HOUSTON — To the victor go the spoils?
Voters might have hoped the last regular-season game between the two players would help reveal who should take home the Maurice Podoloff Trophy. But the game only served to remind us of the fundamental question: What matters more in the MVP debate, gaudy numbers or wins vs. losses?
Harden, who finished with 22 points, 12 assists and five rebounds, set himself apart with the Rockets' 137-125 win over the Thunder, despite Westbrook's assault on the stat sheet.
"I’m glad I’m on James’ side," said Harden's teammate Lou Williams. "In my opinion, I think [the MVP award is] going to have to come down to wins because both of those guys are making history every night, Russell with the triple-doubles and the things that James is doing for his team, it’s tremendous."
Harden, no stranger to heated, end-of-season MVP debates, has had a surprisingly impressive season under new head coach Mike D’Antoni. Two seasons after losing out on the hardware to Stephen Curry in another close vote, Harden’s back in the discussion after successfully transitioning to point guard. After not making any of the 2015-16 All-NBA teams, he's shed the selfish reputation and is now positioned as a winner.
Harden had already proved he's an unstoppable scoring machine, but no one knew he could be the dangerous facilitator that he's become. Through 73 games, he leads the league with 11.3 assists per game and accounts for 56.9 points produced per game, the highest in league history.
Harden, who has seven 40-point triple-doubles this year, is playing so well that even Westbrook, a friend since childhood, can't help but notice.
"Obviously, I know he's playing well, his team is doing well, and I know he competes," Westbrook said.
Westbrook himself is on a historic tear, the likes of which no one has ever seen before. After notching his 36th triple-double of the season with another prolific outing of 39 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists, he’s just 10 games away from finishing the season as the first player to average a triple-double since Oscar Robertson did it in 1961-62.
While many voters give Harden a slim lead because of the turnaround from the Rockets' much-maligned 41-41 record last season, many covet Westbrook's eye-popping triple-double average: 31.3 PPG, 10.4 APG and 10.5 RPG.
"I think everybody does," said Harden when asked if he keeps up with Westbrook's stats. "I worry about what we have here and winning games, that’s all."
There's no doubt Westbrook is must-see TV, but here's the rub: When the Big O averaged a triple-double 55 years ago, he didn't win the MVP. Back then, the award was all about a team's performance. Bill Russell beat out Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain for the hardware because he led the Boston Celtics to 60 wins that year.
These days, the subjectivity of the award has a lot of people confused, including Rockets guard Patrick Beverley.
"I mean, I thought it was all about wins from the beginning," Beverley said. "I mean, that’s you guys that talk about that; we don’t talk about that. We talk about winning a championship. In order to do that, you have to do it collectively, and over here at the Houston Rockets, we focus on winning games, playing the right way. We have no control over who gets it, of course. That’s you guys. Our focus is basketball and winning games."
Added forward Trevor Ariza: "I don’t know what else he can do or how much better he can play. I don’t think that, in his mind, he’s trying to compare himself and play one-on-one. It’s a team game. The main focus for him is winning, and for us as well. He is our MVP absolutely, and I think the MVP of the league."
For his part, D'Antoni is not dazed or confused. He's just biased.
"I don’t even know if you should ask me," D'Antoni said. "I mean, that’s not even fair to Russell or anybody else. I mean, there’s LeBron and all those guys, but what we’ve done this year and how he played tonight, I thought tonight the best thing about James is he understood Eric Gordon and Trevor and Lou Williams were going off.
"He could’ve easily gotten 40 points, but he knew these guys were going and threw the ball their way. He just plays the game the way it should be played. I mean this guy, what he’s doing every night, I mean, come on. I don’t wanna leave anybody out, but there’s nobody as good as this guy. And ... we’re 3-1 against them. I mean, you figure it out. Because I’m biased."
Not surprisingly, the Rockets' Twitter account is also biased, trolling Westbrook's triple-double chase after the game.
At first glance, of course, it looks like Westbrook furthered his case for MVP on Sunday. His mind-boggling numbers clearly overshadowed Harden's, but a closer look reveals something voters will likely consider when the time comes: Westbrook finished with a plus-minus of minus-14. Harden finished with plus-11.
Additionally, Harden eschewed gaudy stats and the one-on-one showdown in favor of getting his teammates involved.
"I think that’s going to go further in the playoffs," Harden said. "We’re going to need everybody playing at a high level. And as long as they know I have confidence and trust in them, no matter when it is, the first play or the last play of the game, that’s going to get me further than anything else. That’s what I’m more happy about."
So there's the fork in the road. Westbrook is continuously lining up the better individual accomplishments, while Harden is leading his team to better collective performances.
If this were baseball, Westbrook wins the MVP hands down.
But this is not baseball.
On some level, Westbrook knows the award is not just about historical numbers.
In basketball, winning matters.
That's probably why he was so quick to deliver the sharp-tongued "Who's he?" response to Curry, the league's first unanimous MVP selection in 2016, after he said Harden should get the nod this year.
"You kind of have to reward the better team, I would think, record-wise," Curry told Dan Feldman of NBC Sports. "That's just kind of going in the history of the MVP award. So, I think James will probably edge him out just off of that."
And while Westbrook certainly doesn't give a you-know-what about the two-time MVP's opinion, he's still not comfortable enough to plant his flag as the front-runner with his team fighting to hold on to the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
Going back to the award's inception in 1955, an MVP winner's team finished lower than third in the conference standings just three times: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975-76 and Moses Malone in 1978-79 and 1982-83.
"I just play, man," Westbrook said. "I go out and play every night and play at a high level like I do every single night and try to help us win. But unfortunately, tonight it didn’t work out that way, so just have to get ready for tomorrow’s game."
The Rockets have nine games left in the season, including two against their biggest rivals, the Golden State Warriors. Looking ahead to those games, which have huge playoff implications, is high on Harden's priority list.
That said, Harden, who is battling with a jammed left wrist, which he suffered during a fall against the Denver Nuggets on March 18, is ready to call his shot.
As far as he's concerned, he's done more than enough to make his case as the league MVP.
"I think so," Harden said, matter-of-factly. "I try not to think about it too much, try to go do my job at a high level, and that’s all I can do."