Who is the better player: Russell Westbrook or James Harden?

Feb 17, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Western Conference guard James Harden (right) of the Houston Rockets and guard Russell Westbrook (left) of the Oklahoma City Thunder react after a three pointer in the fourth quarter of the 2013 NBA all star game at the Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

This comparison and debate was brought up on Twitter the other day. It’s one that you think would be more common but I don’t remember giving it much thought.

Who is better? Russell Westbrook or James Harden.

Not very long ago there was an easy answer to this. Just about everyone would have given the nod to Westbrook.

Since Harden has gone to Houston and had a breakout season, the question is now much tougher to answer.

The first thing that needs to be decided in a debate like this is what makes a player better than another one. You’ve got overall impact, raw ability, potential, value to one’s team, etc. There are really so many factors that there’s no right answer especially when the player’s are this close.

Overall Impact

This is what I think is the most important factor in determining if a player is better than another. How much does a player affect a game and how much does he have his fingerprints on?

Westbrook was second in the league (and ahead of Kevin Durant) in terms of usage percentage for the second straight season. Only Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant used more possessions than Westbrook did the last two years. This is important because it represents the amount of a load that Westbrook carries with the Thunder and the argument that he does less because he plays with Durant is clearly not very relevant.

Harden was ninth in the league in usage percentage this season right behind John Wall and ahead of Brook Lopez for some perspective.

Harden has a reputation for being much more efficient than Westbrook and in many respects he definitely is. Harden boasts a 60.0 true shooting percentage this season while Westbrook was only at 53.2 percent. Harden took 16.1 shots per game and got to the line 9.6 times while Westbrook took 18.7 shots and got to the line just 7.0 times per game. Since Harden is a clearly superior outside shooter, he is much more efficient.

Harden did turn the ball over more frequently than Westbrook this season (14.9 percent of possessions compared to 13.2 for Westbrook). Westbrook averaged more rebounds per game and assists per game but large margins. Of course, the two play different positions. Harden can safely be considered a better passer for his position than Westbrook is but the same must be said for Westbrook being a far better rebounder, especially on the offensive side.

At the end of the day, Westbrook had a higher PER than Harden this season which may be surprising to some. Westbrook was at 23.9 while Harden 22.9. Considering that PER takes into account your production compared to the rest of the league at your position, this is even more impressive for Westbrook as the point guard position is far deeper than shooting guard is.

Defensively, Westbrook should be the clear-cut winner when compared to Harden. Westbrook has the potential to be one of the best defenders in the league but his lack of discipline and desire to play the passing lanes and take risks has kept him from this status. Not to be too harsh here, but Harden is a really weak defender. His disinterest level is much higher than Westbrook’s and while he was able to still average the same number of steals per game as Westbrook this season, his overall impact on that end of the floor isn’t as high. When focused, which is a pretty decent way to judge defense really, Westbrook definitely is a step above Harden.

Ability/Potential

We are getting away from determining who is the better player right now by delving into this but I still think it is at least somewhat relevant because potential can simply mean how high a player can perform in certain instance throughout the season.

I consider Westbrook to be the best athlete in the NBA because he is most consistently playing at an elite athletic level compared to anyone else. I think for the most part, people would say LeBron is the most athletic player league then Westbrook and then there’s a pretty big drop-off.

So Westbrook is definitely more athletic than Harden which immediately gives him a big advantage in the potential category since we’re talking about a game where athleticism can overpower almost anything.

But you can definitely make the case that there is a lot of room for improvement for both of them in their careers. Imagine if Westbrook became more efficient and a better point guard. Imagine if Harden became a 50-40-90 player and a lockdown defender. There’s a lot that could happen in the next few years.

In two years or maybe even sooner, we might be talking about the NBA and saying Westbrook is the best point guard, Harden is the best two-guard and Durant is the best small forward. Great trade by the way!

The situation they are in

What if you traded Westbrook for Harden right now? What changes?

Westbrook would still be an All-Star and probably would put up huge numbers in the Rockets’ system. With more spacing, he would shoot a higher position, get more assists and more rebounds with the higher pace.

We have a pretty good idea of what Harden would be in OKC. He’s pretty much a super Ginobili with some Paul Pierce thrown in. He will pick you apart in the pick-and-roll and the more spacing, the better. He will destroy you in transition. It’s safe to say though that Houston is a spot where Harden’s abilities are being maximized as opposed to OKC for Westbrook.

If you go through the list of NBA teams, there will be a handful that would prefer Westbrook and a handful that would prefer Harden. It’s a manner of taste and need and fit.

Trying to come up with an answer

Like I said before, I don’t think there is a right answer here necessarily. But I’d go with Westbrook and not just because I’m an OKC fan. Trust me, I was a much bigger Harden fan than Westbrook fan the past two years.

Westbrook simply has a bigger impact on the game. Look no further than the PER rating. Shouldn’t Harden have a better one than Westbrook? That’s how valuable Westbrook is and shows how much of the game he affects.

You will shake your head at things Westbrook does 100 times more per year than Harden. Harden is textbook in his approach to the game. Westbrook is a loose cannon.

This debate has only started though. As the year’s go on, it will probably become one of the most prevalent ones in the NBA. There will be times when you’d take Westbrook and times when you’d take Harden. But for now, give me Russ.

Topics: Houston Rockets, James Harden, Oklahoma City Thunder, Russell Westbrook

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  • Denise Callicott

    Westbrook

  • DelReyOkie

    Hands down, Westbrook is the better player. While Harden is impressive with his long range shooting and drives through the lane, Westbrook gives more considering his defense and rebound ability on both ends of the court. During Westbrook’s injury absence it’s clear he made the other four guys better.

  • Dr Swishhh

    I’ll take the loose cannon over the steamroller every day of the week. They are clearly both elite. I think Russell’s athletic ability makes him close to unstoppable. How boring it would be if he wasn’t undisciplined as you call him. I love you just the way you are RW. By the way, it’s not that much of a drop off to the next athlete (Reggie Jackson LOL).

    The point you make about James being a potential 50-40-90 player is a good one. He would need to do that to match Russ in my opinion and that would take a lot of work on his 3 point shot. The only time I’ve had confidence in that shot was against the Thunder when he won the game by himself. Gees Harden was electric that night.

    “In two years or maybe even sooner, we might be talking about the NBA and
    saying Westbrook is the best point guard, Harden is the best two-guard
    and Durant is the best small forward. Great trade by the way!” Classic Andrew!…but really mate, it’s time to move on!

    Serge should’ve signed for slightly less and James could be there too. They’ll always have enough money to live in style but Championship rings are what you play for, and what others judge much of your career on. I never cease to be amazed by the rampant greed (especially during tough times for the mere mortals) and the lack of understanding that if you accept a big contract, you limit your own chances of winning the big one and increase your chances of being traded in the future.