 2016-2017 NBA season is shaping up to be one of the most interesting seasons in recent memory. Despite coming into the season with the prevailing thought being that a Warriors-Cavaliers finals rematch was all but inevitable, fans had hoped for some interesting subplots, and how they have turned out.
Kevin Durant is injured, the Cavaliers are struggling, the Spurs are soaring, and the Rockets are taking off. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the NBA this year has been the play of the top players.
The MVP race has been one of the most interesting in years. Conceivably, four different players have legitimate shots at winning this year: Lebron James, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, and Russell Westbrook.
The anger over why Westbrook is in this conversation begs the question, how come Russell Westbrook seems to be universally disliked for putting up video game numbers?
Only one NBA player ever has put up a triple-double average for an entire season. That was Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson back in the 1961-1962 season. While that would be an amazing feat if Westbrook is able to pull it off, it may help to look a little closer into what exactly a triple-double entails.
Pulling off a conventional triple-double for a single game means that that player has succeeded at scoring, helping others score, and recovering possessions far better than other players. Keeping this up for an entire season means that a player’s usage rate (number of possessions a player uses per 40 minutes) has to be incredibly high. This is a list of the top players in the NBA ranked by usage rate.
Westbrook’s usage rate is almost 23% greater than his next competitor, fellow MVP candidate James Harden. Having such a high usage shows that Westbrook either takes shots, assists, or turns the ball over on an astoundingly high number of possessions. Looking at Westbrook’s PER helps tell the full story.
Someone who has an insane usage rate should be efficient with possessions to help maximize offensive production for their team. While Westbrook does lead the league in PER, he does so at a far smaller percentage over his nearest competitor, Kawhi Leonard, whom he is only 10% greater. In comparison, Leonard is not even listed among the 10 highest usage rates in the league which is another feather in the cap for San Antonio’s small forward MVP candidacy.
One of the few players who has elicited comparisons to Robertson as well was former Knicks PG Stephon Marbury. As The Ringer’s Jason Concepcion notes, he was the first player since “The Big O” to average 20 points and 8 assists in the mid-2000s. Marbury notoriously aware of this link, would sacrifice possessions to reach the plateau of 20 points and 8 assists every night.
Although one can’t accuse Westbrook of trying to pad his stats to reach that triple-double every night, this author has watched Westbrook try forcing the issue in blowout games to get that 10th assist or 10th rebound (admittedly in a small sample size – OKC games on national television).
It can’t be that big a surprise to find out that the year Robertson average a triple-double, his Royals were bounced out to the Detroit Pistons featuring Bailey Howell and Gene Shue. Maybe Westbrook can learn that essential lesson and try giving newly-acquired Taj Gibson some possessions on the low block.
Another reason why fans seem to be cooling on Westbrook was the level of expectation of his play. When Kevin Durant took his talents to the Bay area in the summer, fans were left feeling sorry for Westbrook. They fully knew that given the keys to the Thunder offense, he could create some crazy numbers. In an ironic twist, despite other-worldly numbers, fans would rather see him improve his team than put up the numbers they themselves predicted would happen.
Depending on the yearly debate about what exactly MVP really means, Westbrook might be taking home his first MVP trophy later this year. But when his team gets bounced out in the first round of the playoffs this year, he might be wishing he had sacrificed some stats to let more efficient players touch the ball.