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James Harden vs. Russell Westbrook: Triple-Doubles and the MVP

Nov 2, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) passes against Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) in the third quarter at Toyota Center. Rocket won 110 to 105. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 2, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) passes against Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) in the third quarter at Toyota Center. Rocket won 110 to 105. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
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James Harden and Russell Westbrook are deeply entrenched in one of the most hotly contested and debated MVP races of all time. Today, we’ll assess who is more deserving of the coveted hardware.

Divorce is bad. Sometimes.

In the case of James Harden and the Oklahoma City Thunder, it was more like an annulment.

October 28th, 2012 isn’t a date that necessarily rolls off the tongue, but it’s one that NBA players and fans alike won’t forget for a while. Woj dropped a real bomb that day.

Oklahoma City has traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets, league sources tell Y! Sports.

— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) October 28, 2012

It was a move that shocked NBA franchises and shook the landscape of the league simultaneously. The Thunder, after failing to agree on an extension with James Harden, decided to ship him to the Houston Rockets in exchange for guards Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb, along with two first round picks and a second round pick.

Given the fact that the Thunder had recently struck long-term deals with their main core at the time (Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka), it was going to be a tall task to get James to accept a deal worth less than his teammates’, especially given his age and his future projections.

In James Harden, the Rockets got a nifty, crafty, lefty Ginobli-esque scorer/playmaker at the ripe age of 23. He was coming off a career year, averaging 16.8 points and 3.7 assists a game en route to a Sixth Man of the Year trophy.

James even got invited to play with Team USA that summer with his best friends, KD and Russ. He kind of stunk it up in the Finals against the Miami Heat just before that, but he was a bench player, after all, and young as well. It was understandable; the moment got to him.

As I said, the Thunder couldn’t offer Harden a contract he was willing to sign. And just like that, he was handed the keys to a whole NBA franchise with no idea how to run the show. How was someone who only had only logged seven starts in three seasons supposed to handle 35+ minutes a night?

Fast forward to the summer of 2016. If Harden’s split with OKC was an easy annulment, Kevin Durant‘s departure was a divorce. A messy divorce at that. The “he said, she said” type, except with the 25-year-old model from Los Angeles replaced by a team that went 73-9 in the regular season and was a minute away from completing the best season in the history of any sport. Durant left Russell Westbrook alone in OKC in favor of the more enticing Golden State Warriors with his eyes on an easy championship.

But divorce is bad. Sometimes.

Now in March of 2017, the Brodie and the Beard are having two of the finest individual seasons in NBA history. With about 12 games to go, Russell Westbrook is putting up 31 points, 10 assists, and 10 boards per night. THIRTY-ONE, TEN AND TEN.

70 games gone in a season, and he’s still on a triple-double average. That is insane. Flip to ESPN on any given night and you’ll see Russ’s latest exploits. When he’s weaving and driving his way to the rim, it’s damn near impossible to guard. Like this:

Or this:

Because of his ridiculous stats, Russell would be the unanimous MVP in any other season. This hasn’t been any other season, though. James Harden is right with Westbrook in the MVP race, putting together an equally historic campaign.

Looking at the counting stats of Russ’s biggest rival, the Beard is averaging a less-impressive 29 points, 11 dimes, and 8 rebounds. It’s unbelievable that that stat line isn’t the best in the league from all standpoints, but Russ has simply stuffed the stat sheet that full. Still, though, James Harden is playing with a previously unfathomable combination of volume and efficiency.

When a race is so close, it’s necessary to dig a little deeper. We’ll take a look at a couple of differentiators today and try to figure out if the Beard or the Brodie is more deserving of MVP.

Next: Advanced Stats and Evolving Game

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) reacts after a play against the Houston Rockets during the fourth quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

MVP races are mostly subjective, but there are instances where numbers don’t lie about Harden and Westbrook.

Grab your glasses, we’re about to really look into Harden’s and Russ’s 2K-like seasons. Per Basketball-Reference, the Brodie leads the Association in PER at 30.2 while Harden checks in at 27.8. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Westbrook really hasn’t been more efficient than Harden.

How, you may ask? Here’s a simple one to ponder: James Harden could miss his next 177 shots and still have a higher effective field goal percentage than Russell Westbrook. That is absolutely absurd.

What Harden has been able to do this season is be more selective with his shots, often opting to dish the ball to a teammate with a better look at the basket. This strategy works beautifully in Houston’s three-heavy offense, with large percentage of Harden’s assists go towards threes.  This makes the average Beard dime worth more than the league’s typical.

Because he passes to long range shots, Harden directly creates an average of 56.3 of his team’s points per game. That’s the highest in the history of the league. Westbrook dishes the ball to layups or midrange jumpers more often, thus creating an average of 55 points per game.

Evolving Game

Mike D’Antoni is one of the primary reasons that Harden has flourished this season. He has come in and allowed James to run his free-flowing offense, slotting him at point guard for the first time in his career. The Beard has taken to the change beautifully, unlocking aspects of his game that simply didn’t exist before.

Fans have gotten the privelege of watching an already-great player mature and develop his game into something even better. He’s added several signature moves to his arsenal and they’ve all helped him play at a whole new level this season.

Harden’s no-look dish to Ryan Anderson this year is almost as common as the Bron-Wade alley-oop was in 2013.

This year, James has become an expert at the assist from the backcourt, which is a killer for defending teams trying to get into their sets.

And seriously, this no-look, one-handed bounce pass is the stuff that would make Magic want to pull out the old sneakers again.

Down the stretch of games, Harden has learned to probe the defense before attacking the basket rather than settling for contested jumpers.

I could go on with Harden’s MVP-level plays that have become regular all day, but in the end, Russ has his fair share as well.

Finally, to wrap up this section, we’ll look at win shares. Harden accounts for a league-leading 13. 8 win shares, and Russell sits at seventh in the NBA with 10.9. Westbrook has plenty of highlight plays, but his big moments statistically don’t turn into wins like Harden’s do.

Nearly anything can be proved by pulling out the right numbers, but the Beard has a definite edge over Russ in nearly every category outside of outdated counting stats. He is simply a more accurate shooter, a better and more willing passer, and has a higher game IQ, which ultimately leads to more Ws. Speaking of Ws, that’s the topic of the next section.

Next: Team Success

Despite what some NBA circles claim, team success matters when it comes to MVP voting–history says so.

As of March 22, the Houston Rockets sit at 49-22 and third in the Western Conference. The Thunder are 40-30 and sit just a half-game ahead of the seventh place Memphis Grizzlies. FiveThirtyEight projects Houston to finish 56-26, identical to their 2014-15 campaign. OKC is expected to finish 47-35.

You might be thinking to yourself, “Why the hell does that matter, Kelly?” Bear with me.

I gathered a few experts’ preseason predictions for this year. Here’s where some major news outlets had the Rockets finishing:

ESPN had Houston at 46-36. Bleacher Report? 38-44. CBS Sports gave the Rockets 44 wins. Fox Sports? 41.5. Even Vegas evened them out at 43.

The experts in sports basically counted the Rockets out before a ball was tipped in 2016-2017. Now, Houston could very well win their 50th game this week with 10 games to spare. The Thunder would have to win 10 out of their last 12 to get to the magic number 50.

Narrative has always played a role in MVP voting, and Harden’s story of redemption and revival is one of the most entertaining of the year. His jump from being perceived as ball hogging and moody to being trustworthy and team-minded was unforeseen. The Rockets winning more games than anyone thought possible only adds icing to the cake.

Westbrook, on the other hand, was predicted to lead his Thunder valiantly in Durant’s absence, with most pundits putting them at 50 wins or so. The fact that his team will likely fail to meet expectations should create question in the minds of MVP voters.

Brodie’s die-hards say otherwise, but history would go with Harden on this one. In the modern era, no MVP has played for a team worse than 3rd seed. If Westbrook wins the award despite his team’s 6th seed, it’ll be just as historic as his season-long triple-double.

Next: The Oscar Test

No, this isn’t a comparison between the two MVP candidates and Oscar Robertson. That might make sense, but MVP voters likely won’t look for too many obscure similarities between players now and a half-century ago.

Instead, it’s a reference to the Oscars, as in the movie awards. Every Oscar winner has to pass the eye test–they’ll have moments that resonate with voters throughout the year. To win a coveted Oscar, a candidate must usually be well-liked by critics and fans alike. The same goes for MVP winners. The voters think back on the season and hark upon key events where the candidates stated their case for Most Valuable Player. To wrap up this debate, we’ll take a look at Russ’s and Harden’s MVP moments from this season.

To me, Russell Westbrook has two signature wins on the season:

November 16 vs. Houston, 105-103; 30 points, 9 assists, 7 rebounds

February 9 vs. Cleveland, 118-109;  29p, 12a, 11r

(I don’t count the win over the Clippers as signature because Chris Paul and Blake Griffin didn’t play, and I don’t count the win over the Spurs as big because their MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard was forced to sit for the majority of the second half with concussion-like symptoms.)

Ironically, Westbrook’s biggest MVP moment of the season was during his first signature win against the Rockets. With five seconds left on the clock, he slammed home a dunk on Clint Capela‘s head to seal the game. It was one of the best plays of the entire year for any player. When voters weigh the option of voting for Russ, they’ll likely have this play in mind.

Looking at James Harden’s 2016-17 file, he has six signature wins for the year:

November 9 at San Antonio, 101-99; 24p, 15a, 12r

December 1 at Golden State (2OT), 132-127; 29p, 13a, 15r

December 31 vs. New York, 129-122; 53p, 17a, 16r

January 5 vs. Oklahoma City 118-116; 26p, 12a, 8r

March 1 at Los Angeles  122-103; 26p, 9a, 3r

March 12 vs. Cleveland 117-112; 38p, 11a, 10r

The Rockets have beaten the Warriors, Spurs and Clippers on the road, taken down the defending champs, and have won two out of three meetings with the Brodie. In addition to that, Harden tallied the best triple-double in NBA history against the Knicks. His outing on the last day of 2016 was the first 50-15-15 triple-double ever, and he added a few more stats to seal the deal. If that isn’t an MVP-level resume of wins, I don’t know what is.

James Harden also had several signature MVP moments. The most recent and arguably the most obvious was his late-game heroics to beat the Denver Nuggets on March 20. Within the last seven seconds of the game, he grabbed a board, took the ball coast to coast for a go-ahead layup, and made a defensive stop to secure the win.

Voters will differ in opinion on who’s had the better MVP campaign from a casual fan’s perspective, but James Harden has certainly racked up more notable wins for his Houston Rockets than Russ has for the Thunder. Both players pass the Oscar test with flying colors, but I’d argue that Harden takes this round as well.

Next: Wrapping Up

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) and Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) at Chesapeake Energy Arena on Jan 29, 2016. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

While both Harden and Westbrook have put together historic campaigns worthy of recognition, there is one candidate fits the bill a little better. It’s the bearded one of the two.

Coming into the season, James Harden was in need of a bit of an image change. The previous year was filled with tension on and off the court with Dwight Howard, which eventually trickled down to the rest of the team.

Consequently, the Houston Rockets finished 41-41 and made for a quick exit in the first round of the playoffs. A 29-7-6 stat line somehow wasn’t enough for Harden to snag a spot on an All-NBA team. Perception is everything, and the Beard wasn’t perceived to be the quality player that he is.

This year, everything is different. Harden is all smiles, everyone is on the same page, and he’s emerged as a real leader on and off the floor for the Rockets. He took a position change, two streaky shooters with injury histories longer than the line at an Apple Store, a 21-year-old center and turned it all into the number two offense in the league with a real shot come April. Because of that, the narrative has shifted and Harden gets the credit he deserves as one of the league’s top talents.

More from Space City Scoop

Russ and James will meet one more time this season on Sunday night, and that game could go a long way in deciding who walks away with the MVP trophy this season. The Rockets are clearly the better team, but they’ll have to prove that to voters.

In conclusion, this year’s MVP vote will most assuredly be close, with many suitable candidates battling it out. Either way, there will undoubtedly be outrage on the losing side. My vote lies with James Harden, but it’s ridiculous to say that Russ doesn’t have a case.

Next: 3-on-3 Discussion: Answering Some Hypothetical Questions

Enjoy and weigh in on this heated MVP race, but don’t let it distract you from the fact that the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals.

Divorce is bad. Sometimes.

Stats and standings are accurate as of March 22, 2017, and stats are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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