Moore: How the Russell Westbrook-Chris Paul Trade Shifts the 2019-20 NBA MVP Landscape

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Photo credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: James Harden and Russell Westbrook

  • Two of the last three NBA MVPs, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, now share a team after Thursday night's blockbuster Rockets-Thunder trade.
  • Matt Moore (@HPBasketball) discusses how it changes the MVP landscape for the upcoming 2019-20 season.

Well… more than two days have passed, so it’s time to update MVP analysis since teams keep changing every 36 hours.

In the wake of the Rockets trading for Russell Westbrook, the landscape has changed again. Two major candidates share a uniform, which isn’t uncommon, but it does shift the dynamics. James Harden has finished top-two in three of the past four years, including one win, and Russell Westbrook has averaged a triple-double for three seasons in a row.

Needless to say, the game has changed.

How the trade affects James Harden’s MVP campaign


Interestingly, Harden’s odds haven’t dropped. In fact, at DraftKings, Harden’s odds went from +750 to +650, and his odds are unchanged at PointsBet and FanDuel.

I’m not willing to take Harden completely off the board, but this does radically change his role and the kind of resume he can put together. Paul George was an MVP candidate last season next to Westbrook, so we know it’s possible, even if defense was part of that equation and will never be part of Harden’s. George also doesn’t need the ball in his hands the way Harden does.

The key here is going to be reading the tea leaves. Now isn’t the time. You want to wait to hear how training camp is going, listen to indications around the team about how the two are fitting together and see how they look in preseason. If they’ve reconstituted the offense to accommodate both players somehow, then you can still get this number before the results start coming in.

Chris Paul had a 24.5% usage rate in 2018 and Harden was still able to win MVP. Now, that’s six percentage points lower than what Westbrook was at last year next to Paul George, but it’s also a pretty high usage rate next to which Harden was able to coexist.

And if Westbrook’s relentless threat draws defenders away — not necessarily from Harden, but from the other Rockets — it’ll bump back up Harden’s assist rate. The Rockets are better when Harden is tossing double-digit assists. That dynamic is strengthened here.

There’s long-term value on Harden at +750, but at +550 you should wait for a better number.

How it affects Westbrook

Westbrook was still Third Team All NBA this season, and he still had moments of brilliance. He will still be close to, if not actually at, that vaunted triple-double average. He will not, however, win the scoring title while doing so as he did in 2017.

What does a Westbrook MVP formula look like?

The Rockets can’t just win 50 — they need to win 55 games or more, because otherwise the response will be, “Well, they won that many without him.”

He’s going to have to get his field goal percentage back up above 45% because his usage rate next to Harden won’t be high enough to excuse a lower percentage. He doesn’t have to actually improve his 3-point shooting; he shot 34% after the All-Star Break, and shooting closer to his career 31% is fine.

However, he has to facilitate and lead the league in assists as he did the last two seasons. You need the production combined with the wins.

And it would require a significant James Harden absence, because otherwise, even if the numbers show that Westbrook was more impactful, Harden will get the majority of the credit, or at least enough to keep votes out of Westbrook’s hands.

All of these things make Westbrook a no-bet going in, even at a number as high as +2800 at PointsBet. We’d have to get pretty deep in the season for him to be a realistic candidate, and at that point you can still get a good number on him.

Other Bets

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo gains value due to this trade, and so his number dropped from +300 to +270 at FanDuel. But it’s still +300 at DraftKings and PointsBet. He remains a great hedge bet against the longshots. Many of the first-place votes for Harden would have gone Giannis without Harden in the mix. So anything that takes away from Harden’s shine benefits Giannis, who is one of the only superstars without a superstar teammate in the mix.
  • Likewise, this probably adds value to Steph Curry (+550 at DraftKings and FanDuel). Draymond Green is a star but not a superstar. If the Rockets struggle, it takes one of the teams that could finish above the Warriors out. Curry is in more of a Harden role now given the injury to Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant’s departure. The Warriors are likely to finish top-four, so there’s good value on Curry.
  • The same applies for Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, now that they are the only stars on their teams in a league of superstar dynamic duos.
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