When Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City hanging and instantly became the NBA’s top villain, all attention soon shifted towards former teammate Russell Westbrook. The other half of the dynamic duo was set to enter free agency in 2017 and much speculation surrounded potential trade scenarios to avoid risk of OKC losing a second superstar for nothing. However, the Thunder were determined to keep Westbrook and he eventually agreed to a 3 year, $85.7 million contract extension. Suddenly, Westbrook became one of the most respected players in the league. As if he wasn’t praised enough for his exciting and versatile style of play, his loyalty and competitiveness also could not go unnoticed. “[WE]ST[B]RO[OK]” has become a popular fan shirt and the video of Westbrook dancing to Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up is absolutely priceless.
Russell Westbrook is set to begin his legacy as the only star in OKC. Despite all the media talk focused on tension between Westbrook and Durant, Russell has made it clear that he does not care and only wants to focus on his team right now. It’s become nearly impossible for either men to appear in an article or video without some mention of conflict or shots taken at the other. However, Westbrook has one thing on his mind and that’s BASKETBALL!
So let’s talk basketball. Many analysts along with Vegas betting have Westbrook as the favourite to win the 2017 NBA MVP. Well, numbers don’t lie. Last season, Westbrook averaged a near triple double with 23.5 points, 10.4 assists, and 7.8 rebounds per game. It was also a thing of beauty watching him penetrate through defences and absolutely destroy the rims. Westbrook’s career numbers in games without Kevin Durant are even more impressive: 28.0 points, 8.4 assists, and 7.1 rebounds. So yes, there is no doubt that Westbrook is capable of putting up MVP stats and can possibly have the best statistical season of his career.
However, the MVP award is a big deal and there is a reason it is the last award to be announced each season. There are two factors that the panel always take into consideration when voting for an MVP: Individual Statistics and Team Success. If you need head to head stats to back this up then let’s rewind to the 1960s. NBA Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain averaged a legendary 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds a game in 1962 including the famous 100 points performance and 48.3 minutes per game average. He must have won MVP right??? False, rival legendary center Bill Russell won the award averaging 22.4 points and 26.4 rebounds per game while leading the Boston Celtics to their 6th title in 7 years. It was obvious that Russell had a phenomenal supporting cast while Chamberlain was a 1 man army with the Warriors. The most notable exception for a player winning MVP despite lack of team success was a third legendary center named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In his first season with the Lakers, Kareem averaged a dominating 27.7 points, 16.9 rebounds, and 4.1 blocks per game. He was awarded the MVP despite only accumulating a 40-42 record and missing the playoffs.
Okay let’s stop talking about the old guys because the NBA has changed and centers nowadays will not even come remotely close to mimicking the success of the 3 men listed above. There have been some notable situations in the millennium where players are actually deemed the “most valuable” to their team but do not win the award. This could be due to lack of team support while other superstars finish the season as a top team. Players who have won or have come close to winning unanimous MVPs (ie. Shaq, LeBron, Curry) have not only put up stellar numbers but have also finished close to the top of their conference. So those are undisputed. Then you have players who have done everything possible for their team but come up short of the MVP. Let’s look back at Dwyane Wade’s 2008-2009 season. He won the scoring title averaging 30.2 points, 7.5 assists, and 5.0 rebounds per game. This came a season after recovering from a knee injury and winning the Gold in Beijing. Anyone who watched the 2008-2009 campaign can say that Wade was a superhuman that season. The Heat finished with a 43-39 record and lost in the first round to the Atlanta Hawks. Wade was the “most valuable” player to his team with rookie Michael Beasley being the second best player on the Heat at the time. However, the award was given to LeBron James who had led his Cavaliers to a 66 game winning season. This is no knock against LeBron who certainly deserved the award, but what more could Wade have done to win MVP?
Let’s get back to Westbrook. His upcoming season (both record and stats wise) could be very similar to the 2009 Dwyane Wade. Two seasons ago when Durant was sidelined for most of the year with an ankle injury, Westbrook went off on a historical run. He had 9 triple doubles including a month where he averaged 31.2 points, 10.3 assists, and 9.1 rebounds. He helped Oklahoma City climb out of a 4-12 hole (when both Durant and Westbrook were sidelined) to finish the season with a winning 45-37 record. However, the Thunder missed the playoffs in a competitive Western Conference. Despite the phenomenal performance and winning the scoring title, Westbrook didn’t even make the All-NBA First Team. Guards James Harden and Steph Curry were the top 2 MVP candidates after leading their teams to the top of the Western Conference.
Can Westbrook lead Oklahoma City to championship contention with newly acquired Victor Oladipo likely to be the secondary offensive option? Not likely, but this nasty backcourt duo can still make the Thunder a respectable team in the league. Front court players Enes Kanter and Steven Adams will be expected to step up, particularly on providing more offence. Adams has stated that he has been working on his 3 point shot but not sure if that’s what Thunder fans want to see. Westbrook’s supporting cast is solid but certainly does not compare to the teammates of other MVP candidates like LeBron James or Steph Curry. As long as LeBron stays healthy and continues to be himself, he will be another All-NBA First Team MVP candidate. The Warriors will be interesting though, with the back to back reigning MVP and former-MVP now in the same line-up. While it seems unethical to give the MVP award to an individual on a super-team, it’s impossible to not consider if the Warriors reach 70 wins again.
There is pressure on Westbrook. Not necessarily like Durant to win a championship but to put up stellar numbers and single-handedly carry his team to playoff contention. The odds are against him and this is where basketball is truly a team sport. He will need his supporting cast members to step up if fans want to see him raise the MVP award at the conclusion of the season. Health will also be a concern, as even a short term injury to Westbrook can doom the Thunder’s season. That is why Head Coach Billy Donovan has to manage the line-ups and play calling efficiently so that Westbrook does not burn out. He is up for the challenge though and all eyes will be on Westbrook to live up to the hype as a lone ranger. Good luck to Westbrook and the Thunder! Oklahoma City will tip off the season on October 26th when they visit Philadelphia to take on the re-building 76ers.