As the regular season wound down, the takes flew fast and furious, but now, the debate is over. At the inaugural NBA Awards show in New York on Monday night, Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Russell Westbrook was named the NBA’s 2016-17 Most Valuable Player.
Westbrook topped fellow finalists James Harden of the Houston Rockets and Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs in the voting, following a campaign in which he became the first player since Oscar Robertson during the 1961-62 season to average a triple-double over the course of an entire NBA season. The 28-year-old All-Star point guard averaged an NBA-best 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists per night, absolutely carrying a Thunder team that had just lost top scorer Kevin Durant in free agency to a playoff berth despite a glaring lack of secondary creators and offensive talent surrounding him.
Thunder's Russell Westbrook made all types of history during his 2017 NBA MVP season… pic.twitter.com/XJJXLGSRQE
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) June 27, 2017
After taking the stage and accepting the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, Westbrook quickly thanked God before expressing gratitude to the Thunder organization — owner Clay Bennett, general manager Sam Presti, assistant general manager Troy Weaver, coach Billy Donovan, assistant coach Maurice Cheeks — for “believing in me and drafting me No. 4 [overall in the 2008 NBA draft] when nobody thought that was a great decision.” Westbrook then made a point of thanking all of the behind-the-scenes folks who make the Thunder run — “the film guys, the team doctors, the trainers, the massage therapists, the strength and conditioning staff, the equipment team,” and even the business office and chefs — for helping get him ready to compete every night.
Westbrook then brought several of his teammates in attendance in Manhattan — Nick Collison, Andre Roberson, Taj Gibson, Enes Kanter and Dunk of the Year winner Victor Oladipo — up on stage to share the moment with him.
“These are my brothers, man,” Westbrook said. “These guys sacrificed so much for me throughout the year. It was obviously an amazing season for me, but without these guys [and] the rest of our guys that’s not here, man, none of this would be possible. So this award is not for me. It’s for all of these guys, and I’m very, very thankful to have you guys in my corner. You guys are my brothers, for life.”
Westbrook got 69 of 100 possible first-place votes in MVP balloting, topping Harden (22), Leonard (nine) and fourth-place finisher LeBron James, according to the NBA:
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) June 27, 2017
That left the famously bristly Westbrook in a somewhat unfamiliar position on the stage.
“I never thought I’d be saying this up here today, but: I want to thank the media,” he joked. ” … I feel like I go out every night and compete at a very, very high level, and I’m thankful for you guys noticing that, so thank you.”
After making special mention of the fans in Oklahoma City, who’ve been “riding with me since day one, through good games, bad games, always there, lifting me up,” Westbrook turned his attention — and his emotion — to his family.
“Without you guys, I don’t know where I would be,” he said. “I can’t be standing here without your support, your sacrifice, everything you guys have done for me, starting with my parents. My parents … man. You guys did any and everything to make sure me and my brother had anything we wanted.”
At that, he laughed, and took off his glasses.
“I told myself I wasn’t going to cry,” he said.
And yet, he got choked up.
“I can’t say thank you enough,” he continued. “You guys sacrificed. Everything you’ve done … Pops, O.G., working two jobs, getting up at four in the morning, waking me up every night, going to the gym, shooting hoops outside, staying up late, playing the video games, man. To my mom, doing everything to keep our family together. Truly blessed to have you as my mother. It’s just so amazing — I couldn’t be able to do none of this without you guys. I can’t say thank you enough. There’s so many things I can say about you guys, just for putting me here. I’m just thankful to have you guys in my corner. I love you guys.”
Westbrook also singled out his brother, Ray, for all he’s done to help build Russ up over the years.
“My road dog,” he said. “You mean so much to me, man. You’re my role model. You’re my role model. I look up to you, man. I truly look up to you. You’re amazing. I’m so happy to have you as my brother. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. A lot of you guys may not know, but my brother just got his master’s [degree] two weeks ago. I’m so proud of him, not just for that, but for the man he is today. Just for helping me, lifting me up, every single day.
“My brother, man — he texts me every single game at halftime. Every game. Since I’ve been in the league, he texts me every game at halftime. He don’t got to do that, man. He does that because he has a kind heart, and he looks out for me. I love you from the bottom of my heart, brother. I promise you.”
Last, but certainly not least, Westbrook spoke about his wife, Nina.
“Since day one, meeting you, 2007, back at UCLA, I knew you were special, and special to me,” he said. “You make me go. You hold me down. You keep me in check, through good and through bad. You make sure that I’m on the right track, and I’m so, so appreciative of you, because you’ve sacrificed so, so much for me every single day, and I can’t thank you enough. As a wife in this league, man, to be able to sacrifice some of the things you’ve sacrificed, and everything that you do, I can’t put it in words and describe how thankful I am for you, to have you in my life.
“You’ve blessed me with a beautiful son that I’m so thankful for. You continue to make me go. Every time I come home, regardless of good or bad game, every time I see your face, your smile, it does nothing but brighten me up, and I just want to say that I love you.”
Harden was brilliant in his first year as the unquestioned point guard in Coach of the Year winner Mike D’Antoni’s spread pick-and-roll offense with the Rockets. He averaged 29.1 points, an NBA-leading 11.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds per game — all career highs — in 36.4 minutes per game, propelling Houston to 55 wins and the second round of the playoffs. He, too, shares rarefied air with Oscar, standing as the first player since Robertson in 1964-65 to average better than 29-11-8 per game over the course of a season.
After the retirement of longtime franchise focal point Tim Duncan, Leonard moved fully into a central role for San Antonio on both ends of the floor, and continued to blossom even under the increased burden. He averaged a career-best 25.5 points per game on efficient 48.5 percent shooting from the field, a 38.1 percent mark from 3-point range on 5.2 tries per game, and 88 percent at the free-throw line. He also kept making strides as a playmaker, dropping a career-best 3.5 dimes per game, and continued to burnish his reputation as the game’s premier perimeter defender, swiping 1.8 steals per night despite opponents frequently doing their level best to avoid dealing with him entirely, even if it meant sacrificing their top gun by parking him in the corner.
As brilliant as Harden and Leonard were during the regular season, though, and as entirely reasonable as arguments for their supremacy might have been, in the end, as predicted, this was Westbrook’s season. He grabbed it by the scruff of its neck and refused to let it go, from opening night on, delivering night after night of must-see-TV performances and dominating the NBA’s story through sheer force of will. His year ended in the first round of the NBA playoffs, but Russell Westbrook’s 2016-17 season will live on forever. Seems like it’s worth an MVP award to me.
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