The case for James Harden

Russell Westbrook’s flashy, stylized play for the Oklahoma City Thunder has translated to incredible statistics, but his rival and MVP competitor in Houston, James Harden, has simply been the more valuable athlete for his Rockets, now a championship force.

Not to say that Westbrook’s extraordinary accomplishments should be disregarded – it’s not every year a player averages a triple-double. However, his efficiency and versatility are lacking. Westbrook has a league-leading 2,553 points compared to Harden’s 2,315, but the former has attempted 1,931 field goals, vastly outnumbering the latter’s 1,511. Harden scores a comparable amount of points without shooting the ball nearly as much, generating a healthy portion of his points through free throws with his unmatched ability to draw three-point fouls. His .613 true shooting percentage dwarfs Westbrook’s .555, one of the first guards in history to average over 29 points per game while attempting fewer than 20 shots. Westbrook is incredible, but his stats are padded from taking a ton of shots rather than making the few he attempts, as Harden does.

It’s what Harden does outside of shooting, however, that truly sets him apart from Westbrook. Topping the NBA with 888 assists, he generates 27 points per game by passing, which, in addition to his own point average, means Harden is producing 56.4 total points per game for the Rockets, nearly eclipsing Tiny Archibald’s record of 56.8 that has stood for 44 years. In offensive win shares, or how many wins a player individually provides their team based solely on their offensive production, Harden’s 11.3 outclasses Westbrook’s 8.6. For Houston, every play, every scheme and every philosophy begins and ends with James Harden – statistically speaking, he is a significantly more valuable offensive commodity than Westbrook.

Much has been said about Westbrook’s herculean efforts in carrying OKC to the Western Conference’s sixth seeddespite low expectations, but here Harden once again outshines him. The Thunder entered the season with Vegas over/under odds of 45.5 wins, but the Rockets were expected to do worse with their estimated total hovering at 41.5. Surprisingly, Houston currently holds a 54-27 mark after having clinched the third seed in the Western Conference. Westbrook took a mediocre squad and turned it into a fringe playoff team. Harden transformed a worse team into a legitimate championship contender. If leadership is figuring into this debate, then Harden certainly has the edge.

Westbrook deserves recognition for his borderline superhuman achievements, but the award must go to the athlete who plays the most vital role for their team, the player who provides more overall value than any other. Under this definition, James Harden is undoubtedly the NBA’s MVP.