NBA Insider: Separation of James Harden, Russell Westbrook Fueling MVP Race

Ethan Skolnick@@EthanJSkolnickNBA Senior WriterMarch 18, 2015

AP Images

It may seem impossible, at this point, to separate Russell Westbrook and James Harden, two of the four leading candidates for NBA MVP.

Westbrook, the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard, and Harden, the Houston Rockets shooting guard, are about as statistically similar as two stylistically dissimilar players can be. While Westbrook, after his monthlong rampage in the absence of Kevin Durant, has small edges over Harden in points, rebounds, assists and steals per game, Harden is more efficient from the line and behind the arc.

Of course, someone did separate them back on October 27, 2012: Thunder GM Sam Presti, who, rather than sign Harden to a maximum deal, dealt the reigning Sixth Man of the Year and roster-filler to Houston for since-departed guard Kevin Martin, plus underachieving prospect Jeremy Lamb and draft choices, one of which became center Steven Adams.

Naturally, it's reasonable to wonder what would have happened if he hadn't, especially now that Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have earned nearly universal acclaim as the league's best backcourt. Curry and Thompson have been spectacular for the West's premier team, but even their numbers pale next to what Westbrook and Harden are producing.

So what if that deal had never gotten done?

What would Westbrook and Harden have become together, after Harden started just seven games in his three seasons as Westbrook's Thunder teammate?

Not what they are separately, according to their former teammate Kendrick Perkins, who is now a backup center for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"No, because James needed his own team," Perkins told Bleacher Report. "He wouldn't have been able to flourish and be the guy who he is under Russ and KD. So he definitely needed his own team to be able to do what he's doing right now."

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Even before Harden emerged as the league's top reserve in his third season, Perkins saw the potential in practice.

"He worked hard," Perkins said. "He came ready to play. And then he would come off the bench and have a quick 15 in 12 minutes, just straight getting buckets. And we already knew that he was ready. There just wasn't room for him to really flourish like this. So he had to break away."

Perkins isn't watching Westbrook from the court or sidelines anymore. But what he's seen of this recent run has wowed him.

"He's got to play that [way] because KD is out," Perkins said. "I've played with Russ and seen him doing some amazing stuff, but this, I think, takes the cake."

And if Harden and Westbrook somehow finish in the top two in MVP voting, a season after Durant took the award, history may wonder how they couldn't win a title together. The proper response? The Heat had three pretty fair players on the other side, starting with LeBron James. And the Thunder didn't have this Harden; in that series, he averaged 12.4 points per game. This season, that's a below-average half for him.

Around the League

CLEVELAND, OH - FEBRUARY 26: Kyrie Irving #2 and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrate during the first half against the Golden State Warriors at Quicken Loans Arena on February 26, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ack
Jason Miller/Getty Images

Irving Rising, but a Ways to Catch Wade

Looks like we'll need more cells to house all the prisoners of the moment.

That was evident again over the last week in the wake of Kyrie Irving's sensational 57-point performance in San Antonio, one in which he inconceivably converted 17 of 27 contested shots. Naturally, the next step for some fans and media was to compare Irving to LeBron James' previous running mate, in a manner that devalues the body of work of Dwyane Wade.

There is certainly a case to be made that James made the correct long-term basketball decision last summer to leave a then-32-year-old Wade for a still-22-year-old Irving; in three seasons, when Irving is entering an NBA player's typical prime and James has likely exited his, it's quite possible that Wade will not be playing in the NBA at all. Provided that Irving continues to expand his understanding of the game, and what is required to really contend for rings, that may extend James' championship opportunities. Maybe, together, they will even reach four NBA Finals and win two, as James and Wade did with Miami.

But that discussion about the future is much different than one about the past or even the present.

The Wade who flanked James in 2010-11 still statistically ranks as the most dynamic teammate of James' career, even as Irving has been increasingly excellent as he's better understood how to best accompany the planet's best player. In the same number of minutes (37.1) per game, Wade averaged more points (25.5 to 22.2) and rebounds (6.4 to 3.2) than Irving has this season. Irving has a slight edge in assists (5.2 to 4.6) over 2010-11 Wade, though, and they were virtually even in true shooting percentage, with Wade much more accurate from inside the arc and Irving much better beyond it.

The advanced metrics more clearly identify 2010-11 Wade as the superior player, whether PER (25.6 vs. 21.8), win shares (12.8 vs. 9.2), value over replacement (5.7 vs. 3.2) or defensive rating (102 vs. 109). Irving's one advanced advantage? Offensive rating: 118 to 114.

And the James-Wade collaboration, clumsy as it initially was—as Wade learned to play more off the ball—was much more symbiotic than most remember. According to the NBA's official stats site, James and Wade were a plus-12.5 points per 100 possessions in 74 games together that season; James and Irving are a plus-12.6 points per 100 possessions in 55 games together this season.

In their second season and third seasons together, James and Wade became even more dominant: plus-14.2 per possessions in 2011-12 and 14.6 per 100 possessions in 2012-13. That doesn't include what they did together in the postseason to capture two championships, including combining to average 65.7 points, 18.7 rebounds and 11.7 assists in sweeping the final three games of a contentious 2012 second-round series against Indiana, one of the great two-man performances of all time. It was Wade who scored 41 in the closeout game.

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

James and Wade slipped as a duo last season, down to plus-6.6 points per 100 possessions, as Wade was frequently sidelined and some of the supporting cast cratered around them. There's no way to know whether they would have recovered this season, even if Wade had been more available than he's been—he's on pace to play 60 games, just six more than last season.

But it does seem silly for anyone to rave about Irving's emergence while, in the same breath, ranting about Wade's decline. After all, even as well as Irving has performed, Wade's PER (22.5, up from 22.0 last season) is still higher than Irving's 21.8, as he's averaging more points, rebounds and assists than Irving per 36 minutes. And, just as Irving has picked up his play of late, so has Wade, scoring at least 25 points in his past six games, rising to the occasion as the Heat have been increasingly desperate for his production without Chris Bosh.

Irving has the two highest-scoring games in the NBA this season (57 and 55), but his longest 25-point streak this season (also the longest of his career) is four, and he missed two games in the middle of that stretch.

Wade is doing this at age 33, which is remarkable; by that age, who knows how much or well Irving will be playing. It's safe to say he won't be with James, who will be 41 by then. Irving doesn't turn 23 until next Monday, so what he's accomplishing is equally remarkable. Yet it should be noted that Wade turned 23 during his second season (2004-05), his first playing with Shaquille O'Neal, and all of his major metrics (including his 23.1 PER) were superior to what Irving has recorded this season.

None of this takes away from how far Irving has come and how fast.

"The thing that really impressed me about him is he genuinely loves the game," Hall of Fame point guard Isiah Thomas told NBA Sunday Tip on Bleacher Report Radio after conducting a lengthy interview with Irving for NBA TV. "And I know we hear that said a lot, but he's a guy that, if there was a three-on-three pickup game going on in the park with some high school kids, he would join the game and play. That's the thing I got most about him. He wasn't in the NBA necessarily for the lifestyle; he genuinely loves to play the game. And I think what we're seeing now is his genuine love for the game and passion and emotion on display."

It's been quite impressive. Irving is a central reason the Cavaliers are winning, finding a niche while complementing and even enhancing the NBA's premier superstar, which is nowhere near so easy as it sounds. He deserves enormous credit for all of that, and he seems nowhere near his ceiling.

Still, that shouldn't even slightly diminish all that Wade did before James, with James and, contrary to the premature conclusions of his doubters, continues to do after him. The only real conclusion to draw is that LeBron James has chosen his guards well.

Roles of an NBA Lifetime

Self-awareness is not among the most abundant attributes among professional athletes, and even when it exists, it can be overlooked.

SAN ANTONIO, TX - DECEMBER 28:  Boris Diaw #33 of the San Antonio Spurs grabs the rebound against the Houston Rockets during the game on December 28, 2014 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images

But if you possess it, it can mean a long, productive career.

This came across when Bleacher Report spoke with a handful of former All-Stars who have extended their NBA lives by accepting smaller assignments and again during exploration of another subject: how certain players, of somewhat limited skill sets, can become far more useful and appreciated when plugging holes on good teams rather than toiling for poor ones.

This is a phenomenon that the now-retired Shane Battier used to reference frequently, one where the focus shifts to what a role player can do rather than what he can't, and one that many current "role" players embody, with DeMarre Carroll, Trevor Ariza, Boris Diaw, Nick Collison, Jared Dudley and—at least with Golden State so far—Draymond Green among them.

"I 100 percent agree with that," said Dudley, now on his fourth team, in Milwaukee. "I think that's why you see some guys give up money to go to the right situation sometimes, to prolong their careers. Some teams you can look terrible, and some teams you can look good. A perfect example would be Danny Green when he was in Cleveland, and Danny Green for the Spurs. You've got to find what you do."

Winning teams can help you find that, generally making them the right situations.

Not always, though.

Dudley's one-season struggle with the Clippers stood out as an exception.

"For someone like myself and a lot of role players, teams that thrive off the corner three, teams are unselfish," Dudley said. "I didn't play really well in L.A. [with the Clippers]. It was just, in that system, you don't really touch the ball; the ball is in the post or the point guard's hands 99 percent of the time. And you might get the ball 10 times one game, or one time one game, and it's not really a system. It's more of players dictating that."

Carroll, who played for four teams in four seasons before finding a home, and a starting spot, on the soaring Hawks, cited similar factors.

"I think it's the system, and the coach," Carroll said. "Coach Bud [Mike Budenholzer] expects a lot out of me, but at the same time, he lets me freelance and do what I do, the junkyard-dog type of stuff. And then he tells me to shoot it whenever I'm open. When Coach gives you that type of confidence, it's amazing. I've never had that on a team before.

DENVER, CO - MARCH 11:  DeMarre Carroll #5 of the Atlanta Hawks controls the ball against Kenneth Faried #35 of the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center on March 11, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Nuggets defeated the Hawks 115-102. NOTE TO USER: User expressly
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

"The one thing about this league is, you have to understand you who you are, and you have to understand what role you play on the team. And I know that I'm a three-and-D guy on this team. They expect me to be a vocal leader on defense. So whenever I get an opportunity to show people I can play offense, I do. But at the same time, when you're on a bad team, people expect more. But when you're on a good team, you get shined on."

No argument from Diaw, who has largely flourished on strong squads in San Antonio and Phoenix after scuffling for rebuilding Charlotte.

"There are more types, but there are roughly two types of players," Diaw said. "A player who, they can give you a ball on any team, ask you to play one-on-one, you'll be good and you're going to make some shots. And some players like me, where I'm not that kind of player.

"If you put me by myself on any team, I won't be able to produce, I won't be able to do anything good. I'm good with a system, I'm good with a passing game, I'm good to set my teammates up. But I'm not good at scoring on three guys. Some guys can do that. Not even All-Stars, but some guys can score the ball one against three, the double-team they don't mind. Some others, we don't. And we need that kind of team with team basketball, and there is some movement, and you need to use your IQ in order to play the game."

So, yes, Diaw feels people value him more than when he was counted on to help carry needier squads than the Spurs.

"Yeah, of course," Diaw said. "It all has to do with the type of basketball you're playing, too. Because I think it was good when I was playing for Larry Brown [in Charlotte]. It's pretty similar to what Pop's trying to do, the team basketball concept. It all depends, we've all got different styles of game, and it's going to fit one team or another."

Collison has played for only one franchise for his entire 11-year career, and the Oklahoma City Thunder recently signed him for two more seasons at a total of $7.5 million, even with modest career averages of 6.3 points and 5.5 rebounds. Clearly, the organization has always seen his value, but he believes it's become more apparent to other basketball observers after he moved with the Seattle SuperSonics to Oklahoma and then became one of the NBA's powers.

DALLAS, TX - MARCH 16:  Nick Collison #4 of the Oklahoma City Thunder is fouled by Charlie Villanueva #3 of the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center on March 16, 2015 in Dallas, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

So, yes, he buys the Battier thesis: that role players can be more effective and appreciated on winning teams.

"Absolutely, I've experienced that in my own career," Collison said. "I did a lot of the things I do now before. I've gotten better at a lot of things for sure. But I think when the team is good enough to really follow a game plan, you can figure out how to really get good at certain things. When you're struggling with everything, it's hard to pick those details out, that you can really affect the game at. And I think that's both ends."

Collison said when a team's defense is random, "You can't really get good at guarding pick-and-rolls or anything. When the offense is kind of no-execution, just go out and play, that's not my strong suit, not like getting by someone and scoring."

It's about staying in a lane on a team moving the right direction.

"Just kind of stability within the team, you're able to pick out things and get really good at them," Collison said.

Collison points to Diaw as a prime example.

"He's a great passer," Collison said. "But you play a team like San Antonio that executes well, and the spacing is good, those passes are easier. Because you can read it, because there's two on the ball, somebody's open if they're consistently in the right place. Those plays are easier. Where if you are on a team that doesn't execute as well, it's a different thing every time, and it's hard to make a good pass if there's no space and nobody's open. Things like that. So I just think you have to have some stability on your team, for certain guys. For me. At least, that's what I've seen."

Mr. Vice President...

Since his unanimous election as vice president of the NBA Players Association, LeBron James has deferred all questions about union activities until the offseason, preferring to focus on the season at hand.

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Still, it's reasonable to wonder how someone with so many commitments—basketball, family, community, endorsement, acting, television and film production—would have any time left to immerse himself in the minutiae of collective bargaining.

To learn more of the duties of the union VP, Bleacher Report turned to James' teammate, James Jones, who has served as the union's secretary/treasurer for the past two years.

"Like every other VP, his responsibility is to oversee the direction, the function, the goals and objectives of the union," Jones said. "To make sure that what our management team is doing, where our money is being spent, where our focus is, make sure that all that stuff lines up with what the executive committee and the players as a whole want."

Jones and President Chris Paul are currently involved in every big decision, from major expenditures to liability questions.

"The VP serves in that same role," Jones said. "It's the brain trust. It's the leadership of the union. And usually when things aren't right, or goals aren't being met, it's the president, and the vice president and the treasurer that step in and exert authority."

So how great is the responsibility during the season?

"It's consuming," Jones said. "It's not that you're in an office every day, but in today's electronic world, it's daily, every other day, it's conference calls weekly, biweekly. Sometimes it can be a month before we go on a call, sometimes we have four calls in a week. You try to make it work with how long and how odd our season is. But it's intense. Because at the end of the day, you have to look at the two parallels: the NBA on its side as a well-oiled machine running full speed every day of the year, and the union as well on a smaller scale."

Jones said the objective is for the stakeholders on his side, the players, to be as engaged as the league's stakeholders, the owners, on the other. And that's why it mattered for the most prominent player to get involved.

"It's not a ceremonious position," Jones said. "No, not at all. It helps that our board now is more well-rounded, our office staff is more complete, we have more high-level professionals in the office, so a lot of the bulk of the work that fell upon the board now falls upon our executive management team and leadership team. So it's not as labor-intensive. But, at the end of the day, like everything, it's oversight, it's involvement. We charge [executive director] Michele [Roberts] with the job of meeting our objectives. Ultimately the board at the end of the day will be the ones responsible for rating whether she is doing a good job."

Jones said when he spoke to James about running for the board a season ago "it was in flux" without an executive director, general counsel or a communications director.

"It was basically the board issuing and spending crazy amounts of time with outside help and consultants," Jones said. "Now everything is internal. You don't have to get people up to speed. It's extremely more efficient."

And efficiency is something that James appreciates on the court and—in light of his limited time—off as well.

The (Multi-)Question Interview

DALLAS - JUNE 20:  Dwyane Wade #3 and Pat Riley and the Miami Heat celebrates winning the NBA Championship in Game Six of the 2006 NBA Finals on June 20, 2006 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
Glenn James/Getty Images

Last week, Bleacher Report published a story based on an hourlong sit-down interview with Heat President Pat Riley, focusing on where the Heat and the NBA have been and where they're going.

In the interest of brevity—the story was already north of 4,000 words—some of Riley's more interesting recollections failed to make the final cut.

Here's one worth sharing about the 2006 championship, his last as a coach.

"That was sort of a salty year," Riley said. "We made the change with Stan [Van Gundy] and then I came in. I had a hip issue and a knee issue, so I was taking Indocin and inflammatories all year long, and that made me even more angry."

Nor was it an easy group, featuring crusty, opinionated veterans Shaquille O'Neal, Gary Payton, Antoine Walker and Jason Williams, among others.

"No, it was not," Riley said. "There was a big loss in Dallas, about 30 games before the season was over with. And there was another big loss in Phoenix; they had 48 points in the first quarter, that's when Mike [D'Antoni] was coaching there. So the road trip was a nightmare. We get beat in Dallas by 30. There's a big locker room confrontation after the game between me and a couple of players, and finally I hear a voice from the back of the room. 'Well, Pat, what are ya gonna do about this?!'"

Riley laughed, as he strained his voice to sound like a certain pugnacious point guard.

"I'll never forget it," Riley said. "It was Gary Payton. I said, 'Well, do you really want to hear me?' 'Yeah.' So I said to him, if you will follow me, and do exactly what I tell you to do, we'll win. We'll win. If you'll do that, Gary…can you do that? Can all of you guys do it? Can you just sort of turn yourself over? No differences. Turn yourself over on all the game plan issues, we'll collaborate. Turn yourself on being on time. Turn yourself over on getting in my face, and me getting in your face. And just let me coach you. Just let me coach you hard. From that point on, there were no more problems. I think we ended up 20-10."

He recalled a "dicey" Game 5, with the first round against the Bulls tied at two games each.

"And then Shaq had 30 in Game 6 in Chicago," Riley said. "From that point on, we just kind of walked through the other two teams. We were 4-1 against New Jersey, and then we beat Detroit four out of six. Then we lost those first two in Dallas, and then boom, we ended up winning the title. So they really came together. It's those moments, you never forget them. You're so happy to have been part of them. You dream about them. But you have to take action to make them happen. Those are forever moments."

Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 9-11 a.m. ET on SiriusXM Bleacher Report Radio. Follow him on Twitter, @EthanJSkolnick.

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