It was a question waiting to be asked. The moment James Harden packed his bags for Houston in the 2012 offseason, there was an inevitability about him being compared with the other Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star guard, Russell Westbrook. And a week after Harden’s 46-point night helped the Rockets edge his former teammates at the Toyota Center, we have finally come around to debating the much thought-provoking question of who’s the better player – Harden or Westbrook?
For me, and even if it is ever so marginally, I’ll pick Westbrook for now. Agreed, the two players, primarily, play different roles on their respective teams, but Westbrook is the bigger asset on his team. The problem with Westbrook is that playing alongside Kevin Durant, a player who is already being compared to the all-time greats, he has to cede much of the limelight to Durant. This is not the case with Harden, who is the best player on the Rockets by a large margin.
The other thing going in Westbrook’s favour is that he has adapted. With Harden’s exit from the Thunder, Westbrook, who always had his critics label him a selfish player, is now among the top five players in the league in assists at 8.0 APG. This is a marked improvement from last year for Westbrook when he just averaged 5.5 APG
. Additionally, of these five players, Westbrook is the only one who is averaging 20 plus points per game, with 22.9 PPG. Harden, correspondingly has 26.4 PPG, but only 5.6 APG.
In last year’s NBA Finals, when the Thunder lost to the Miami Heat in five games, Westbrook was pretty solid. He averaged 27.0 PPG, shot 52-for-120 from the field (43.3 percent) and contributed 6.6 APG over those five games, which saw the Thunder experience the NBA Finals for the first time in the Durant-Westbrook era. Harden, meanwhile, appeared to have gone AWOL in the series. Although he played almost 50 fewer minutes than Westbrook, Harden turned the ball over 12 times to Westbrook’s 11 times, who played just a little over 211 minutes in the series. Harden’s other numbers also remained unimpressive as he tallied only 12.4 PPG, shot 18-for-48 (37.5 percent) from the field and dished out only 3.6 APG. Part of the Thunder’s loss could be explained by Harden’s ineffectiveness in as much as Westbrook was one of silver linings for OKC in that series.
Finally, though, this comparison needs to be viewed at how the Thunder have managed without Harden. They are in second place in the Western Conference standings, well placed to record a winning percentage better than the 0.712 they managed in the 66-game shortened regular season of 2011-12. They rank among the top three teams in field-goal and three-point shooting percentages, respectively. The Thunder also rank No. 1 in offensive rating, which is an estimate of points scored by teams per 100 possessions. If the Thunder have continued to remain such a potent offensive machinery even in Harden’s absence, then much of the credit must be directed to Westbrook. As OKC’s floor general, Westbrook has played a vital role in the Thunder remaining well placed to improve on their showing from last year. We must give him credit where it is due. Fancy Harden all you like, but the OKC point-guard remains the real deal.
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