When James Harden was with the Oklahoma City Thunder, the true extent of his abilities were somewhat obscured by the fact he was in a bench role. He ran the offense while Russell Westbrook sat. After he arrived with the Houston Rockets, though, he woke everyone up with the true extent of his talents.
Now, Westbrook has had a monster start to this season in the absence of Kevin Durant, and people have noticed. Once again, Russ is obscuring what Harden is doing, which is nearly as brilliant, and arguably more so.
In terms of pure box score stats, Westbrook has an edge, but Harden is a bit on the ridiculous side himself, especially if you look at it adjusted for minutes. Here’s what Harden and Westbrook look like compared with Oscar Robertson the year he posted his triple-double average, adjusted to 36 minutes:
Now, that should start putting things in perspective for you.
While Westbrook has been more productive, Harden has been more efficient, and significantly so:
That doesn’t change the rebounding numbers, but it does put the scoring numbers even more into perspective.
It’s also interesting to see how much both guys are doing with distributing the ball. Harden has a slight but not significant edge in assists. Here’s where the modern tracking numbers can be a little more helpful, so we’ll have to dismiss Robertson from the discussion.
NBA.com’s tracking data tells us that Harden is averaging 19.8 potential assists (meaning shots that come directly off his passes) compared to Westbrook’s 24.0. Westbrook is finding his teammates a lot more, but “The Beard” is doing it with a lot more success.
If we work this out per 36 minutes, Harden is generating 27.1 points by passing per 36 minutes compared to Westbrook’s 24.1.
Combining passing and scoring, Westbrook is producing 60.4 points per 36 minutes compared to Harden’s 57.2 — a bit over three more.
However, he’s using a lot more possessions to do it.
There are essentially three ways both players can end a possession: Taking a shot (or free throw), feeding a teammate who takes a shot (or free throw) and turning it over. Let’s look at how many true shooting attempts — either their own or passing — and turnovers both players use per 36 minutes:
To generate his team’s 60.4 points, Westbrook has used 58.7 possessions. To generate his team’s 57.2, Harden has utilized just 48.6. So Westbrook has accounted for three more points, but it’s taken him 10 more possessions to do so. Put another way, the Thunder’s offensive rating on possessions that Westbrook’s used is 102.9. The Rockets’ when Harden’s used them is 117.7. Harden’s is 14.8 points per 100 possessions higher than Westbrook’s.
The Rockets’ offensive rating with Harden is 115.8 compared to 87.6 when he sits, a difference of 28.2. The Thunder’s offensive rating is 101.3 with Russ and 88.0 without him, a difference of 13.3, or 14.9 less than Harden’s.
In a case of bizarro world symmetry, the difference in Harden’s efficiency matches the the difference in his on/off-court impact almost perfectly: 14.8 to 14.9. Then again, maybe it’s not that bizarre when you consider that both players have accounted for about 70 percent of their team’s possessions while on the court.
So what about the rebounding? In pure volume, Westbrook has a big advantage, but that number is a little obscured by the fact he just has more chances. Westbrook has had 20.3 chances per game and fielded 60.7 percent of them. Harden has had a shot at 11.5 and corralled 63.0 percent of them.
He’s also deferred (meaning he just lets a teammate grab them) 17.4 percent of his to Westbrook’s 14.7 percent. If we’re just looking at the rebound percentage of the ones they’re gunning for, James has gotten 76.3 percent to Russ’ 71.2 percent.
The Thunder have recovered 55.9 percent of misses with Westbrook and 51.6 percent without him, a net difference of 4.3 percent. The Rockets have collected 50.6 percent of missed shots with Harden and 45.5 percent without him, a difference of 5.1 percent. He has actually made a bigger difference to his team on the glass, even if he’s snared fewer clanks.
So, once again, we see the difference: Westbrook has the numbers, but Harden has the efficiency.
You can’t go wrong either way, but when it comes to which player has made a bigger difference, there is a case to be made for James Harden.
Note: While this entire article comes with a big “small sample size” disclaimer, the trends aren’t going to shock anyone if they stay the same.