Andrew Gilman

An unlikely MVP candidate

An unlikely MVP candidate

When the Thunder drafted Russell Westbrook, what seems like two lifetimes ago, they thought they were getting a defensive stopper, a pass-first point guard who would be the perfect combination to pair with Kevin Durant.

Turns out, that didn’t exactly turn out.

What the Thunder got instead was a hard-charging, offensive-minded, scoring-first type point guard that manifested itself into plenty of points but plenty of conversation, mostly from media, some from fans, about how Westbrook would never work in this league because he wasn’t cut out of the mold so many wanted him to be.

Turns out that didn’t last.

Fans were won over, media too, when Westbrook evolved into a battering ram in high tops, charging into the lane, pulling up for jumpers, racing by defenders and doing it with ease. The talk about Westbrook needing to be a “certain” kind of player sorta vanished. Understandably, too.

Now, spin it forward a few more years. Kevin Durant moved on and Westbrook stayed behind. Only this season, his production increased. Scoring, triple-doubles. All of it. You remember, right? Well, that season Westbrook’s production was so good and the separation from Durant was so noticeable, fans and media alike were won over. Westbrook won the MVP. Rightfully so.

Only about one thing was left over from the KD-Westbrook days together, only one storyline sorta remained intact – Westbrook’s inability to make others around him better, which loosely translates to, Westbrook just isn’t a great teammate.

And there’s some merit to that. While Westbrook piled up the numbers in KD’s absence, the triple-doubles, too, the team didn’t exactly ensconce itself in success. Sure, there were lots of wins, but success? Nope. Two playoff appearances since KD left. No playoff series wins – a damning bit of evidence used to point against Westbrook.

Skip forward to February of 2019. The Thunder, Paul George, a bunch of bench players and role players are having career-best seasons. Now, the conversation about how Westbrook hasn’t made players around him better is disappearing. It can’t be true, right? It can’t be true because the Thunder are playing their best basketball since KD and Harden and Ibaka and Westbrook got this franchise to the NBA Finals. This year’s team seems as good. Maybe better.

Why? How? Well, because they a player on this roster who should be in the conversation for the league’s Most Valuable Player, but won’t even get a mention. Not even close.

Seriously. Look at the odds. Paul George is 16-1 to win it. Well behind Harden, who’s a massive favorite, but while George has been great, Westbrook is the MVP. Should be. Won’t get it. Should, though

This is Westbrook’s best season, and yes, it’s happening while he’s lost his touch from the field and lost his feel from the free throw line, but if we’re going to value the triple-double, which was the case two seasons ago, but wasn’t last year, give Westbrook credit. He’s piling up the stat which was the reason he won the MVP and he’s also helping pile up the wins, too, something that didn’t happen two seasons ago.

But the true value of the MVP season Westbrook is having lies in his evolution, or perhaps it’s his regression. The reason players around him are having career years, the reason the Thunder are in the middle of a streak that has them winners of 11 of their past 12 and the reason this year’s team is playing so much better than it has in recent seasons, is because Westbrook has returned to the player the Thunder drafted.

Westbrook can go get 40 points per game like it seemed like he needed to a few seasons, if he wanted. Instead, he’s become pass-first. Sure, that’s easier to do when Paul George is on the court, but Westbrook wasn’t playing this style when Durant was here, or Kevin Martin was around, or Victor Oladipo was here, either. Westbrook, for whatever reason, perhaps wisdom, old age or just because, has progressed by regressing.

It’s been pretty remarkable to see. In a season where his shooting percentages are way down, the Thunder’s wins are way up. He’s because the exact player media and fans wanted him to be, then said they were fine when he wasn’t.

Westbrook has been great, but his best attribute this season has been his ability to completely change his game. No one else has improved tin that way. That change has made players around him better, wins easier to come by and turned into a lot better basketball. That’s why Westbrook should be the MVP.

Andrew Gilman

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