DA's Morning Tip

Epic MVP chase comes down to a not-so-simple decision

Choosing between Russell Westbrook, James Harden as tough an MVP call as ever in NBA lore

Who’s got a quarter?

There have been tough votes before when determining the league MVP. Tim Duncan and Jason Kidd in 2001-02. Michael Jordan and Karl Malone in 1996-97. There are often future Hall of Famers having great seasons at the same time, and you have to pick.

This year, though, is different.

What Russell Westbrook and James Harden are doing defies all previous narratives.

Harden’s production, as a passer and scorer, hasn’t been done in more than 40 years.

Westbrook is averaging a triple-double, something that hasn’t been done in more than 50.

NBA Awards Show on June 26 on TNT

Harden has been an incredible scorer while also being amazingly efficient.

Westbrook is leading the league in scoring.

Harden’s team has won more games than Westbrook’s, and has overachieved at a higher level than anyone thought possible while rewriting the record books for 3-point attempts.

Do you remember what happened on the Fourth of July last year?

This can go on and on. My VORPs and WARPs against your EWA and Win Shares, at 20 paces. The point is that any of us can make a statistical-based argument for the person we back for the award, and we wouldn’t be wrong.

But you have to pick someone, and exhale, and wait for the inevitable blowback. It’s the job. You can’t wuss out and split the vote two ways. Pick someone and live with your choice.

Okay. I pick Westbrook.

At the end of the day, and at the end of this season, history compels me to recognize an achievement that none of the game’s greatest players — not Jordan, not Magic Johnson, not Larry Bird or Isiah Thomas, not John Stockton or Karl Malone, not Charles Barkley or Patrick Ewing or Dominique Wilkins or Kidd or Steve Nash or Kobe or LeBron James or Dirk Nowitzki or Shaquille O’Neal or anyone has been able to do since Oscar Robertson did it. Russell Westbrook is doing something that hasn’t been done in 55 seasons. It isn’t a party trick or a novelty act; it’s a definable, quantifiable, noteworthy and historic thing.

Averaging a triple-double in a season is damn near impossible, even if you have the ball in your hands all the time. And to do so on a team that, to be charitable, isn’t filled with Hall of Famers is all the more impressive. And to do those things on a team that lost a top five player, an MVP candidate in his own right … well, they write movie scripts about things like that, only no one buys them, because they’re corny and unbelievable.

Some words, though, must be written about the other two major candidates, the San Antonio Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James. Kevin Durant would have also been in the discussion — maybe some still will have him in it — if not for his knee injury, that kept him out of action for almost six weeks. His impact on the Golden State Warriors was as definite and devastating for opponents as all outside the Bay Area had feared. (And other players have been outstanding this season as well — Isaiah Thomas, John Wall, DeMar DeRozan and Paul George, among others — while not quite rising to MVP-level consideration.)

The case for Kawhi Leonard

Leonard’s argument is solid and three-fold:

Nobody else comes close to the two-way excellence he displayed at both ends of the floor

He, seemingly seamlessly, kept the Spurs elite in the first season after San Antonio lost its all-time franchise player, Tim Duncan, to retirement and …

If the argument is about whose team has won more games this season, Leonard’s team has won more than either Harden’s or Westbrook’s. It’s a powerful argument.

It is true that Durant has a higher defensive rating than Leonard. And much has been made of the stat that the Spurs’ defensive rating is better this season when Leonard is on the bench (96.1 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com/Stats) than when he’s on the floor (103.7) Therefore, how impactful could Leonard’s defense actually be? Quod erat demonstrandum.

Two things:

One, don’t use Latin to prove a point. It’s really pretentious*.

Two, the Spurs are not better defensively without the two-time Kia Defensive Player of the Year off the floor than with him.

By way of comparison, here’s teammate David Lee’s on/off numbers: the Spurs’ opponents’ offensive rating is 110.5 when he’s on the floor, 107.9 when he’s off. David Lee saves the Spurs 2.6 points per night when he plays. Ergo (*see?), David Lee is a better defensive player than Kawhi Leonard! The numbers say so!

Look, stats have value. But only if they also have context. For example: Leonard plays the most minutes of anyone on the Spurs. That means, in all likelihood, he’s on the floor with both good and bad defenders at any particular point of a game. If he anticipates a teammate is about to get crossed over, leaving a clear path to the basket, and he leaves his man to go help, but another teammate (a subpar defender, say), fails to rotate to Leonard’s man — who then scores — who gets the blame for that, statistically?

And at a game’s key moments, you’ll find Leonard on Stephen Curry or LeBron or whoever can do the most damage. Those players, being great, score against even the best defenders on occasion. It stands to reason if Leonard’s on them more often than anyone else on the Spurs, his individual defensive numbers might take a bigger hit than the guy guarding, say, Amir Johnson (not that there’s anything wrong with Amir Johnson).

Some have also argued that opponents have successfully neutralized Leonard defensively this season by simply taking his man out of the play — leaving him in a corner or on the weakside — and going four on four against the Spurs’ remaining, and lesser, defenders. But Leonard still gets “blamed” statistically for the resulting success opponents have if he’s on the floor, even though his guy didn’t score and had nothing to do with the play.

And, is it not possible that Leonard may well have slipped some defensively this season — but only because he’s had to score 26 a night at the other end? These aren’t robots. Dudes will get tired having to carry the load at both ends of the floor — which, again, only Leonard among the top MVP candidates has had to do every night.

Finally: which team, this morning, is still ranked number one in Defensive Rating this season? That would be the San Antonio Spurs, they of the he’s-not-as-good-defensively-as-you-think-he-is-Kawhi-Leonards.

Put it another way: you ask coach Gregg Popovich if he’d rather try and defend opponents with “The Klaw” on the floor or on the bench.

Didn’t think so, tough guy.

There is one legit case to make against Leonard, it says here: his relatively low assist totals — 3.6 per game — compared with the other MVP candidates. It is fair, if you are comparing, and we are, to note that Harden, Westbrook and James all excel at not only scoring, but creating easy, open shots for teammates with their passing. That is something that Leonard does not yet do on an elite level.

The case for LeBron James

Meanwhile, an MVP vote for James is never misplaced. He is, as he’s been the last seven or eight years, the best player in the league, still more capable than anyone of putting his prints all over a game. And at 32, with all the years of wear and tear, as well as the mental responsibilities of leadership on his shoulders, the numbers he’s put up this season are ridiculous: 26.3 points per game, on 54.5 percent shooting from the floor — a better shooting percentage than Harden, Westbrook, Leonard or Durant — along with career highs in rebounds (8.6) and assists (8.7).

The rebounds and assists are especially impressive. A lot of league MVPs have averaged more rebounds in their MVP years than James, and some have averaged more assists. But the last player to average as much or more in both categories in an MVP year was Wilt Chamberlain, in 1967-68, when he averaged 23.8 (!) rebounds and 8.6 assists.

And, did we mention James is 32 — the oldest by four years of the major MVP candidates, having also played at least 15,000 more minutes during his career (more than 41,270 after this weekend’s games) than Durant (26,218 career minutes before returning to play Saturday night), Westbrook (around 22,767), Harden (20,628) and Leonard (12,119). Those extra 15,000 career minutes are just a little short of an additional four seasons worth of games — and that doesn’t even count the additional wear and tear James has accumulated through his three U.S. Olympic team stints.

But his Cavaliers have been less than dominant for long stretches of the season. Not all of it is his fault, but as the team’s bell cow, he nonetheless has to take his share of the responsibility. With a couple of exceptions, Cleveland’s defense has been awful for months now and ranks 29th in defensive rating since the All-Star break. And even in an improved Eastern Conference, the Cavs’ inability to pull away and clinch home-court advantage works against James’s candidacy.

Having said all of that, you can cast a first-place vote for either James or Leonard and feel great about it. They both have more than credible candidacies.

Why I’m picking Westbrook over Harden

But to me, this comes down to Harden and Westbrook. Or, Westbrook and Harden. That’s how they’ve flipped and flopped in my head all season. Ask on Tuesday, and I’ll have a different answer than I had Monday. If the votes weren’t due by the end of the week, I could well spend the next few weeks muttering to myself.

It’s awful and wrong for fans of both to disparage either. Each has had a historically significant season. Much of what passes for “analysis” in some circles — I’m for Harden, so I must devalue what Westbrook has done, and vice versa — is the worst of the social media construct, a need for a “hot take” that is different and more click-worthy than acknowledging that both have been outstanding, and MVP worthy, for different reasons.

Harden has been sensational. He leads the NBA in Win Shares (14.7) and Offensive Win Shares (11.3), per basketball-reference.com. He leads the league in assists. He’s scored or assisted on more than 56 percent of all of Houston’s points this season, which is the most total points created by one player since Nate Archibald in 1972-73.

He’s scored 1,472 points this season on 3-pointers and free throws, the second-most ever produced in that combination in league history, only behind Curry’s 1,569 combined free throws and 3-pointers last season. And he’s the only player in league history to score 2,000 points and assist on another 2,000 points by teammates.

And: his team has done much, much better than anyone thought it would, with a 54-26 record and a No. 3 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. He took the responsibility at the point that new coach Mike D’Antoni gave him at the start of the season and hasn’t looked back. He’s been a willing passer, a great teammate, a leader in every sense of the word.

I’m not voting against him.

I’m voting for Westbrook.

Here’s why:

1. The triple double average — not as an arbitrary stat, but as a means to win games.

Some of those who support Harden have taken to devaluing either a) how Westbrook has gotten his triple-doubles this season, or b) devaluing the importance of the triple-double itself. A triple-double is arbitrary, goes one argument; his teammates let him get all the rebounds is another.

Fair points that need addressing.

A triple-double is indeed an arbitrary measurement of performance on a basketball court. You know what else is arbitrary? Winning the Triple Crown in baseball, or getting a hat trick in hockey — why not throw hats or octopi after someone scores four goals in a game? Or, two? Why is three the relevant number? The point is, any grouping of stats can be dismissed as meaningless if you want them to be.

So why do we keep stats at all? So we have some measurement of achievement in a particular sport. And Westbrook’s achievement is something that no other person who’s played in the NBA since 1962 has accomplished. Yes, Harden is close to averaging a triple-double. George Brett hit .390 for the Royals in 1980. It was an amazing, incredible accomplishment. But it wasn’t .400, one of baseball’s holy grail achievements — like averaging a triple-double for a season. Brett came close. But it wasn’t .400.

And … triple doubles seem to be prescient in predicting one thing: wins and losses.

Jason Kidd had 107 career triple-doubles for the Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns and New Jersey Nets in his career. He played for championship teams, contenders and more than a few bad teams in those years. But when Kidd got a triple-double, his teams were 76-31 — a .710 winning percentage. I looked it up.

Along those lines, Westbrook has 42 triple-doubles this season. After Westbrook scored the last 13 points of the game Sunday, including a 40-footer at the buzzer to give him 50 points to go with 16 rebounds and 10 assists, the Thunder’s record in Westbrook triple-double games this season improved to 33-9 — a .786 win percentage.

And: Oklahoma City has 46 total wins this season.

That means, the vast majority of the time this season, Westbrook has had to get a triple-double for his team to win.

Think about that. When Westbrook hasn’t gotten a triple-double, his team is 13-25. And you’re telling me his triple-doubles are arbitrary? No, they’re damn near a necessity for OKC this year.

As for “letting” Westbrook get uncontested rebounds on missed free throws … well, the other team has to miss the free throw for that to even be possible, right? And if you’re telling me Westbrook’s the first player to benefit for occasionally padded stats, I take it you never watched John Stockton play at Delta Center.

2. Westbrook’s supporting cast is … uh …

Well, let’s compare.

Harden’s teammates include Ryan Anderson, who’s shooting 40 percent this season on 3-pointers, and Eric Gordon, who’s shooting 37 percent on 3-pointers, and Patrick Beverley, who’s shooting 38 percent. James is playing with two other All-Stars in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Leonard is playing with future Hall of Famers in Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Pau Gasol. Danny Green shot 55 percent on 3-pointers in The 2013 Finals. In The 2014 Finals, Patty Mills shot 56.5 percent.

And Durant … well, you know where he’s playing, and with whom.

By contrast, the Thunder are tied for last in the league in 3-point percentage this season, and 26th in made 3-pointers. Victor Oladipo is the next most proficient 3-point shooter on the team after Westbrook; he makes two 3-pointers a game.

In other words, in an era that is defined by a team’s ability to make 3-pointers, OKC … doesn’t do it. At all. This is a team that missed 24 straight shots in an NBA game! This season! Do you know how hard it is to miss 24 straight shots?

Yet Westbrook has still managed to average double figures in assists this season, on a team that can’t shoot, and which, other than Steven Adams, has next to no low-post presence to whom you can dump the ball inside.

Which brings us to …

3. Westbrook is the only MVP playing on a team which lost an MVP candidate from the year before.

How do you come back when you get nothing for your franchise’s best player? The answer is, in almost every case, you don’t.

When LeBron left Cleveland in 2010, the Cavaliers went from 61-21 to 19-63. Conversely, when LeBron left Miami to go back to Cleveland, the Heat went from 54-28 to 37-45. When the Los Angeles Lakers traded O’Neal in 2004, they went from 56-26 to 34-48. When Shaq left the Orlando Magic for the Lakers via free agency in 1996, the Magic went from 60 wins to 45.

Etc., etc.

Yet last season, with Durant and Westbrook, OKC won 55 games. This year, with only Westbrook, OKC has won 46 with two games remaining. Let’s say they split the last two. Is there anyone, honestly, who thought the Thunder would only be eight games off of last season’s pace without KD?

Two years ago, Rockets fans were apoplectic when Curry won MVP over “The Beard”. I was disappointed, too — I voted for Harden, believing that his season was the more impactful for his team. And yet that year, Harden supporters dismissed the fact that Curry’s Warriors had a vastly better record (67-15) than Harden’s Rockets (56-26). The won-loss record didn’t matter then.

So why does it matter now? And if it does, why wouldn’t you then take the argument to its logical conclusion and give the MVP to either Durant or Leonard — whose teams each have better records than Harden’s?

It’s not that the won-loss record doesn’t matter. It does. But only to a point, and not to the point where it’s determinant. In the end, I give the nod to Westbrook, a player who has defied history and back-to-backs and 24 consecutive missed shots in one game (!) and led his team to the playoffs when we all thought the only place they were headed was the Lottery. His is a season for the books — and for the MVP.

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As for the rest of my award picks for 2016-17, you can find them here

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Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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