At the end of February, James Harden and Russell Westbrook had the Houston Rockets just a game and a half out of the two-spot in the Western Conference. Behind a historic month from the dynamic duo, the Rockets won nine of 11 games last month, including a string of six in a row.
Fast forward 10 days and the Rockets have lost four in a row, including three defeats at the hands of sub-.500 teams. Houston is now in the sixth spot in the Western Conference standings and just one game up on the Dallas Mavericks.
And could James Harden be partly to blame for this slide? Yes, he’s still the leading scorer in the NBA at this point, averaging 34.3 points per game. But as the playoffs near, will he be the go-to guy for the Rockets? With fellow former MVP Russell Westbrook now in Houston, the game has changed. Harden doesn’t have to carry the load as he once did. And he may not even be the best player on the Rockets roster right now.
James Harden vs. Russell Westbrook statistically
Throughout their respective careers, the stats of James Harden and Russell Westbrook have been fairly close.
In 11 seasons, which includes the current campaign, James Harden has averaged 25.1 points, 6.3 assists, and 5.3 rebounds per game. Yes, he did come off the bench in his early days in Oklahoma City when he was paired with Westbrook and Kevin Durant. He obviously took on a much bigger scoring role when he came to Houston in 2012. The Beard has averaged 30 or more the last three seasons.
In 12 seasons, again including this one, Russell Westbrook has averaged 23.2 points, 8.3 assists, and 7.1 rebounds. He also had to take on a bigger role once Kevin Durant left OKC for the Golden State Warriors ahead of the 2016-2017 season. Westbrook certainly did just that, averaging a triple-double the last three years, something that’s never been done in the NBA.
Westbrook is currently shooting much better than Harden
On February 29, the Rockets had a big statement game against the Celtics in Boston. Like most teams, Houston is much better at home than on the road. But they were struggling to get good wins on the road. Even now, they’re just 18-14 away from the Toyota Center. But this was one they really wanted. And James Harden wasn’t getting it done. Harden shot just 7-for-24 from the floor, including a dismal 4-for-17 showing beyond the arc.
Russell Westbrook, on the other hand, stepped up and delivered. He shot 16-for-27 from the floor for 41 points and hit a clutch bucket late, leading Houston to a 111-110 win in overtime. And that’s the way it’s been going. It’s been Westbrook, not Harden, who’s been playing the best basketball for the Rockets.
Since the start of February, James Harden is still scoring a lot of points. That’s just the way it’s going to be. But he’s working so much harder to do it. Starting with the February 2 matchup against Zion Williamson and the Pelicans, Harden is averaging 30.3 points, but he’s only shooting 39.3% from the floor (120-for-305). More than half of those shots (166) have come from the three-point line and he’s shooting just 34.9% from beyond the arc (58-for-166).
On the other hand, in that same time frame, Russell Westbrook is averaging 31.3 points per game, which isn’t much more, but he’s doing it much more efficiently. Westbrook is shooting a phenomenal 52.4% (141-for 269) from the floor in the last six weeks and has actually been shooting better than Harden all season long. Westbrook is shooting 47.1% from the floor while Harden sits at 43.3%.
Who gets the ball at the end of the game?
If the Houston Rockets find themselves needing a key bucket in the playoffs, will it be James Harden or Russell Westbrook that gets the basketball? It could come down to what kind of basket is needed at the time. If it’s a three, Harden is going to get the call. While not shooting well as of late, he is still the better three-point shooter.
However, Russell Westbrook has shown that he can be the guy. Just look at the Celtics game for proof of that. He can’t get to the rim as good as anyone in the NBA, especially for those his size, and knows how to finish when he gets there. But James Harden knows how to get to the foul line. Like it or not, James Harden shoots more free throws than anyone in the NBA at 11.75 per game. And he does make most of them. Harden is currently shooting 86.4% from the foul line.
There really is no right answer to the question about who is better. The Rockets will make the playoffs and James Harden and Russell Westbrook will both put up numbers. But it’s an interesting thought nonetheless. When asked, most people would probably say Harden. But it’s a lot closer than people think.