Russell Westbrook taking a raise of more than $8 million has turned him into a folk hero.
He’s seen as the antithesis of the Warriors’ super team – a loyal superstar who will put the Thunder on his back without Kevin Durant. Gun-slinging in the powerful West, Westbrook will fill the stat sheet and make Oklahoma City a formidable threat.
But hold your horses.
All but the most ardent Westbrook supporters believe the Thunder rank somewhere in the West’s third tier, behind the Warriors and Spurs/Clippers. A middling seed rarely produces an MVP.
The last 17 and 32 of the last 34 MVPs have led a top-two seed. The exceptions – Karl Malone in 1999 and Michael Jordan in 1988 – played for No. 3 seeds. No player on a lower seed has won since Moses Malone on the sixth-seeded Rockets in 1982.
Wins tell a similar story. Every MVP since Jordan in 1988 has played on a team that won at least 54 games (or was on a 54-win pace in a lockout-shortened season). Malone, again, hit the low-water mark since the NBA-ABA merger with Houston’s 46 wins in 1982.
Westbrook will have a tough time meeting that bar. ESPN’s forecast panel pegged the Thunder for 44 wins and the No. 6 seed.
Here’s how those marks – represented by the orange lines – would compare to every MVP since the NBA adopted a 16-team playoffs (blue):
By wins (adjusted to an 82-game season):
So, history is firmly against Westbrook – unless he can lift the Thunder to unexpected heights.
But this could be an ahistorical season.
LeBron, playing for the East-best Cavaliers, has paced himself during the regular season lately, and MVP is a regular-season award. He also must share the load with Kyrie Irving, who looks primed to reach the next level of stardom.
The consensus No. 2 in the East, the Celtics, are known for their balance.
Kawhi Leonard faces fewer complications, and the Spurs are widely pegged as second in the West. He might be the strongest traditional candidate.
Yet, maybe voters tweak their criteria and pick Westbrook even if he can’t win the uphill of battle of leading the Thunder to a top-two seed.
Narrative has always mattered, too, and sentiment appears firmly behind Westbrook.