This NBA season is now over 30 games old, and we have witnessed a tightening in the MVP race. Candidates who were talked about earlier in the year like DeMar DeRozan have dropped off. While I would still say that there are still about half a dozen legitimate MVP candidates at this point (and the fact that there are that many shows what a tight battle this is), James Harden and Russell Westbrook currently seem to have the lead over players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
Some journalists have gravitated towards Westbrook and how he is averaging a triple double this season. But while Westbrook has been impressive, it is frustrating to see how people are relying on mere box score numbers and our society’s arbitrary infatuation with the number “10” to determine a MVP candidate.
Westbrook generally does have better box score stats, averaging 31.7 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 10.9 assists in comparison to Harden’s 27.5 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 11.9 assists. But the box score tells only one part of the story. Harden boasts higher efficiency numbers as he is much better at drawing free throws. And while he may not score as much, he is looking for the extra pass which keeps his teammates involved and the Rockets offense humming.
So while Harden’s individual numbers may not be as good as Westbrook’s, the Rockets have a better record than the Thunder. They are also not subject to injuries like players on an NFL team. This better record is because they have a superior offense, the area of the floor where guards like Westbrook and Harden make the biggest impact. Houston’s surprisingly good start to the season is a sign of which guard has helped create the stronger offensive team.
Some Westbrook supporters like Marc Stein claim that Houston has the better record not because Harden is superior to Westbrook, but because Houston’s other players are better than Oklahoma City’s. But let us look at ESPN’s NBA player rankings at the start of the season. The second best Rocket on that list was Eric Gordon at #86, followed by Ryan Anderson at #89. Meanwhile, the Thunder have Steven Adams at #36, Victor Oladipo at #48, and Enes Kanter at #80. This clearly shows that people thought the Thunder had a better team around Westbrook than the Rockets did around Harden.
Yes, plenty of players on the Rockets aside from Harden have surpassed expectations. But that is because Harden makes other players better, just like great stars are supposed to do. Just look at Clint Capela, who is having a career year thanks to getting great passes from Harden. Or how Gordon or Trevor Ariza gets great shots because defenses are gunning so much on Harden. Westbrook can certainly pass the ball, but he still has a tendency to gun for the last shot and will hoist up random threes even though he is hitting less than 34 percent from long range.
Harden’s MVP candidacy is similar to Steve Nash, who won two MVPs playing under Coach Mike D’Antoni. Nash’s MVPs are controversial, with many arguing that his 2006 award should have gone to Kobe, who scored a lot of points on an overall inferior team. But Nash rightfully won because while he didn’t fill up the box score as much as Kobe, he still put up strong numbers, led the Phoenix Suns to offensive domination despite losing a key offensive player in Amar’e Stoudemire, and won games.
The Houston Rockets are a better team than the Oklahoma City Thunder, and this has happened because Harden is distributing the ball and scoring more efficiently than Westbrook. It is time to stop being bound by the conventional stats and our belief that having a triple double is really all that special. Instead, we need to look at the court and see who has the biggest impact on their team. That is James Harden, and he is the MVP.