Russell Westbrook continued his historic season on Wednesday with maybe the best individual performance of the 2014-2015 NBA season, scoring 49 points, grabbing 16 rebounds and dishing out 10 assists. Leading the Oklahoma City Thunder to a win with yet another triple-double, the prolific point guard is making a strong case to win the MVP award.
In a season that has seen Kevin Durant sit for more than half of the year with injuries, Westbrook has kept the Thunder in the playoff race by filling up the stat sheet like few NBA players have ever done. In February, he joined Oscar Robertson as the only person to ever average 30 points, nine rebounds and 10 assists per game for a calendar month, having played at least 10 games.
With just a quarter of the season remaining, Westbrook leads the league in scoring (27.0) and ranks fourth in assists (8.2). Allen Iverson was the last player to rank in the top five in both categories, doing so in 2005. Westbrook is also No.3 in steals (2.07), and his seven rebounds per game average puts him 22 spots ahead of the closest backcourt player.
Oklahoma City was an NBA Finals contender in the last four seasons, as Kevin Durant finished each year in the top-five of MVP voting, winning the award or coming in at No.2 in the last three seasons. Playing in a historically-tough Western Conference, Westbrook has helped the Thunder stay an above-average team with limited talent around him.
Without Westbrook or Durant, Oklahoma City lost 10 of 15 games. When Westbrook has been forced to carry the team without Durant, the Thunder have gone 12-8, which would put them on pace for a 49-win season. In his last eight games without last year’s MVP, Westbrook is averaging 33.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 11.1 assists per game.
Westbrook’s biggest competition for the MVP comes from Stephen Curry, LeBron James, and James Harden. Curry is still the betting favorite, ranking in the top six in both scoring and assists, and playing for the No.1 seed in the West. James (26.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 7.3 apg) and Harden (26.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 7.0 apg) have almost identical numbers, playing for the No.4 seed in their respective conferences. Anthony Davis will also get some votes, but he has little to no chance of winning the award if the New Orleans Pelicans miss the playoffs.
Injuries have kept Westbrook off the court for 15 games this season. His team has no guarantee to make the playoffs and doesn't have much of a chance to get higher than the eighth seed. Still, the argument can be made that he’s the most deserving candidate. Curry is having a terrific season, but he hasn’t been asked to carry the load that Westbrook has this year, and Curry is playing with one of the best rosters in the NBA. James remains the best player in the world, but he isn’t likely to win the award for a fifth time this year. The Cleveland Cavaliers are only the No.4 seed in a weak conference with three players that started in last year’s All-Star Game.
Harden might have the best chance to prevent Westbrook from winning the award. Not only does he have nearly the same scoring average and fill up the rest of the stat sheet, but he’s done an equally good job of carrying a team that’s missing their superstar. Dwight Howard has only played 32 games, but the Houston Rockets haven’t missed a beat without the eight-time All-Star. Harden has led the Rockets to a 19-9 record with Howard in street clothes, keeping them in the race for home-court advantage in the first round of the postseason. Harden has played all but one game, sitting on Tuesday because of a suspension.
Oklahoma City has remained in the playoff race without Durant, but they’ve struggled against elite competition. Against teams that have a winning record, Westbrook has led the Durant-less Thunder to a 2-7 record. During Westbrook’s current streak of four straight games with a triple-double, Oklahoma City lost both contests against winning teams. They needed overtime to beat the 13-win Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday, and the Thunder were outscored by 12 points with Westbrook on the court.
But few players would be able to accomplish what Westbrook has done. Two of Oklahoma City's starters on Wednesday have a PER of less than 10.0 this season, and the Thunder would be one of the NBA’s worst teams without the point guard.
Even if he doesn’t win the MVP award, there’s little argument that Westbrook is among the best players in the league at this point, putting up one of the best seasons in recent memory. The Thunder will likely enter the playoffs as the No.8 seed, but a healthy Durant and Westbrook will make them one of the favorites to win the championship.