ESPN.com’s yearly player ranking project is complete and the Thunder have two top five players in the league. Pret-tay, pret-tay good.
For a second straight year, Kevin Durant finished second in the league, only behind LeBron James. Russell Westbrook moved up to fifth from No. 9 in 2012, though he finished behind former teammate James Harden. About that…
I think it’s pretty silly to obsess over “who’s better” because it’s really hard to directly compare players for a lot of reasons — different situations, different styles, different positions, etc. But for Harden to move ahead of Westbrook in the mind of the the couple hundred voters doesn’t seem quite right to me.
For one, Westbrook’s 2012-13 season was better than Harden’s. Really close — really close — because Harden’s season was fantastic, but it was also the best of Westbrook’s career. And that’s the only elite level season Harden has had, though that’s not really his fault considering the role he was in previously. Westbrook has had three All-NBA level seasons and still appears to just be scratching the surface of his offensive potential.
So unless the panel of voters is docking Westbrook because of injury concerns over his knee or holding him back because he plays with Durant, I don’t really see how this fits.
Let’s look at it:
In terms of advanced stats, Harden had a better eFG% (50.4 percent to Westbrook’s 47.0), while Westbrook had a higher PER (23.9 to Harden’s 23.0). Harden’s True Shooting was better (60.0 to Westbrook’s 53.2) while Westbrook’s assist rate and rebound rates were much higher.
Harden is a better, more efficient scorer. No doubt about it. But Westbrook is a more complete player, particularly on the defensive end and in areas like shot creation, rebounding, blocks and steals. Plus, there are the intangible things like competitive spirit, which I think Westbrook might be near unmatched in the league.
Ask yourself: Have Westbrook and Harden switch places and what do the numbers look like then? Would it be unreasonable for Westbrook to average 27-4-7? His percentages might get whacked and he’d absolutely take more than 20 shots a game, but Harden was the feature on a team while Westbrook shared production with the league’s best scorer.
It’s close — and it was with the voters as Westbrook had an average of 8.88 and Harden and average of 8.94 on a scale of 10 — but Westbrook is just more well-rounded at this point. I don’t like obsessing over things like toughness and leadership and competitive spirit, but if I’m choosing between Westbrook and Harden to lead my team in a winner-take-all game, I take Westbrook 100 out of 100 times. Westbrook’s performance in Game 4 against the Heat in Miami is the proof. While Harden was struggling to find any kind of rhythm and do anything, the way Westbrook competed was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen from a player.
Comparatively, CBSSports.com had Westbrook fourth and Harden eighth, with SI.com placing Westbrook fifth with Harden 11th. So the NBA Rank group seems to value Harden a bit more than other outlets. NBA Rank is a different voting process while the others are more exclusive.
At the heart of this is the question that’s no fun asking: Should the Thunder have traded Westbrook and given Harden the max deal and built around a core of Durant, Harden and Ibaka? I don’t think we can really accurately answer that with any kind of certainty, at least right now. One thing about it: Westbrook’s trade value would’ve been higher than Harden’s in 2012, and the Thunder could’ve probably pulled in a much better deal. But at the same time, you’re talking about dealing a proven All-Star that just kicked ass in the NBA Finals and keeping the guy that shrunk, as well as handing the first ever max extension to a sixth man, and a guy that at the time, no one really knew if he was capable of running a team. So yeah, that would’ve been quite the gamble. Hindsight changes the perspective on that thought, but rewind to Oct. 25, 2012 — would you really have traded Russell Westbrook and kept James Harden? Crazy talk.
Still, the Thunder have two top five players and three top in the top 40 is pretty impressive. Only two other teams have that (the Heat and Spurs).
Or you can ignore that and look at it this way: The Thunder had three of the top five in the league on their roster at this time a year ago. Sigh.