(Russell Westbrook leads the NBA in scoring at 32.1 points per game. Photo by Tiago Hammil)
By MIKE HERNDON
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban likes to wind people up. Earlier this week, he knew just how to do it.
Mark Cuban says MVP is a toss-up between James Harden and LeBron James. Where is Russell Westbrook in that mix? “He’s not.”
— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) March 6, 2017
It was all for a laugh, as he revealed later when asked by a fan: “It’s too much fun to troll sports media,” he tweeted. “I can’t not do it to them.”
I’ll admit, he got me for a second there too. Although I do recall last year, when he also said Oklahoma City only had one superstar — Kevin Durant — prompting Durant to call him “an idiot.”
The secret to the best jokes is that there’s a hint of truth to them. While Cuban may have just been trolling, there are plenty of others out there who aren’t.
There may no MVP front-runner in recent memory who’s gotten less respect than Russell Westbrook.
He leads the NBA in scoring at 32.1 points per game. He is currently averaging a triple-double (10.5 rpg, 10 apg), and if that holds through the rest of the season, he’d be the first NBA player to average a triple-double since Oscar Robertson — who is the only player who’s ever done it.
That means Michael Jordan never did it. Magic Johnson never did it. Larry Bird never did it. And yes, LeBron James hasn’t done it.
We’re talking history, people.
And yet, we see headlines like this from Fox Sports’ Nick Wright: “Why LeBron James is the 2017 MVP no matter what.”
We’re seeing cases being made for James Harden and Kawhi Leonard. We are hearing Skip Bayless say that Westbrook’s 58 points in Oklahoma City’s loss to Portland amounted to “a step back” in the MVP race.
OK, it was Bayless, so what should we expect, right?
James, Harden and Leonard are all having MVP-caliber seasons, which is fueling the debate. There isn’t a ridiculous answer here. But the reasoning many are using in dismissing Westbrook is precisely why he should win it.
Westbrook’s Thunder are currently sitting in seventh place in the Western Conference at 35-29. Wright points out that it’s been 35 years since a player from a team that won fewer than 50 games was named MVP. Bayless noted that Westbrook missed some shots at the end against Portland with the game on the line. “Maybe mentally/physically gassed,” he wrote.
With Durant having struck out for greener pastures at Golden State, Westbrook is having to do it all. There is no other dependable scorer on the Thunder’s roster. Victor Oladipo is their second-leading scorer at 16 points per game. Only two other Thunder players are averaging double figures.
James has Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Leonard has LaMarcus Aldridge. Harden is one of six Rockets averaging double figures, including the newly acquired Lou Williams.
If Oklahoma City holds on and makes the playoffs, Westbrook will have almost single-handedly gotten them there.
If he fades down the stretch, give the trophy to one of those other guys. But if he finishes strong, his 2016-2017 will go down as one of the greatest individual seasons in NBA history. If he finishes strong, nobody will have been more valuable to their team this season than Russell Westbrook.