Baller Mind Frame

Sonny’s Top 50 NBA Players: #7, #6, #5 Kevin Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook

Kevin Durant
Resume: 25.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 33.8 minutes, 51% FG, 40% 3PT, 85% FT … Team Record in Games Played: 18-9 (27-28 without)

James Harden
Resume: 27.4 points (2nd in league, career best), 5.7 rebounds (career best), 7.0 assists (9th in league, career best), 1.9 steals (6th in league, career best), 715 free throws made (1st in league, career best), 824 free throw attempts (1st in league, career best), 208 three pointers made (4th in league, career best), 36.8 minutes (2nd in league), 44% FG, 38% 3PT, 87% FT (career best) … Team Record in Games Played: 56-25 (0-1 without) … Playoffs: 27.2 points (career best), 5.7 rebounds, 7.5 assists (career best), 1.6 steals, 37.4 minutes, 44% FG, 38% 3PT, 92% FT (career best), 9-8 record … 2nd in MVP Voting, 1st Team All-NBA, All-Star

Russell Westbrook
Resume: 28.1 points (1st in league, career best), 7.3 rebounds (career best), 8.6 assists (4th in league, career best), 2.1 steals (2nd in league, career best), 546 free throws (2nd in league, career best), 654 free throw attempts (2nd in league, career best), 11 triple-doubles (1st in league, career best), 34.4 minutes, 43% FG, 30% 3PT, 84% FT … Team Record in Games Played: 40-27 (5-10 without) … 4th in MVP Voting, 2nd Team All-NBA, All-Star, All-Star Game MVP

Folks, this is the Dr. Jack Breakdown to end all Dr. Jack Breakdown’s; a careful evaluation of multiple points of my criteria, plus a few more I made up specifically for this column, in order to determine who comes out on top in my annual player rankings: Kevin Durant, James Harden or Russell Westbrook.

Last Year and This Year 

We’re looking at the complete body of work from last year and a projected body of work for the upcoming season. In a roundabout way, this eliminates Durant from contention for this award, and many others to be honest with you, because he only played in a third of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s games last season. Even if Durant tears up the league this year, a fate that is very much in play, it’s hard to imagine it being such a profoundly impressive performance that I could rightly give this category to him over the guy who finished fourth in MVP voting last season or the MVP runner-up.

As much as I love Westbrook (and you’ll see soon enough that I love Russell Westbrook), Harden had the better start to finish season last year. He played in 81 of a possible 82 games and carried a somewhat short-handed Houston Rockets team to the Conference Finals. Westbrook was great all season and mind-blowingly fun to watch down the stretch, but he missed 15 games throughout the year and he didn’t have the chance to shine in the postseason.

The edge in the “this year” portion of this category is up for grabs. Figuring out how the possible power struggle in Oklahoma City might play out is one of the biggest storylines this offseason has to offer. Harden feels like a slightly safer bet the his two former Thunder compadres.

Edge: Harden 

Individual Statistics/Accolades

No offense to James Harden, but this category belongs to Russell Westbrook. The man averaged 31-10-9 and 11 free throw attempts per game in 28 games after the All-Star break. I don’t give one single solitary shit that he turned the ball over a ton, took some god awful shots or that the Thunder didn’t end up making the Playoffs, watching Westbrook for the last two months of the season was a spectacle, and the numbers almost don’t do it justice. Then again, 31-10-9 isn’t a stat line to scoff at.

Edge: Westbrook

Status

Harden is the unquestioned number one option in Houston. It doesn’t matter if Dwight Howard is healthy or if Ty Lawson gets his act together … Harden is the alpha dog in Houston and that isn’t changing any time soon. It’s not quite as cut and dry in Oklahoma City. This might be Kevin Durant’s last year in OKC and the question of who the Thunder’s alpha dog once again feels unsolved. Durant firmly took ahold of the alpha dog torch (or should we start calling this the Alpha Dog Bone … you know, like a dog bone … ugh, forget it) two seasons ago, but no matter how healthy Durant might be this year, Westbrook’s tour de force last season in Durant’s absence at least opens up the conversation again.

The best case scenario for the Thunder would be if Durant and Westbrook could organically find some sort of 2001-2002 Shaq and Kobe balance of power and destroy everyone in their path on the way to the title, only without the eventual bitter hatred and break-up. Worst case is the battle wages on and things get much messier than they have been in the past. Either scenario is in play. The Thunder could win the title next year on the backs of two alpha dogs, or Durant could leave next summer in part because he was tired of sharing his bone with Westbrook.

Edge: Harden

Watchability/How Does He Stand Out

Harden stands out for an amazing beard and for borderline unwatchable play. Sorry, but iso attack after iso attack that leads to free throws a high percentage of the time just doesn’t appeal to me. It’s not my cup of tea. Durant is something like the modern day George Gervin; a silky-smooth scoring machine who methodically gets his thirty no matter what a defense tries to do to stop it.

When Harden or Durant are having one of those serious “oh shit he might go for fifty” heat check games then they can almost approach Westbrook, but on any given night Russell Westbrook is probably the most fun guy to watch in the league. He throws his body around with reckless abandon, attacking the rim like a maniac and jumping passing lanes like he’s an All-Pro Cornerback. He’s probably the fastest and most athletic dude in the league and his heat check moments are right up there in the top five with Durant, LeBron James, Stephen Curry and thanks to a 37 point quarter last year, Klay Thompson. He’s the only guy on the top fifty who I could refer to as a pterodactyl and it doesn’t feel remotely hyperbolic; if anything, it feels like I’m overrating a dinosaur by comparing it to Russell Westbrook. Shit, even after the games are over he’s watchable because of the way he dresses. Someday I’m going to buy a Russell Westbrook outfit, and I’m going to look ridiculous in it, and I’m fine with that.

Edge: Westbrook

Late Game Chops 

Imagine you’re coaching a game with your life on the line, and you needed one of these three guys to get you a bucket (or two free throws, which might be a more likely outcome given the fellas we’re discussing) … who are you trusting to deliver? Selfishly, I’d say I would want to live and die at the hands of Russell Westbrook, but he might jack up a 30 foot contested jumper and then I’d be dead without ever being able to look ridiculous in one of his outfits. Realistically, I’d take Durant if only because there are a few less guys in the world who can guard Durant than there are guys who can guard Harden.

Edge: Durant 

Talent 

Obviously these are three individuals who are very, very good at their craft and picking the most talented of the trio is like picking between Veal Parm, Chicken Parm or Lasanga (actually, who am I kidding … Veal Parm wins that easy). Honestly, this is the category that kept Durant alive in this mix, given he missed the majority of last season. He’s the best shooting guard in the league who is trapped in a seven-footers body, and that’s a dangerous mixture. We’ve seen scoring machine Durant, as well as facilitating Durant and the occasionally locked-in defensively Durant too. We’re not talking about a his role, or health or the breaks he’s caught or didn’t catch throughout his career right now … Kevin Durant has the most basketball talent, and for that he wins the category over two extremely talented basketball players.

Edge: Durant 

Most Annoying Basketball Quality

There’s nothing truly annoying about Westbrook’s game unless you’re really perturbed by the occasional ill-advised jumper or some sporadically reckless play. Durant’s sweep-through motion leading to the shooting foul shtick is maddening, and every time he gets that call I’m like:

Of course, Harden’s blatant over-exaggeration to any inkling of contact makes literally anything that literally anybody else does on a basketball floor look endearing. Seriously, whenever a ref falls for Harden’s on court tomfoolery I’m like:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1YVrxFmheSc

Advantage: Westbrook

Best Individual Performance

Durant’s 30 point 1st half explosion at Golden State tops his two 40 point games from last year, if only because it’s somewhere between 70 and 80 percent likely that he would’ve topped 50 points and this would have been the game of the year if he hadn’t tweaked an ankle just seconds before halftime. Unfortunately, Durant is at a disadvantage here because of the already mentioned health issues he dealt with last year. That leaves Harden and Westbrook to battle over this distinction.

Westbrook’s aforementioned post All-Star break tour de force gave us plenty of options, but I’ll opt to go with his video game-esque 49 point, 16 rebounds, 10 assist triple double against the 76ers (this was his 4th triple double in a row, by the way) less than a week after breaking his face. His goddamn face, man! This was also the night that there was a pterodactyl sighting in Philadelphia. Pretty cool stuff.

Westbrook gets edged out because this performance didn’t make people foolishly wonder who the real “King James” in the NBA was. On a Sunday afternoon in early March James Harden outdueled LeBron James and led the Rockets to a win, a win and a performance that gave Harden the momentary edge over the field in the MVP race and made people consider whether the Houston Rockets could win an NBA Title. For what it’s worth, I absolutely despised this game.

Edge: Harden

Nickname

Russell Westbrook doesn’t need a nickname because Russell Westbrook is without question one of the best names in NBA history (right up there on the all-time list with LeBron James, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Moses Malone and Jud Buechler). I’ve never been a huge fan of physical feature-related nicknames, they just seem lazy to me, so as appropriate as “The Beard” may be, I just can’t get behind it like I can “The Slim Reaper.” Now before anyone jumps all over me because Durant is indeed a rather slim fella, if you can spruce up a physical feature-related nickname by tying it in with the personification of death, I’m no longer opposed to it.

Edge: Durant 

Reputation 

Even though Harden’s defense improved tremendously last year from the season prior, he’s still known to partake in matador defense or have an occasional lapse in attention off the ball from time to time. His cause wasn’t helped too much either when the Houston Rockets went on their insane 4th quarter run in Los Angeles in the Conference Semi’s last year while Harden was sulking on the bench.

This comes down to Durant, who started playing with an endearing sort of nastiness about two years ago, or Westbrook who competes like his life is on the line every time he steps on the hardwood. There are definitely some justifiable injury concerns with Durant, and at a certain point in time that becomes part of your reputation. Until Durant can once again stay on the floor for 82 games, people are rightfully going to wonder how badly that broken foot changed him. Westbrook formerly had iron man status, but a few injuries have sidelined him for a few games here and there over the last couple of seasons, but he hasn’t changed one bit. Westbrook is criticized far too often for his breakneck play and erratic shot selection, but every old school player gushes about how competitive he is.

Do you remember how I mentioned that Westbrook was the subject of one of those random moments during the NBA season that felt significant even though most people probably wouldn’t have thought so? Westbrook’s moment came with just four days left in the regular season. Oklahoma City was playing Indiana, and the Thunder were still in the running for the 8th seed in the Western Conference. Westbrook put up 54-9-8 in a loss in Indiana, but the moment that stuck out to me was when Westbrook picked up a seemingly meaningless technical foul in the 4th quarter.

The tech turned out to be Westbrook’s 16th of the season, meaning he would be suspended for hitting the league limit. Westbrook knew this, and immediately started pleading with Ed Malloy not to give him a technical. This was different than a guy passively bitching at a ref after a technical foul was called. This was Westbrook begging an official to reconsider because he knew that it meant an automatic one-game suspension was coming. Fortunately for Westbrook he won the appeal an had the opportunity to play in the final two games of the year, but the outcome was irrelevant. That’s the sort of competitive psycho I would want to go to war with.

Edge: Westbrook 

Overall

It’s worth noting that in my four years conducting this countdown, I’ve never agonized over the 4-7 spots as much as I have this year (yes, Chris Paul is included). Putting any of these three in any order doesn’t look right no matter how I arrange it. Peak Durant is the best of the bunch when healthy, but I have to dock points because he missed two thirds of last season. Russell Westbrook is the most fun to watch on a nightly basis and my personal favorite of the bunch if only because I’ve always been a Westbrook guy. Harden had the best season last year and he feels like the safest pick to have the best campaign in the upcoming season if only because the situation in Oklahoma City is more of a mystery than it is in Houston; it just bugs me because I find him so thoroughly unlikeable.

I’ve got Westbrook at #5, Harden at #6 and Durant at #7, and I don’t think I will ever feel good about that order.

 

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