There’s no way to definitively discern how good James Harden and Russell Westbrook are in relationship to one another. This post will make no effort to determine such an order of merit. But that in itself is noteworthy, since Westbrook is widely perceived as elite while Harden is just very good. What’s important here is the reason people have a hard time accepting that Harden is Westbrook’s equal has nothing to do with things in Harden’s control, namely playing time and play calling.
Let’s begin with the obvious: Westbrook produces significantly more, per game, than Harden. 23.6 points per game compared to 16.8; 5.5 assists compared to 3.7. That Harden could be his equal in the face of such numerical disadvantage is a cousin of the argument that Manu Ginobili, in his prime, was every bit as deadly as Kobe Bryant even if the body count didn’t stack up accordingly.
Even after adjusting for court time, Westbrook comes out ahead. However we must consider efficiency and the benefit of such efficiency for the team. Harden turns the ball over less frequently, had a slightly higher Pure Point Guard Rating, is a better shooter, a better pick-and-roll player and every bit as devastating in the open court — he can’t equal Westbrook’s explosiveness but his results are better in fast breaks and pretty much every other offensive scenario, according the Synergy.
As great as Westbrook is, and he is obviously so, you’d have a hard time building a credible case that he’s tangibly better than Harden at anything other than playing more and having more opportunities by virtue of handling the ball a greater percentage of each game. As every possession Westbrook dictates is one Harden cannot, it’s legitimate and fair to say Westbrook limits Harden’s game-to-game numbers. It’s simply not reasonable to compare their production levels given their unequal opportunities. This needn’t imply a cent of malfeasance on Westbrook’s part, it’s just a mathematical reality — though conclusions about Harden’s comparative ceiling should be tempered some by the fact that he gets to be a bit more choosey in his attacking, and that if he were to play as Westbrook does (though it’s not clear Westbrook needs to play that way) he would likely lose some efficiency via the Kevin Love effect.
If you don’t buy that claim, consider that Harden basically never got the ball in crunchtime throughout the regular season then repeatedly and single-handedly demolished playoff defenses in the final five minutes once he got the chance. That he didn’t score in crunchtime was viewed by many as a meaningful referendum on his crunchtime ability. But did he suddenly develop new skills, or was a latent ability activated by opportunity?
There is one thing that Westbrook unequivocally does better than Harden and that’s to find shots near the basket. The NBA’s stat site says Westbrook shot at the rim 6.5 times per game, second only to Tyreke Evans among guards and good for 8th in the whole league. How telling is that statistic? It’s hard to say. Westbrook is grouped between John Wall and Evans as guards go, though he did manage to shoot a few more free throws than Wall and far more free throws Evans. And he makes those count. He’s a great accumulator of points by blunt force trauma. The scoreboard cares not for artistry.
And if science ever finds out what it is that fuels Russell Westbrook we may no longer have to seek foreign sources of fossil fuels. His inexhaustibility, even when his efforts are thwarted for long stretches, has many times been a rallying force for his team. There are games when Durant looks listless and Perkins slow. It will appear the Thunder have disengaged from the proceedings entirely, except for one stalwart soldier dumping in jumper after jumper and creating single-engine fastbreaks then lowering his shoulder to the rim as though he might batter through his opponent’s spirit. Westbrook will carry a team emotionally and on the scoreboard long enough for a second engine, whether it’s Durant or Harden, to fire and push the Thunder to victory. He’s a force.
(This isn’t exactly germaine to the discussion, but Westbrook also seems to do this thing where he comes up with super clutch, hyper-hustley athletic plays, like snatching an offensive rebound in the last minute of a close game.)
Defensively, this one’s impossible to call. Westbrook’s athletic profile suggests an elite, lockdown player lurks within what’s really a very inconsistent and at times catastrophically unsound defender — remember Mario Chalmers scooting to the rim off ball reversals in the Finals? That was the result of Westbrook being way out of position then taking a poor closeout angle. There’s also that bit about needing to be taken off of Tony Parker in the Western Conference Finals because he was having so much trouble navigating pick-and-roll coverages.
Harden’s defense is “Just OK,” in the famous and probably charitable words of Jerry Colangelo, but it looked damn good against Kobe Bryant in the second round of the playoffs, and his length and strength are assets that allow him to guard three positions as long as the small forward isn’t LeBron James. Westbrook has the edge in terms of peak ability, but slow, veteran teams can still have top notch defenses for a reason.
The gap in their top-end athleticism is real, but I wonder if it’s manifestly substantial. Harden is a more clever and skilled player, and that’s a certain kind of athleticism that, like Westbrook’s astounding vertical or impossible work rate on the court, are borderline impossible to teach. It’s hard to exactly put your finger on it, but it’s best captured by “he got game.” Harden has loads and loads of game.
The preceding aims to convince you that Harden is in the same class of NBA player as Westbrook. He’s a year younger and has a year less experience, so factor that in too. Both have improved measurably each year in the league. Both have excellent reputations as teammates (and innovators of a personal language) and workers. Yay Thunder.
I’m fairly certain that had Harden been starting his whole career people would not see him as perhaps a bit passive, unfit to carry a team himself. We hear that starting doesn’t matter. That it’s the amount of minutes a player’s on the court, and that it’s more important to finish a game than it is to start. That’s all true, in terms of real statistical merit. Harden contributed more Win Shares in fewer minutes than Westbrook, so there’s a plain argument he was the more important player.
But whether it’s his beard that seems — perhaps unconsciously — to tell fans “I enjoy being a third option” or the fact that he was brought along a little more slowly and continues to come off the bench despite being a top three player at his position, there’s something subverting perceptions of his apparent greatness.
Stats may say when minutes are played doesn’t impact the final score. And they are correct, no doubt about it. But a lot more goes into player-evaluation than hard fact. There’s also amateur psychological evaluation and questions about context. This isn’t to say the Thunder don’t know how good Harden is, it seems silly to suggest they’ll do anything but sign him and figure out the rest later. But when basketball brains scoff at a player who longs to hear his name called in the opening lineup, keep Harden in mind. Opportunity implies ability; starting implies the merit to start. How people think about the work you do matters. That’s why starting matters.