Harden vs. Westbrook should settle MVP debate in payoffs

 

BY BILL REITER

CBSSports.com

April 10, 2017

Here’s a novel notion in settling once and for all the debate over James Harden vs. Russell Westbrook, this NBA season’s most-pressing question.

Let those two decide.

Let’s bend the rules and allow them fight to an answer, man to man, when their teams face one another next week in the start of the NBA playoffs — instead of limiting the award to regular season.

All season, the prevailing narrative has been that the MVP comes down to those two players. And while I think LeBron has gotten short shrift , there is no arguing that Russ and the Beard have been marvelous and mesmerizing.

For Westbrook, his argument is dominated by his history-making, triple-double season, in which he also joined Oscar Robertson  as the second player to average 10 or more points, rebounds and assists for an entire season. Westbrook’s 31.9 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists per game put the Thunder, sans Kevin Durant, in the playoffs.

And into the waiting arms of Harden and his 3-seed Houston Rockets.

Like his former OKC teammate, Harden has helped to carry a team lacking other stars into the postseason through the force of his phenomenal season. He’s scoring 29.3 points and dishing a league-best 11.3 assists per game. And his 8.1 rebounds per game, often overlooked, put him on track to be only the second-player in league history to average 29 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds or better.

The other? Also the Big O, who did it twice.

It’s not like Westbrook alone is doing multidimensional things that rise to a historical level of excellence.

So which guy has had the more miraculous season, Harden or Westbrook? Which should we celebrate and hold above the other?Let’s have Westbrook and Harden decide.

That’s the power of this series between the Rockets and the Thunder. And don’t believe the notion the Thunder are heavily outgunned — that the Rockets are sure to advance.

Westbrook’s numbers have come with the advantage of having few great players around him on offense, and having the requisite talent and willingness to take a lot — a lot — of shots. But Steven Adams and Enes Kanter are hardly bums, and the Thunder have a top-10 defense. You can go as deep as nine or 10 on that roster and still be talking about a player with value. Throw in a player like Westbrook who can carry an entire team offensively and they are hardly overmatched vs. Houston.

Harden’s stats, too, have come from big advantages not afforded to other players and other situations. The biggest comes not from another player but from his coach. It is no secret Mike D’Antoni runs a system which affords a talent like Harden the platform to do great things and put up big stats. It’s also no secret D’Antoni teams rarely perform as well in the playoffs, when the game slows down, half-court offense takes on more importance and his system often meets its match. And Harden, too, is surrounded by some nice players but no stars.

Either team can win the series, so it comes down to which guy can assert his will over the other, and the other’s team.

We are about to find out which player is truly more valuable: Harden or Westbrook, the Beard or the triple-double machine, the guy in D’Antoni’s free-flowing offense or the angry and motivated Thunder player with a defense behind him that can match his intensity.

This regular season has been the Harden-Westbrook show. But their playoff showdown will be the actual answer to the question it has sparked:

James Harden or Russell Westbrook?

Time to find out.