Don’t ask yourself “has Jordan finally gone off the deep end?” The answer to that is, yes, he did awhile ago. This post has nothing to do with that.
Let me begin by acknowledging that Stephen Curry is having a historically great offensive season. Outside of general metrics, Adam Fromal of Bleacher Report searched historical data and discovered that Steph Curry has the highest Offensive Box Plus-Minus (a box-score estimate of offensive production per 100 possessions) in NBA history, and it is not even close.
Now, with that acknowledged, let’s examine the advanced metrics for the top-five MVP candidates this season:
Let’s quickly assume that Steph Curry is the favorite to win the NBA MVP this season. That’s made easier, because frankly, he already is. So why am I talking about Westbrook rather than the other three? Mainly because there is not room to discuss every MVP candidate in this article. Additionally, as I hope will be made clear through the rest of this column, Russell Westbrook deserves this consideration more than the other candidates.
The first stat worth mentioning is Russell Westbrook’s assist percentage. What this means is the number of assists a player is responsible for while on the court. This season, Westbrook is averaging a 44.6% assist percentage. How good is that? Let’s begin by examining the top-10 players in VORP (Value Over Replacement Player, a statistic conducted by basketball-reference that analyzes how many points per 100 possessions a player is worth over their replacement player) over the past five years and their assist percentages:
Figure 2 Stats via NBA.com’s Stats Page and basketball-reference.
Figure 6 Stats via NBA.com’s Stats Page and basketball-reference.
Essentially, only one player in the past five years that also ranked top-10 in VORP had an assist percentage higher than Russell Westbrook this season: Chris Paul in 2013-14. What this means is that, over the past five years, Westbrook’s 2015-16 assist percentage is historically great.
Furthermore, Westbrook is averaging 25.5 points per game, which is good enough for sixth in the NBA this season. So why is this important? It means that Russell is creating offense for the Thunder at levels unprecedented throughout the NBA. To further examine this statement, let’s combine the points per game and points off assists per game for some of the NBA’s best scorers and passers. This lets us examine the total number of points each player is responsible for per game:
Figure 7 Stats via NBA.com’s Stats Page
Thus, Figure 7 demonstrates that Russell Westbrook is responsible for more points per game (scored and assisted) than every other NBA player this season. Part of this is the result of his usage percentage being higher than any player other than DeMarcus Cousins; however, the percentage difference amongst the players is minimal enough to lack holistic explanatory value.
Consequently, Russell Westbrook is directly responsible for more of his team’s offense than any other player in the NBA this season. This includes Stephen Curry, who as previously mentioned, is having a historically great offensive season.
Defensively, however, is where Westbrook’s case weakens. Out of the five aforementioned MVP candidates, opponents shoot best against Russell:
Figure 8 Stats via NBA.com’s Stats Page
Part of that statistic, though, is due to the Thunder’s lack of interior defenders outside of Ibaka. Thus, because Westbrook usually guards the opponent’s best perimeter scorer, opposing teams will try and get him defending a pick-and-roll that uses the opposing team’s center. This forces Westbrook to due the job of defending the ball handler, while also covering for defensive mishaps by Steven Adams and Enes Kanter, consequently resulting in opponents scoring.
Is there a better stat to use? Yes and no. Ultimately, no defensive metric will reveal all, but it is also important to evaluate the number of turnovers a player creates for his defense. Let’s do that below:
Figure 9 Stats via NBA.com’s Stats Page
What Figure 9 looks at is each player’s respective percentage of their team’s steals, percentage of their team’s blocks, and percentage of their team’s forced turnovers (total steals and blocks). Utilizing these metrics, Russell Westbrook is responsible for significantly more defense than his defensive field goal percentage reveals. In fact, Figure 9 demonstrates that he is better than Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant at forcing turnovers this season.
Finally, let’s examine Defensive Box Plus-Minus (exactly the same as the previously noted Offensive Box Plus-Minus, but looking at defense), which is perhaps the best holistic way to measure a player’s defense.
Figure 10 Stats via basketball-reference.
Therefore, Figure 10 holistically argues that Russell Westbrook is firmly in the middle of the potential MVP candidates’ defensive tenacity.
Due to his dominant offensive game combined with his solid defensive performances, Russell Westbrook would be this author’s vote for MVP. To put it simply, Westbrook’s game is more valuable to his team than any of the other candidates; hence, why I believe that he is the Most Valuable Player. Nonetheless, due to Stephen Curry’s historically great season offensively, he is the most likely candidate. As the season continues, however, it would be foolhardy to assume Russell Westbrook could not and should not win the esteemed award.
Disagree? Do you think Steph Curry should win the MVP? You may be right. Let us know in the comments section!