Russell Westbrook maybe not most valuable player, but probably NBA's most determined

Jonathan Raymond writes that Russell Westbrook has put on an awe-inspiring display in Kevin Durant's absence in Oklahoma City, even if it doesn't quite make him the real MVP.

Russell Westbrook leads the NBA in scoring this year with 27.4 points per game. Sue Ogrocki / AP / March 13, 2015
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"You the real MVP" was the famous line that came away from Kevin Durant's speech last May as he accepted the NBA's top individual honour.
Durant was talking about his mother Wanda, but in the time since he delivered the speech his words have taken on their own life around the Internet, in various memes and jokes lobbed around on Twitter.
Typically this season, they'll relate to Russell Westbrook, when the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard is going through one of his inhuman-seeming stretches leading the team in Durant's absence. Because with increasing frequency, Westbook is looking like the real MVP.
He notched his sixth triple-double in eight games on Friday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves, to give him the most such stat lines in a season since Jason Kidd - now a coach - in 2007/08.
At the beginning of the month when he had a string of four straight triple-doubles, he joined a club of two in the last 26 years with such a streak. The other was Michael Jordan in 1988/89.
With Durant out for two significant stretches this season, fans have been treated to Westbrook at his all-encompassing, unconstrained best as he lifts the rest of the Thunder on his back in the middle of a tight play-off race.
Since February 21, in 10 games with Durant sidelined, Westbrook has scored 32.8 points per game, dished 11.2 assists and grabbed 10.6 rebounds - a triple-double average.
He has single-handedly taken over Thunder games, night after night, to keep Oklahoma City neck-and-neck with the New Orleans Pelicans, with whom they share a 36-29 record. Westbrook is leading the NBA in raw scoring now with 27.4 points per game.
As a scorer, Westbrook is still the most authoritative driver to the basket in the game, the hardest-charging and most fearless. In fact he's leading the league with 10.6 points per 48 minutes on drives.
But he's also taking and hitting more threes in this stretch. He's raised his assist percentage, the percentage of teammates' assists he's responsible for, from 41.2 to 53.8; and his assist ratio, the number of assists a player averages for their own 100 possessions, from 21.5 to 23.7. Westbrook's playmaking has had Mitch McGary and Enes Kanter looking like Karl Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon at times.
This is while his already-high usage rate has spiked about five more points to 41.2 per cent. And he's also upped his rebounding percentage.
The more of a load he burdens, the more Westbrook seems to thrive.
That's the paradoxical element of his season, though, and maybe even his career alongside Durant in Oklahoma City - this Westbrook, the indomitable all-purpose wrecking ball, is the Westbrook most vividly on display only when Durant is out.
Durant is the better player, and when Durant comes back Westbrook will once again shift into the Robin role to his MVP teammate's Batman.
Despite a lot of conjecture to the contrary, Westbrook has never actually vocalised any discomfort with the arrangement, and the unavoidable fact is the Thunder need Durant to be a true title threat.
The Thunder are 7-4 in the last 11 games without the MVP, but worrisomely three of those losses came in their only three games against potential Western Conference play-off teams - Phoenix, Portland and the Clippers. They needed an overtime and 49-point effort from Westbrook just to get past the Philadelphia 76ers on March 4.
There's also a lot of noise in Westbrook's stats this season that's hard to overlook. To make a true MVP case for the 26-year-old, you have to place a lot of stock in intangibles and the sheer might of Westbrook's volume stats.
He's shooting a typically underwhelming 43.3 per cent overall. Defensively his real plus-minus figure by ESPN is in the slight negatives, and the Thunder actually allow four less points per 100 possessions with him off the floor. More than anything hurting a genuine MVP case for Westbrook is the handful of games he missed earlier in the season relative to candidates like James Harden and Stephen Curry.
But those are merely nit-picks. By ESPN's WAR he's the ninth-most valuable player this season. By BasketballReference's win shares he's 13th. His PER, 29.83, is second in basketball only to Anthony Davis. Without the 15 games missed he would almost certainly rank in the NBA's top five by just about any all-encompassing advanced measurement.
And Westbrook deserves the credit for keeping Oklahoma City in there, for donning Batman's cape and keeping Gotham safe while Durant's body has betrayed him off and on this year. There are few players in the NBA with Westbrook's combination of confidence and talent to singularly carry a team this way for any stretch.
The truth is next to Durant, or Harden or Curry this season, Russell Westbrook probably is not the real most valuable player. But he's very likely the most determined and indefatigable.
jraymond@thenational.ae
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