Russell Westbrook deserved the hardware.
As we discussed more than two months ago, when this debate was front and center and the Oklahoma City Thunder star was putting the finishing touches on one of the more memorable MVP races in NBA history, his triple-double season for the ages deserved to be rewarded. But for the love of Oscar Robertson, was this timing tough or what?
It wasn’t Westbrook’s fault that the league decided to wait 75 days to settle the argument by way of the NBA Awards show on TNT, with the 28-year-old beating out fellow finalists James Harden of the Houston Rockets and Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs. But synergy was sacrificed in the name of the almighty dollar. And by the time Westbrook got his hands on the Maurice Podoloff Trophy that belonged to the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry these past two years – nearly seven weeks after the announcement last season – the optics changed on the MVP race in the kind of way that gave the formal crowning a hollow feel.
It’s all a disastrous disservice to the players who deserve better.
Consider what has transpired since Westbrook was seizing the spotlight during the regular season by becoming just the second player in league history to average a triple double (31.6 points points, 10.7 rebounds, 10.4 assists per game).
Westbrook’s Thunder, which came within eight wins of the 2015-16 Oklahoma City team that had former MVP Kevin Durant before his departure to the Warriors last July, fell in five games to the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs. That Thunder-Rockets affair was unofficially seen as the MVP showdown series between Westbrook and Harden, even if all the votes had already been tallied for the award that only takes the regular season into account. And by the look of it, Harden had played his way into a better light.
But then Harden hit a wall of his own, as his Rockets fell to the San Antonio Spurs in six games in the second round during his unflattering finish. The Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard missed overtime of Game 5 and Game 6 with an ankle injury, yet Harden & Co. simply couldn’t take advantage of the monumental break as they lost both games.
With Westbrook gone by then, the scrutiny was Harden’s to be had. All the while, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James was barreling through the postseason in the kind of transcendent way that reminded us that no one is better when he’s at his best. What’s more, Durant and Stephen Curry surely stopped caring where they fell in the final MVP voting by the time the Warriors were winning their second championship ring in three years.
None of this takes away from what Westbrook did, of course, but those memories of his fantastic play had faded by the time he took the Pier 36 stage in New York City. What’s more, the harsh reality is that far too many fans still believe that these honors take the postseason into account. By going with this structure, it only perpetuates that perception for the confused masses and cheapens what the stars accomplished.
So let’s not forget how Westbrook made individual history while leading his decimated Thunder team to a 33-9 record in those games in which he had a triple double. Ditto for Harden and Leonard, whose combination of regular season individual dominance and team success meant they were the rightful trio to be named finalists. And last but certainly not least, let’s hope the NBA reconsiders the timing of this production the next time around.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Sam Amick on Twitter @Sam_Amick.