James Harden and Daryl Morey try to make a winning MVP case against Russell Westbrook

Ben Rohrbach
James Harden embraces the MVP debate. (AP)
James Harden embraces the MVP debate. (AP)

On a weekend when James Harden’s 21st triple-double of the season was completely overshadowed by Russell Westbrook’s historic night, the Houston Rockets tried making their MVP case for the former.

Westbrook passed Oscar Robertson’s 55-year-old single-season record of 41 triple-doubles, scored 50 points and capped it all with a game-winning buzzer beater from 36 feet that eliminated the Denver Nuggets from playoff contention. It was the sort of throat-ripping effort we’ve become accustomed to from the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar — and a not-so-subtle reminder of his MVP candidacy.

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Meanwhile, Harden dropped 35 points, 15 assists and 11 rebounds in a win over the lottery-bound Sacramento Kings. Neither the Rockets (54-26) or Thunder (46-34) advanced their playoff stature, since they’re locked into the third and sixth seeds, respectively. And that’s kind of Houston’s whole point.

“I thought winning was what this is about. Period,” Harden told the Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen in response to a question about the value of victories versus records. “I’m not going to get into depths on that, but I thought winning is the most important thing. If you set your team up to have a chance at the ultimate goal, that’s the most important thing.”

The debate over what the middle letter in MVP really stands for is as old as the award itself. Can somebody who produces record-breaking numbers on a sixth-place team be considered more valuable than a guy who breaks records for a third-place team? Rockets general manager Daryl Morey didn’t seem to think so in a series of tweets before Westbrook’s masterful performance on Sunday:

Sounds like both Harden and Morey are concerned that MVP voters, whose ballots are due on Friday, might be swayed by Westbrook’s candidacy. The Houston GM went so far as to cite the 1962 MVP race, which saw Robertson finish third in the voting behind Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, despite averaging a triple-double on the year. Russell won MVP for his two-way contributions to a title team:

Except, that would appear to bolster two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard’s MVP candidacy, since he’s carried the San Antonio Spurs to a 60-win season on both ends of the floor.

Singlehandedly outscoring the Nuggets 15-4 in the final 3:35 of Sunday’s win, Westbrook bolstered another argument for his MVP case. In addition to leading the league in scoring and averaging a triple-double for the season, Westbrook’s “clutch” numbers (when the score’s within five points in the final five minutes) are mind-boggling, particularly when compared to Harden’s in the same situations.

Westbrook’s Thunder have outscored opponents by 85 in his 148 clutch minutes, compiling a 25-15 record in 40 qualifying games, and he’s averaging a staggering 80 points (56.9 true shooting percentage), 17.2 rebounds, 9.1 assists (against 6.2. turnovers), 3.9 personal fouls and 3.6 steals per 48 clutch minutes. Meanwhile, Harden’s Rockets have been outscored by 27 points in his 134 clutch minutes, logging a 21-18 record in 39 qualifying games, and he’s averaging 53.8 points (55.6 TS%), 15.8 rebounds, 7.2 assists (against 7.2 turnovers), 6.5 personal fouls and 1.4 steals per 48 clutch minutes.

Morey has a defense for that, too: Harden shouldn’t be punished for not playing as well in close games if his entire body of work is more impressive. Referencing Westbrook’s game-tying and game-winning performances against the Nuggets, Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks and Orlando Magic in recent months, the Rockets GM suggested Harden was more clutch in blowout wins over the same teams:

Mostly, Morey seems annoyed that Westbrook is receiving so much MVP attention for averaging a triple-double, since he’s reference the arbitrary nature of that achievement several times of late:

Those tweets came respectively in response to notes about 1) Harden joining Robertson as the only players to total 2,000 points, 750 assists and 500 rebounds in a season and 2) Harden staying on pace to break Tiny Archibald’s 1973 scoring/assists record of creating 56.8 points per game. Morey furthered this philosophy by saying, “I respect all choices in the MVP zone,” and sharing a link to the Rockets website explaining this zone: Essentially players who have created more than 2,500 points in a single season while leading their teams to a top-four record in the league. Harden rates high on this list:

James Harden has created a lot of points.
James Harden has created a lot of points.

This zone includes MVP campaigns by Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett and Karl Malone. It also features the efforts of Leonard, Stephen Curry and Isaiah Thomas this season. Following Sunday’s games, Westbrook has created just 13 fewer points than Harden — in 104 fewer minutes, mind you — but he does not crack fall into the zone, because the Thunder only own the league’s 10th-best record:

Russell Westbrook has also created a lot of points.
Russell Westbrook has also created a lot of points.

We should point out Westbrook might have created more points had he been surrounded by as many 3-point sharpshooters as Harden. Houston features a trio of 3-point shooters (Ryan Anderson, Patrick Beverley and Eric Gordon) more efficient than Oklahoma’s top 3-point specialist (Alex Abrines). It’s also a little easier to win games when your team is outscoring opponents by 3.8 points per 100 possessions when you’re on the bench, as the Rockets do sans Harden, than it is when they’re outscored by 9.8 points per 100 possessions in your absence, as the Thunder are without Westbrook.

Taking Morey’s “I respect all choices in the MVP zone” tweet a step further, he is essentially saying he’d be fine with Leonard, Curry or Thomas winning MVP, but would not respect Westbrook’s selection. The link Morey shared also features a number of Harden’s statistical superlatives this season, like these:

• “Averaging career highs in 29.2 points (2nd), 11.2 assists (1st) and 8.1 rebounds this season. Only Oscar Robertson averaged at least 28.0 ppg, 11.0 apg and 7.0 rpg in a single NBA season.”

• “Recorded 30+ points and 10+ assists 27 times this season. The most 30+ points, 10+ assists games in a season since 1983-84.”

• “On pace to record over 50 20+ point/10+ assist gamesthis season. The most ever. Next highest was Magic Johnson’s 42 in 1986-87.”

Morey’s link includes testimonials from guys like Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, who called Harden “the best player in the league,” and Houston teammate Patrick Beverley, who dubbed Harden “the best playmaker in the NBA right now.” The web page is rounded out with notes about Harden’s impact, like the fact that the Rockets have won 13 games more this season than last, and advanced statistical cases for the Houston star, like his league-leading 14.4 win shares.

Harden put his MVP candidacy in simpler terms, via the Houston Chronicle: “I know I’ve done enough.”

Of course, you wouldn’t have to do much digging to find superlatives, player testimonials, player impact breakdowns and advanced statistical arguments supporting Westbrook. (Never mind the fact the Rockets have made several upgrades to their roster, while the Thunder lost Kevin freakin’ Durant.)

The point is, there’s a case to be made for Westbrook, just as there are cases to be made for Harden, Leonard or LeBron James. How you rank them may depend on your definition of valuable. The Rockets just seem to be a little more vocal about their definition. And it’s not like they’re biased or anything.

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Ben Rohrbach is a contributor for Ball Don’t Lie and Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!