COMMENT: Westbrook has cemented his MVP case

Jay Asser 11/04/2017
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On fire: Russell Westbrook.

The 28-year-old plays like a man who won’t be denied, so it’s fitting he’s put together a tour de force season that makes it difficult to deny him the MVP either.

In any other year, Westbrook’s case wouldn’t even be up for discussion, but because this campaign has seen several players have career seasons and perform at such high levels, we’re somehow left deliberating whether a man averaging 31.9 points, 10.4 assists and 10.7 rebounds has been the best player.

Or, it should be clarified, the player who has produced the most this season. The title of best basketball player is already held in a vice-like grip by LeBron James. But there’s a reason why James doesn’t win MVP and Gregg Popovich doesn’t earn Coach of the Year every season – they’re season awards, not generational honours.

And yet, James is still in the discussion due to the monster 2016-17 he’s had, along with other top candidates James Harden and Kawhi Leonard. You could hand the MVP to any of the four and be justified, but it’s become harder and harder to look past Westbrook.

In theory, it’s weird not to have your MVP picked out this late into the season, as if a handful of games will make a difference on a year-long award. But that’s how difficult it’s been to distinguish one MVP frontrunner from the other.

Any voter that was left undecided, however, has likely been swayed by Westbrook’s tidal wave during this month, which has included him locking up the first triple-double average for a season since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62, before breaking the Big O’s record for most triple-doubles in a campaign.

Westbrook not only set the mark though, but did it in spectacular, storybook fashion by knocking down a 36-footer at the buzzer to eliminate the Denver Nuggets from playoff contention and cap off a jaw-dropping stat line of 50 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists.

Forget the triple-doubles for a second and eliminate all the rebounds he’s grabbing – which could be considered ‘stat padding’ or inconsequential – and you still have to marvel at the fact he’s scored 40 points or more while dishing at least nine assists four times in the past seven games.

04-NBA

Meanwhile, James’ Cavaliers have continued to struggle post All-Star break, Harden’s efficiency has dipped and Leonard has remained, well, Leonard. If this was a horse race, Westbrook would be pulling ahead in the home stretch by a head.

Individual play isn’t the only factor though and Harden has somewhat of a point in saying: “I thought winning is what this is about – period.”

The irony behind Harden’s comment is that while it appeared aimed at Westbrook, it strengthens Leonard’s case, with the Spurs winners of 60-plus games and above Houston in the standings.

But winning is also what Westbrook has done, almost single=handedly, in carrying Oklahoma City to the playoffs after the departure of one of the five best players in the world in Kevin Durant. The minus-13.1 net rating difference when Westbrook plays and is off the court speaks for itself.

When we look back at this season, there’s no single player we’ll remember more than Westbrook. The definitive MVP case is being on the right side of history.

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DEBATE: Do the Cavs have any legitimate rivals in the East?

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The Toronto Raptors are aiming to get past the defending champions.

JAY ASSER SAYS YES

We’re so used to seeing LeBron James’ teams stroll to the NBA Finals year in and year out that it’s against our nature to pick against his squad to come out of the Eastern Conference.

While no one should bet against LeBron, it’s obvious there’s more of a vulnerability to the Cleveland Cavaliers this year than in the past two. And that’s not a sentiment drawn from a small sample size – we have half-a-season’s worth of data that suggests Cleveland are beatable.

Since the All-Star break and up to the loss to Atlanta in the first of a back-to-back, the Cavaliers were 12-12 with a point differential of minus-0.7. While their offence has mostly held strong with a 111.4 offensive rating during that span, it’s been the other side of the ball that’s turned into a legitimate liability.

Only the Los Angeles Lakers have a worse defensive efficiency in the second half of the season, with Cleveland surrendering 111.2 points per 100 possessions. They’ve been leaky and it’s no surprise considering they have few average to above average defenders.

And yet, they’ve likely done just enough to retain the top seed after dominating Boston in a game that could have very well tipped the scales against the Cavaliers had they lost, at least from a confidence perspective.

It would be short-sighted to write off the Celtics in a series against Cleveland simply off that one performance, as dismal as it was, but Boston may be the least of the Cavaliers’ concern in the playoffs, with threats also posed from the nation’s capital, as well as north of the border.

Washington have multiple scorers, while Toronto are one of the most balanced teams in the league.

The Raptors appear to be the East’s best chance to beat the defending champions and their mid-season trades of Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker have bolstered their toughness and defence – they own the third-best defensive rating post All-Star break at 102.7.

The Cavs’ decline, coupled with other teams’ improvement, spells a more wide open battle in the East.

Washington's John Wall drives against Cleveland's Kyrie Irving.

Washington’s John Wall drives against Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving.

JAMES PIERCY, SPORT360 EDITOR, SAYS NO

This season it’s been a little more challenging for Cleveland as, at various stages Boston (who could still get there), Toronto and Washington have had ideas on LeBron’s Iron Throne.

But still the Cavs stand above them, with the feeling there is a little more in the tank. And while that is hypothetical, what has to be considered is, realistically, how much better can that trio play?

Starting with the Raptors, yes, they have Kyle Lowry back at the right time and Serge Ibaka has added improvement both physical and technical at both ends of the floor, but can we expect DeMar DeRozan to go for 25+ points each game beyond Saturday? Or Lowry to be shooting 41.4 per cent from 3-point range (having averaged 30.4 in the postseason last year)? Or Jonas Valanciunas and Ibaka to stay out of foul trouble?

All that has gone so right could easily go so wrong. And they’re also historically awful in the playoffs.

The Wizards are this season’s surprise package with coach Scotty Brooks reinvigorating a stale-looking roster and given John Wall and a finally-fit Bradley Beal the freedom to play.

But Wall has a pretty poor shooting average (37.6 per cent) in the postseason (including a wretched 20.4 from 3-point range), and while he’s clearly a better player that, you’re still not backing him up against Kyrie Irving. At least not yet.

Beal, unlike Wall, has put up some impressive playoff numbers but may find himself having too much to do with a supporting cast of Markieff Morris, Otto Porter Jr. and Bojan Bogdanovic (combined playoff games: 0.

Boston have depth, defence and a clutch scorer to end all clutch scorers in Isaiah Thomas but can a team without a winning record against any of the East’s top six be relied upon to beat the very best in a seven-game series?

Finally, and perhaps most conclusively, it’s those numbers which paint the Cavs superiority in the best light as their regular season record against the next best three reads: 3-0 v Toronto; 3-1 v Boston; and 2-1 v Washington.

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STATESIDE: UNC Tarred by stain of corruption allegations

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UNC have been in hot water despite their NCAA win.

From layup to cover up. The North Carolina revenge mission may have been completed with the pain of last year’s buzzer-beater defeat to Villanova wiped away with last week’s March Madness title win over Gonzaga.

It was UNC’s seventh championship and confirmed they are the best college basketball team in the land. Yet as the tickertape fell, chronic wrongdoing and scandal were being glossed over.

In the next few weeks, the spotlight will publicly shine again though, this time, dark matters will come to the fore. An exhaustive three-year investigation involving the NCAA is coming to the end, which, some believe, will uncover the worst academic fraud in history.

It’s alleged that between 2007 and 2011 over 3,000 students were enrolled in fake classes to help bring the best athletes in the US to their coveted programme.

Tutors were found carrying out  homework for students. Grades had been adjusted accordingly. Plagiarism became commonplace.

The end product for sporting supremacy? Millions of dollars for coaches, teachers and the facility. (NCAA rakes in around $900 million for March Madness alone).

The African and Afro-American studies department which has come under the severest scrutiny boasted 10 of the 15 players who helped the Tar Heels win the title 12 years ago.

“Their classes were especially popular among those who played the ‘revenue’ sports of football and men’s basketball,” said a report.

To hell what happens in the classroom. Education? No, just worry about the next match.

Such a flagrant trouncing of rules by greedy men who should know better ignores the effect this will have on those in the system right now and in the future.

This sorry state of affairs is nothing new. College sports has been riddled with corruption for years.

University of Southern California (USC) were forced to take away 30 scholarships and had two title triumphs overturned because of illegal payments made to agents in 2010. A year later, Ohio State were banned after players received money for autographing memorabilia. Yet this mess digs far deeper into the depths of a continually abused system.

The whispers about UNC grew too loud to ignore and in 2014 Kenneth Wainstein, a former assistant attorney general, was asked to compile a report. His findings were remarkable. Student athletes were pushed towards meaningless subjects and even told to have a sleep at their desk if it all got too much. But despite all this, it took the NCAA ages before acting decisively.

Last December, a tough set of accusations against the university were filed. UNC lawyers agreed but quickly passed the buck back to the NCAA, whose rules members are supposed to operate under.

Taking retrospective action is problematic – these incidents started a decade ago – though naturally, the response on campus was one of startling innocence. Behind the scenes however, everyone knew about the firestorm brewing.

Other former employees spoke of UNC operating, “like a crime family who would do anything to protect their athletic machine.”

No team has ever had championship banners taken down but if the titles remain, penalties may still follow. Scholarships could be taken away along with wins, while strong denials from the university could see the hammer fall even harder.

“People have tested my credibility and I haven’t appreciated that,” said Roy Williams (left), UNC’s coach who has now won three titles during the period in question and bagged a nice $500,000 bonus last Monday. “It’s been used against us in recruiting… I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy and I don’t have too many enemies.”

The NCAA, however, appear to be pulling no punches, declaring the situation in North Carolina, “implicates issues at the very core of the Collegiate Model.”

Crunch time is looming. The lines between academic and sporting prowess have been blurred and the NCAA need to act or risk further embarrassment elsewhere.

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