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<p>Russell Westbrook has been the key to the Oklahoma City Thunder’s playoff push</p>
Russell Westbrook has been the key to the Oklahoma City Thunder’s playoff push

Westbrook, Harden Lead Divisive MVP Field

Analysis and picks for this year’s major NBA awards

     AUBURN, AL (WEGL) - It’s that time of year where the NBA gives out their awards to recognize the best players at their craft. This year, the NBA is hosting their first ever awards show June 26th at Basketball City at Pier 36 in Manhattan. This year is more intriguing than most, especially the MVP race, as the landscape on the NBA is shifting. In this breakdown, I will name my picks for NBA Most Valuable Player, Most Improved Player, Sixth Man of the Year, Rookie of the Year and Coach of the Year as well as runner-ups for each award.

Most Valuable Player | Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

MVP Runner-up | James Harden, Houston Rockets 

Let me just go ahead and say this; Russell Westbrook winning Most Valuable Player does not make him the best player in the league.That is where a lot of arguing comes into the fray. Is this award for the best player? No, it is not. It is for the most valuable player to their franchise, that without them, that franchise would be dead in the water.

Let’s take an example from the NFL. Matt Ryan was named the NFL MVP right before the Super Bowl. Ryan had a great season and led the Falcons, a team that has struggled to find a foothold in the postseason, to a Super Bowl to look for their first championship. But right on cue, in comes Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, dethroning the Falcons in one of the best Super Bowls in recent memory.

At the end of the day, Tom Brady, MVP or not this past season, was still the better quarterback, but that does not take away from what Matt Ryan did for Atlanta. The fact of the matter is, Matt Ryan was the reason the Falcons got to the Super Bowl in the first place. Without Ryan, no one would guess as to where Atlanta would end up. You then think to yourself “Can you not say the same thing for Tom Brady?” Well, actually we can. Remember, Tom Brady was suspended the first four games of the season after the “Deflategate” incident. Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett led the New England Patriots to a 3-1 record before Brady made his return to the Browns. However, it proved one thing. The Patriots would be fine without Brady. Would they be a Super Bowl team? Maybe not. But they would still be a good playoff team. And who knows? Maybe Garoppolo or Brissett have what it takes to reach the Super Bowl.

But this goes hand in hand with the NBA MVP race this year. Let’s take the five most likely finalists for MVP. James Harden of the Houston Rockets, Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs, Russell Westbrook from the Oklahoma City Thunder, LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers and while some may disagree with throwing him in there because of his “slump” this year, and that is another opinion piece for another time, Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors.

So, who is the most valuable?

Looking at the standings above, The Warriors, Spurs and Rockets lead the Western Conference in that order. The Cavaliers are sitting at second in the Eastern Conference. But let’s take a look at the Oklahoma City Thunder, all the way at 6 th in the Western Conference.

Russell Westbrook was left high and dry by Kevin Durant when he went to the Golden State Warriors in the offseason. Russ was by himself and boy, he wanted to prove something. What did he prove exactly? That the Thunder wouldn’t be in the playoffs without him. The Thunder are only 5.5 games ahead of the Trail Blazers for the last seed in the Western Conference. Hypothetically, if you take Westbrook off the Thunder, Oklahoma City is no longer in the playoffs.

You cannot say the same for the other players involved.

Steph Curry is vital to the Golden State Warriors success no doubt. But if Curry was not to play for the Warriors this season for any reason, would anyone think “There is no way the Warriors make the playoffs?” Of course not. A team with Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson is a team I still wouldn’t want to play any day of the week. That is not even throwing in Matt Barnes, who has filled out his role nicely since his move from Sacramento, and Andre Iguodala, the anchor that holds down the bench as the six player that teams dream of. This team could still be the number one seed in the West without Curry.

Then you have Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs. Averaging 25.7 points per game and about 6 rebounds per game, Leonard is the key piece for the Spurs success, no matter how old they may get. But with a team that has LaMarcus Aldridge, who even on the other side of 30 is producing day in and day out, and Patty Mills alongside Jonathon Simmons, this Spurs team still has a lot of kick in it, not to mention the veterans Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Gregg Popovich makes it come all together with his unique hall of fame coaching style.

James Harden and the Houston Rockets are the epitome of “shooters gotta shoot.” James Harden may average 29 points, 8 rebounds and 11 assists, but take a look at this number. Six players average double points, including Lou Williams who came over from the Lakers. While Troy Williams averages double digits, he has only played five games. The Rockets also take many shots from three, but they are one of the best teams at it, making around 14 a game. So, take James Harden off that team and you still have a good squad. Maybe not a three seed, but a definite playoff contender.

And then, of course, you have LeBron James. For me and many others, the best player in the league. Having a statistically good year all around, LeBron has engineered a campaign that looks to take the Cavaliers back to the NBA Finals. Yes they have slumped at the end of the regular season, but do not be fooled by this Cavalier team. With Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Tristan Thompson, this team has all the makings of a repeat (when healthy of course).  So take LeBron off the Cavs and what do you have? In an Eastern Conference that is lacking compared to the loaded Western Conference, the Cavs would not drop as low as a four seed.

Some would argue “what about the stat that the Cavs are 4-19 without LeBron in the past couple of seasons?” Well, it is true. When LeBron does not show up, neither do the Cavs. But what you also must account for is that when LeBron does not play, it is usually due to a night off. In many of those games, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love sit as well. It would be more accurate to say that the Cavaliers are 4-19 when resting their starters.

Now for my MVP choice, Russell Westbrook. Not only does he average a triple-double (31.9 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists) but he also broke Oscar Robinson’s 55-year old record when he notched his 42 nd triple-double of the year against the Denver Nuggets. Not only that, but he also has some solid pieces around him in Victor Oladipo and the center duo of Enes Kanter and Steven Adams. Quite simply, that is not good enough. Even with all this going for the Thunder, they finished with a respectable 47-35 in a tough Western Conference. But what happens if you take Westbrook out? The Thunder are no longer a playoff team if they do not have someone step up. In turn, it shows the value that Westbrook has for the Thunder.

What about the argument that Westbrook makes those around him worse because he hogs the ball? Not so fast there, because there are two things to point out and I am going to break one of my golden rules of sports. Never read too much into stats. For this argument, I will compare the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Golden State Warriors, the best team in the league. How much is Westbrook hurting his team?

Combine field goal percentage for both teams are not has far off as you think. Golden State is shooting .495 from the field while Oklahoma City is shooting .452 from the field. Why is this important? It shows that the gap is not nearly as wide as it seems. Combine that with ESPN’s point per shot indicator (Golden State – 1.33 and Oklahoma City – 1.22) and the Thunder are only a couple steps behind the Warriors. That does not mean that there is not problems with how the Thunder operate because there is, but not all of it comes from Westbrook and his shooting.

So let’s also talk about that. Westbrook takes 24 shots a game. Is it a lot? Of course it is. But no one seems to focus on DeMar DeRozan, Anthony Davis or Kyrie Irving, who take 20.9, 20.3 and 19.7 shots per game respectively. Why is that? Four shots cannot really be the difference between a team player and a ball hog is it? But for every single one of them, they have a game plan. Run the offense through them. These numbers are not because any one of these players are ball hogs, it is because that is just how their team is designed by nature.

Even after taking 24 shots a game, two players, Oladipo and Kanter, still average double digit shots. In comparison, take out Curry and how many players do you think have double digit shots on the season? Two, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant. How about their field goal percentage? Russell Westbrook just runs around and tosses it to his teammates when the shot clock in low right? If it is true, his teammates do a good job of knocking down the shots as Enes Kanter is gold from inside the ark and Olapido is shooting .442 from the field. How does that compare? Curry and Thompson both are shooting .469 from the field.

What does all this mean? It means that Russell Westbrook playing the way he does, the way his team is designed to play, does not hurt his team as much as many people think. That his team is not that far off from the loaded Golden State Warriors. Does it mean that they can compete with them? No way, the Warriors are just that good. But the Thunder can hang around and that is because of Russell Westbrook. Without him, they would be currently deciding who to take in the draft to rebuild.

So Westbrook averages a triple double. Check. Westbrook also breaks Oscar Robinson’s record for triple-doubles in a season with 42. Check. Russell Westbrook and the Thunder stats show that Westbrook is not hurting his team as often as people think, which was a lot of other individual’s arguments as to not give him MVP. Check.

Give the man the award.

Most Improved Player | Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Most Improved Player Runner-Up | Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Fear the deer.

The Milwaukee Bucks are in the playoffs after posting a 33-49 record last season. A lot of that is thanks to the Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo. He has career highs in every category that you can name and that sports critics make up. The Bucks now have a winning season, being the six seed in the playoffs. What is even more impressive? He was able to do this after Khris Middleton and Jabari Parker went down with injuries. How important is he to the Bucks?

When you put it that way, the only thing more confusing than pronouncing his name would be the NBA explaining how he didn’t win the award.

Sixth Man of the Year | Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors

Sixth Man of the Year Runner-Up | Eric Gordon, Houston Rockets

For me, this is the hardest award to give. Because, in a sense, both of these players deserve the award. Andre Iguodala is just being plain old Iggy, balancing the Warriors out and giving them the spark off the bench that many teams desire. Eric Gordon has had a miraculous year after some so-so campaigns. Gordon adds more stat wise. 16 points per game for Gordon while Iguodala averages around 7 points. However, Iguodala shined this year when Kevin Durant went down with an injury. He was the stable piece that kept the Warriors together. That does not take away from Gordon, who can shoot lights out from beyond the arc. Gordon was the reason that James Harden was relieved of on ball pressure, freeing up Harden to make the moves he needed to. But when it comes right down to it, Iguodala does more for his team. Maybe not stat wise, but rhythm wise and deserves to be Sixth Man of the Year. 

Rookie of the Year | Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks

Rookie of the Year Runner-Up | Dario Saric, Philadelphia 76ers

Ok, I have some thoughts about this award.

Malcolm Brogdon and Dario Saric have played some great basketball this year. If I could only give it to one, it would be Brogdon simply because he was the bigger asset. While Saric averaged 12 points and 6 rebounds in 81 games this year, Brogdon sports his own double digit average. Not only that, but Brogdon also has the better shooting percentage than Saric anywhere on the court and he can also get the ball to his teammates.  Both guys are upsides to both of their organizations.  Now the player that I have problems with…

Joel Embiid.

Let it be known, I am a big fan of the style of basketball that Embiid puts on the floor. He tore up the scene with monstrous games and the 76ers are lucky to have him on board. But lets sit back and remember that Embiid only played 31 games this season, which at the end of the day, hurts his chances to win the Rookie of the Year award. I know, there is no limit on how many games can be missed before a player is not eligible for the award. But I feel as though if you cannot make it through half the year, then you probably shouldn’t win the rookie of the year award. Consistency in the NBA is important and all Embiid needs to do is stay healthy next year.

That being said, Embiid is an early favorite for Comeback Player of the Year. The important thing to take away in all of this is that the Philadelphia 76ers have two players up for Rookie of the Year and neither is named Ben Simmons. While Simmons makes his way back from injury, faithful fans should be excited as the Sixers look to have a top six pick in the upcoming 2017 draft. Embiid, Saric, Simmons and a top six pick from this year’s draft. Believe in the process?

It seems that it is working.

Defensive Player of the Year | Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

Defensive Player of the Year Runner-Up | Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

Look on the bright side Draymond, at least you are looking for your third straight NBA Finals trip.

Facts are facts and they say that Gobert has done more with less. This Utah Jazz team has been hit with injuries left and right, but that has not stopped them from topping 50 wins this season and nabbing the five seed in the tough Western Conference. Gobert has been the driving factor in many of those occurrences. Not only did he play a consistent 81 games, but he averaged a double-double of 14 points and almost 13 rebounds. What makes him such an asset on defense?

Lets see you try to shoot over someone who is 7’1”. Gobert leads the league with 214 blocks. Not only that, but his defensive rebounds (721) outshines Green’s total rebound statistic (599). Being second in defensive rating and Utah being not only a top 3 defense in the league, but second in opponent field goal percentage within 5 feet of the rim, no wonder Gobert seems like a hot commodity to some and should win the Defensive Player of the Year award.

Coach of the Year | Mike D’Antoni, Houston Rockets

Coach of the Year Runner-Up | Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat

Last night did not go well for Spoelstra, but there is nothing to be ashamed of. But this year went right for Mike D’Antoni, who led the Houston Rockets to the third best record in the NBA, nipping on the heels of the Warriors and Spurs. Not only that, the Rockets offense put together a historic campaign. Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson’s contracts seem to be paying off, Montrezl Harrell and Nene are playing some productive minutes, Clint Capela has become a stable of big men in the league and James Harden keeps everything rolling.


When Dwight Howard left, it appears everything would spiral out of control. But now the Rockets look like the team that some fans may be shivering about at night. Could this be their year?

But lets go back to the Miami Heat. Erik Spoelstra deserves a lot of credit for what happened down there this year. Everything that could go wrong for the Heat did. Injuries piled up, players were having slumps and the Heat started with an 11-30 record. Pat Riley said that they were playing for the future, but Spoelstra never gave up and Miami kept fighting until the very last day for a playoff spot. What does the future hold for the Heat? Not many people know with several players signing one year deals, but who does not want to play for a coach that can turn around a team like Spoelstra did?

Jared Dillard

WEGL Sports Director | Host of The Xtra Point on WEGL Radio and Eagle Eye TV Monday - Friday from 10am to Noon

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