James Harden or Dwight Howard? The debate over who is the best player on the Houston Rockets comes down to those two men. In one corner, you have the NBA's best center, while in the other, you have one of the best (if not the best) shooting guards in the game.
Both men have played a huge role in the Rockets establishing themselves as a possible championship contender. Both are having stellar seasons that would put them in the discussion for Most Valuable Player if not for a transcendent year from Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant.
In truth, choosing between D12 and The Beard is a matter of preference. It almost feels like you're splitting hairs. It's like picking between Kate Upton and Brooklyn Decker or Biggie and 2Pac.
To help frame the argument, I made a case for and against each candidate before closing with my own personal choice. As always, readers are more than welcome to cast their own votes in the comments section.
Since Houston was Harden's city first, we'll lead off with him.
The Case For James Harden
James Harden is as explosive a guard and as dynamic of a scorer as anyone in the NBA not named Kevin Durant. It is a work of art to watch him create on offense. After years of being a sixth man in Oklahoma City, Harden wasted little time becoming the Rockets' go-to guy.
He leads the team in scoring for the second straight season, averaging 25.5 points per game. He's proven capable of being able to light it up from nearly anywhere on the floor. He's shooting 46 percent from the field, including nearly 37 percent from behind the arc.
"I guard James every day in practice," teammate Francisco Garcia said, according to Houston Chronicle's Jenny Dial Creech. "Nothing James does on the floor surprises me. Nothing. All the little stuff he does on the floor, he does when we play one-on-one upstairs. He is so good."
Harden's best trait on offense is his ability to attack the basket and get to the line. His average of nine free-throw attempts a game is third-best in the NBA. When he's at the charity stripe, he's converting 86 percent of his freebies.
Harden is also good at getting his teammates involved. He leads the team in assists (5.9 APG) and has put up double-digit dimes in his last two games (as of April 8). He's essentially pulling double-duty as the team's point guard AND shooting guard.
Lastly, Harden's one of the NBA's best closers. In the fourth quarter of games this season, only Kevin Durant averages more than The Beard's 6.9 points per game. Harden is also shooting 48.6 percent from the field during the final period, including 44.4 percent from deep (stats courtesy of NBA.com).
The strongest argument for the pro-Harden crowd is that, when it matters most, the ball is in his hands and not Dwight Howard's.
The Case Against James Harden
The biggest blemish on Harden's otherwise impressive game is his defense, or lack thereof. It's not rare to see elite players excel on one side of the ball while being lackluster on the other end. Guys such as Carmelo Anthony, Carlos Boozer and Kyrie Irving have all taken criticism for the lack of defensive chops.
Meanwhile, players such as Thabo Sefolosha and Tony Allen are all-world defenders that don't ratchet up much offense.
In the case of James Harden, he's as bad at defense as he is good at offense. In fact, he may be one of the five worst defenders in the league. Opponents seem to score on The Beard with relative ease. There are even YouTube videos dedicated to Harden's brand of matador defense.
There's no direct reasoning behind Harden's inability to play defense. Perhaps he exhausts so much energy on offense that he doesn't have enough in the tank to hinder his opponents. Maybe it's poor technique or even just a complete lack of interest on that side of the ball.
Regardless, Harden's defense is pretty bad. What's equally as atrocious is his insistence to flop like a fish out of water. He was fined $5,000 for flopping against the Los Angeles Clippers but has also had moments that went under the radar.
For instance, this Oscar-worthy acting job against the Thunder, where he takes a bump from Kendrick Perkins and flies like he's been shot out of a cannon.
The other issue with Harden is turnovers. For a guy who has the ball in his hands and attacks the basket as often as Harden does, racking up turnovers are part of the job. Still, after leading the league in turnovers per game last season (3.8 TOPG), Harden's 3.7 turnovers per contest puts him among the league's worst once again.
The Rockets probably wouldn't be a playoff team without Harden's contributions on offense, but there's more to the game than putting up points. He's essentially the basketball equivalent of a designated hitter. All offense, no defense.
For all of Harden's greatness, it's tough to be considered the best player on your team when you only positively affect one side of the ball.
The Case For Dwight Howard
The most impressive statistic of Dwight Howard's 2013-14 season hasn't come in the paint or on the glass or even on the defensive end. It's come off the basketball court. After generating a media circus the past two seasons with his diva antics, Howard has been a model citizen in his first season with the Rockets.
There's been no griping about sharing the ball and the spotlight with James Harden. There's been no run-ins with head coach Kevin McHale. No trade demands. No complaints. No bulletin-board material. He's been humble, happy and productive.
Is that a big factor in his case for being the Rockets' best player? No, but it's still refreshing after a two-year public relations nightmare (or Dwightmare, for those feeling creative).
What does help make the argument for D12 is his overall excellence everywhere on the court except for the free-throw line. Even as the second option in the pecking order, Howard looks like the Dwight of old.
He's averaging 18.5 points, 12.3 rebounds (fourth in the NBA) and 1.8 blocks (seventh in the NBA) per game. He's shooting 59 percent from the field, which is his best output since the 2010-11 season with the Orlando Magic.
Most importantly, he's been a leader in the locker room while not being selfish on the court. In February, Howard had this to say to RealGM.com:
My time, my shots will come. I want to make sure guys around me are elevated. Me being the oldest guy on the team as far as seasons, I have to understand that I have to show these guys the right way to go.
As he closes out his 10th season in the NBA, Dwight Howard has finally matured. Harden may be the guy with the ball down the stretch, but Howard's leadership and voice have also been key to the Rockets' improvement this season.
It also helps that the big man has been a beast in the paint on both ends of the court.
The Case Against Dwight Howard
By rule, you can't talk about Dwight Howard and not mention his lackluster free-throw shooting. Howard is shooting nearly 55 percent from the line, which is better than his efforts the last two seasons but is still pretty bad.
Among qualified players, only four guys (Los Angeles' DeAndre Jordan, Denver's J.J. Hickson, Detroit's Andre Drummond and Josh Smith) are worse at the charity stripe than D12. Much like the last basketball player who called himself Superman, free throws are Howard's kryptonite.
While it isn't uncommon for big men to be below average at the line, Howard's inability to hit free throws makes him a liability in late- and close-game situations. Sure, Howard gets to the line as much as Harden does, but teams foul Dwight for completely different reasons.
The Hack-a-Dwight strategy, while annoying, has been known to put opponents back into games. That doesn't bode well for Howard's standing as his team's best player, especially when his main competition thrives with the ball in his hands when it matters most.
Free throws are to Howard what defense is to Harden. It's his Achilles' heel. Like Harden, the question you must ask yourself is whether you are willing to accept Howard's fatal flaw in exchange for all of the good he provides in other areas.
Free throws aren't the only problem, though. Like his bearded tag team partner, Howard has had his struggles holding onto the basketball as well. The center's 3.3 turnovers per game puts him just a few steps below Harden on the list of the league's worst.
Of the players averaging more than three turnovers per game, Howard and Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins are the only big men on the list. It's a problem when your center turns the ball over more than most guards.
And The Winner Is…
While the Rockets are James Harden's team, Dwight Howard gets the slight edge as the team's best player. For the most part, the top guys on great teams have been the ones that affect both ends of the court (LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, to name a few).
Now, there have been a couple exceptions. Carmelo Anthony has been the best player on every team he's been on despite a very lax approach to defense. Steve Nash had two MVP seasons with the Phoenix Suns while letting opponents drive right past him.
Both of the Rockets' young stars have huge positives. Harden's an impressive scorer, while Howard is a monster in the paint. Inevitably, it comes down to the lesser of each player's evils.
Would you rather have a great scorer who can't defend his position or a talented big man that dominates the boards and protects the rim but is a liability at the free-throw line late in games?
Sure, you wouldn't want Howard at the charity stripe with the game on the line, but do you still want him on the floor? Absolutely. Who do you think is patrolling the paint when Harden's man blows by him? (Well, as of late, it's been Omer Asik, but you get the point.)
The Rockets' biggest struggle this season has been perimeter defense, and Harden has been at the forefront of that. His offense rights a lot of wrongs, but it's tough to call a guy your best player when he only helps you on one side of the ball.
While Howard isn't the versatile scorer that Harden is, he's still a devastating offensive weapon. 18.5 points per game in your first season with a new team and so many other mouths to feed on the court is still pretty good.
In the end, I prefer Howard's all-around game over Harden's dynamic offense, but it's a very close call.