Since he came out of UCLA in the 2008 draft, Russell Westbrook has played every minute of every game like he was shot out of a cannon. A position-less, exhilarating enigma of a basketball player, Westbrook has always been the square peg to the conventional NBA’s round hole. Experts and even fellow players have sometimes whimpered about his shot selection or his shot frequency (sometimes warranted), but Westbrook is truly a one-of-a-kind player in an all-too uniform and increasingly monotonous league. And if his game didn’t highlight him enough, Westbrook has become the face of NBA fashion, even launching his own fashion collection last summer with Barneys. But the polarizing guard is not just a fascinating anomaly or a good story; Russell Westbrook is the NBA’s most valuable player for 2015.
At this point in the season, the MVP race is logically down to four guys: James Harden, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Westbrook, unless the Pelicans can find a way into the playoffs and thus entering Anthony Davis into the conversation. Harden and Westbrook have both lost their team’s other star for a significant period of time – though the injury to the reigning MVP might have more importance than that of Dwight Howard. Westbrook’s usage rate of 38.0% leads the NBA and is a full 5% higher than any of the other four candidate (LeBron has a 33.0% usage rate). Per 36 minutes, Westbrook leads all of them in points (29.0), assists (8.9), and rebounds (7.4).
It’s one thing to be relied upon that heavily, but it is an entirely other thing to produce when the entire defense keys in on you night-in and night-out. Westbrook is second in the NBA in player efficiency rating (PER) behind Anthony Davis, while chucking up nearly 21 shots per game. Contrary to the narrative against him, you can shoot a lot and still maintain a high level of efficiency. Let’s also not pretend as though the converted point guard doesn’t pass; he has assisted on over 48% of his team’s field goals when he is on the floor, and is still top-10 in the NBA in total assists despite missing 14 games at the beginning of the year.
In the month of February, Westbrook firmly cemented his claim for MVP when his team has needed him most. He averaged 31.2 PPG, 9.1 RPG and 10.3 APG, the team won nine out of 12 games, and they created enough breathing room to safely assume a playoff spot. Westbrook is the second player in NBA history to average 30/9/10 over an entire month, joining Oscar Robertson. The team did much of this and has spent the majority of the season without the reigning MVP Kevin Durant.
But to continue to compare Westbrook to the other NBA players by spewing statistics would be blatantly ignoring the beauty of his game. Westbrook might be the best athlete the NBA has ever seen. His raw combination of open court speed – possibly the fastest in the NBA – and jumping ability make his playing style much more intriguing. In this “I’m just here so I don’t get fined” era of professional sports, Westbrook’s unprecedented reckless abandon on the basketball is refreshing to any sports fan. Whether he is darting through the lane and contorting his body to finish a layup, or jumping to grab rebounds over guys five inches taller, or even dropping 40/13/11 with a bum ankle on the second end of a back-to-back in Portland in a game the Thunder really had no business staying competitive in, Russell Westbrook clearly loves being a professional basketball player. As a fan, is there really much more to ask for?
Much of Westbrook’s career has been unfairly assessed in comparison to and in his deference (or often criticized lack thereof) to Durant. Earlier in his career, the media tried its best to generate some sort of controversy between the two stars. Westbrook has never been shy; on the court he has often taken more shots than Durant has, and off of it his effervescence has dominated and occasionally overshadowed the often-reserved Durant. With this unapologetic exuberance, the detractors will always exist. But by placing the two teammates and friends side-by-side, the black and white sports culture we live in misses the point. One doesn’t have to be the hero and the other the villain; one doesn’t have to be better than the other; one doesn’t have to be the “second banana.” They’re just two damn good bananas.
Even those who point to Westbrook’s blemishes in the past must realize that the MVP award has nothing to do with the past. While some may permanently have a game in which Westbrook went 3/17 from the field or took a contested shot at the buzzer as opposed to passing off to Durant etched in their brains, Westbrook has stepped up and put himself on a different level this season. His “in-your-face” style leads him to be more susceptible to anecdotal judgments and dichotomous opinions.
He isn’t a point guard. He isn’t a great shooter. He isn’t going to take fewer shots. He isn’t even the best player on his team. And he isn’t shy.
But Russell Westbrook is the 2014-2015 NBA MVP.