Tha Sports Junkies 101

Harden Vs. Russ: The Real Debate of 2016



James Harden and Russell Westbrook are both off to incredible starts, but who’s the better player?

The debate that has consumed the NBA world so far this season has been who’s the better player, James Harden or Russell Westbrook? 

A battle between two ex-teammates that, if still together in OKC, could have formed the best backcourt the NBA has ever seen. But that idea will have to remain as one of the bigger “what-ifs?” that was destroyed before it could take full effect.

These two players have undergone some pretty hefty changes to their careers and playing styles over the past year. Kevin Durant leaving OKC for Oakland, leaving Westbrook as “The Guy” in OKC, and by “The Guy” I mean Westbrook has to do literally everything for the Thunder to even have a chance at winning games. Harden, on the other hand, is now “The Guy” (even more than he already was) in Houston with the departure of Dwight Howard and the failed super team that never really got a chance to become a super team. Houston also hired Mike D’Antoni as their new head coach, the man who is responsible for some of the most prolific offenses in NBA history while also (nearly) perfecting the PnR with Nash and Stoudemire when he was the coach for the Suns.

So now its time for me to get in on the action. I love this debate and its because while these two players play in different ways, they are the most comparable player for each other. To justify my reasoning for who I think is a better player (which I will reveal shortly), I am going to base it on several key categories. Now that Harden is officially a Point Guard under D’Antoni’s offense, we can compare Harden and Westbrook using the same criteria for both.

I will be looking at scoring ability, athleticism, defense (LOL), decision making, and their supporting cast. These are the 5 categories that I believe help define a superstar NBA Point Guard. 

Before we get into it, lets lay out their stats. I’m going to be using stats from this season only as I feel that this season is where the debate has taken its full course and both players are performing at the highest levels of their careers.

Harden through 18 games: 28.7 PPG/11.9 APG/7.3 RPG/5.5 TOV – 45% FG/36% 3PT/83% FT

Westbrook through 19 games: 30.9 PPG/11.3 APG/10.3 RPG/5.5 TOV – 43% FG/35% 3PT/82% FT 

Yep, you read that correctly. Through his first 19 games, Russell is averaging a triple-double. No one has averaged a triple-double this far into the season since Oscar Robertson, so you could say Russ is off to a good start. But! James Harden is still the better player and here’s why.

Scoring Ability

Both of these players are known for their insane scoring ability. They are two of the deadliest rim attackers in the league, they can create their own shot from almost anywhere on the floor and they’re strong enough to go up and over their defender.

Harden shoots 45% from the field while taking 18.9 shots per game while Westbrook shoots 43% from the field, averaging 23.7 shot attempts per game. Westbrook’s style of play leads him to shoot more shots than Harden so this doesn’t tell us much.

Harden takes 3.1 more 3PA than Westbrook per game, and even though they shoot a similar percentage, Harden’s ability to take, and make, more threes boosts his Effective Field Goal Percentage to over 53%, which is 6 percentage points higher than Russ’, which sits at 47%.

In a time where 3-point scoring is the most valuable it has ever been, Harden’s ability to be a much more confident and fluid shooter from deep gives him a edge on the perimeter.

Russ is known for his ability to attack the rim at all costs and posterize his defender. Russ takes almost 33% of his field goal attempts within 0-3 feet from the basket while Harden only takes 23% of his shots from the same distance. Russ shoots a tad over 60% from that distance while Harden shoots almost 67%. Even though Harden takes less shots, he converts on his attempts more often. Harden also has a higher Free Throw Rate at 54% while Russ’ FTr is at 44%. This all means that while Russ is taking more shots closer to the basket than Harden, he is not as efficient and is not drawing as many fouls, thus not generating as many points as Harden. It may be a confusing train of thought but essentially this means that Harden is a more efficient scorer than Russ when attacking the basket, something that is suppose to be Westbrook’s forte.

Advantage: Harden


Westbrook takes the cake in this category and it really isn’t close. There isn’t an explanation needed, especially if you’re involved with social media in any way, shape or form, you should know of Russ’ athleticism. Harden’s game isn’t suited for the supreme athleticism that Westbrook’s ask for, Harden would rather use his speed and quickness to blow by or euro-step his defender. Besides, Russ is one, if not the greatest, athlete I have ever watched in the NBA. Harden can still elevate and lay down some pretty poster-worthy dunks but Russ will out right murder folks on the court.

Advantage: Westbrook


Both Harden and Westbrook are pretty laughable on defense. From Westbrook’s poor defensive awareness when it comes to defending screens and cuts to Harden’s complete lack of interest in putting his body in front of the ball, it’s not exactly what you would call “elite” defensive skills and tactics. However, when you put up stats like they do on the other end of the court, you’re almost allowed to take off possessions on defense. So we’ll call this one a wash.

For anyone that thinks Russ is an above-average defender, watch him play and show me examples of him not acting like he’s the only person playing defense.

Advantage: Even

Decision Making

The key to being a point guard is you have to put your team in the best position to win and being the primary ball-handler, making split-second decisions is crucial in all aspects of their game. Both guys are bolstering just outrageous usage rates, Russ’ being at an unheard of 40.7% while Harden’s is at 34.7% (For comparison, Demarcus Cousins led the league in USG% last season at 35.4%). As both the primary ball handlers and scorers on their team, it isn’t too much of a surprise that they both average 5.5 turnovers per game.

If you’ve watched Westbrook over the past couple of seasons, you are most likely familiar with his infatuation of shooting contested pull-up jumpers with 20+ seconds on the shot clock. Surprisingly, if we take a look at Westbrook’s shooting this season where there is between 18-24 seconds on the shot clock, he’s averaging 50% (54-107) from the field but only 33% (7-21) from deep with 37 turnovers. I would have guessed his percentage would be lower than that but taking into factor things like fastbreaks, it makes sense. Now if we look at Harden’s numbers between the same range of 18-24 seconds on the shot clock we get a different set of statistics. Harden shoots 66% (41-62) from the field while also shooting an unbelievable 56% (17-30) from deep with only 28 turnovers. Russ taking 107 shots in the first 6 seconds of the shot clock is an insane number, and it’s way too high, turning potential possessions into wasted opportunities. Harden has attempted almost half as many shots while shooting at a much higher efficiency.

Harden’s assist ratio (29.0) is also higher than Westbrook’s (25.0) while boasting a slightly higher AST/TO ratio than Westbrook this season.

Advantage: Harden

Supporting Cast

This isn’t necessarily a statistic and it ultimately doesn’t matter too much in my decision but I feel it is important to note who Harden and Russ are playing with in order to understand what they have to deal with each and every night.

The Rockets’ current starting lineup is: Harden, Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson and Clint Capela. (11-7)

The Thunder’s current starting lineup is: Russ, Victor Oladipo, Andre Roberson, Domantas Sabonis and Steven Adams. (11-8)

Neither team has a second guy that could be classified as a “star”. There honestly isn’t a player on either team not named Russ or Harden who will make the All-Star team this year. If I had to choose between either the Rockets supporting cast or the Thunder, I’d probably choose the Rockets, but that’s just me and I have no basis for why I would pick them other than their ability to shoot it better from the perimeter (The Rockets are 4th in 3PT% while the Thunder are 17th).

So for the last category, lets take a look at what team does better when Harden and Russ are on the court versus when they are on the bench.

When Harden is on the floor, the Rockets’ offensive rating is 117.3, compared to 101.5 when he’s off the floor (creating a difference of +15.8). To put that in comparison, last years Warriors team that went 73-9 offensive rating was 115.0. When Harden is on the floor, the Rockets improve in eFG%, TRB%, AST% while also lowering their TOV% from 20.4 down to 15.5.

When Westbrook is on the floor, the Thunder’s offensive rating is 111.0, compared to 95.8 when he’s off the floor (creating a difference of +15.2). The difference in offensive rating between Harden and Westbrook is almost exact but when Harden is in for the Rockets, they perform at levels that could potentially break records. When Westbrook is out, the Thunder are scraping to get by on offense, but that isn’t Russ’ fault, it’s an unfortunate result of the players put around him.

It’s not Harden’s fault he’s on a team with more talent than Russ so neither of them should be punished for it. With the difference in their on/off court offensive rating being so small (15.8 for Harden vs. 15.2 for Russ) and their team record being the similar. This might have to call for another wash.

Advantage: Even

Winner: James Harden

So, in conclusion, we have 2 marks for Harden, 1 for Russ, and 2 where they tied. I’d say these two players are currently the front runners for MVP, with Harden having a slight edge based on what I have just gone over.

Something fans should know about these two superstars. They are both currently on track to finish with seasons that has only been accomplished by Oscar Robertson back in the 60’s. So sit back and enjoy the most spectacular display of offense you have ever seen.