James Harden saved his best game in a Rocket’s jersey for his former team, the Thunder, exploding for a career high 46 points, eight rebounds, and six assists, making 14-of-19 shots from the floor, and leading his team back from a big deficit to a win over one of the West’s best.
It has been a memorable debut season for Harden with the Rockets. Dominating straight from his historic first game in Houston colours, ‘The Beard’ has pumped up his averages to 26.1 points (compared to 16.8 ppg last season) and 5.7 assists per game. Of qualified players, Harden raised his efficiency rating to third-best in the league, behind only LeBron James and Kevin Durant. He became an All Star. The Rockets, who haven’t made the playoffs since 2009, suddenly find themselves holding on to the eighth seed in the West.
There’s no debate now if Harden – free from the shadow of Durant and Westbrook – could be a franchise player. The debate would now be if the Thunder – and the rest of us – misjudged ‘The Beard’. Is he actually better than Westbrook, the man he backed up for the first three years of his career in Oklahoma City?
Nay, wrote my NBA-India colleague Akshay Manwani yesterday, who believes that Westbrook remains the real deal. There is strong basis to his argument: Westbrook plays second-fiddle to one of the finest scorers of our generation and thus, he can hardly be expected to carry the scoring load like Harden does in Houston. Westbrook has increased his assists numbers to a career-high 8.0 this season. Most importantly, the Thunder have remained contenders without Harden; Durant and Westbrook have them miles ahead in the standings over Houston.
Still, Harden’s efforts can’t be ignored. He has become a mature leader at just 23, making the right decisions to help his underdog squad into the playoff race. Despite being a first scoring option in his team, he attempts three less shots per game than Westbrook (a second scoring option in OKC) and scores five more points (26.4 ppg). Despite playing next to the NBA’s best scorer, Westbrook attempts two more shots per game than Durant (28.8 ppg), but averages six fewer points (22.9 ppg). While Westbrook has a higher assist rate playing next to Durant on a faster paced team, Harden is an overall more efficient player on the floor (+24.54 compared to Westbrook’s +22.64).
Perhaps the only realistic way to resolve the debate would be to see both on a theoretically equal playing field. Would Westbrook have been better if he was playing on the Rockets as their best player instead? Would Harden have been a better fit next to Durant in Oklahoma City?
Considering Westbrook’s trigger happy ways, there’s no doubt that he would match Harden’s scoring output in Houston. But he is already less efficient in OKC even with the safety net of Durant on his side; as a primary option in Houston, he would struggle to dominate as efficiently as he does for the Thunder with the defenses focusing solely on him.
On the other hand, as a more efficient playmaker who thrives on drives and kick-outs, Harden could be a better fit next to Durant in OKC and would be less likely to steal an extra shot away from him. Westbrook is the least efficient of the three, though he takes the most shots.
The Thunder haven’t skipped a beat in Harden’s absence this season. It’s a mighty close call, but they could be drumming at an even faster pace if it was him – instead of Westbrook – running the show next to Durant.