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Russ vs. Harden Is an Argument About the Soul of Basketball

Where you stand on last year’s MVP and this season’s presumptive winner says a lot about how you see the game

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In basketball, soloists are divisive. It’s a team sport, after all. What separates the legends from the fleeting superstars and the cult names of a given era is the judgment that they made their teammates better. The soloist’s antihero magnetism comes from the tension between selfishness and sacrifice, between playing the right way and I did it my way.

Russell Westbrook is a soloist. With Russ, the line dividing altruism from ego is in the eye of the beholder. He’s leading the league in assists. Yet if any player could make passing seem selfish … well, that would be Rajon Rondo. Then it would be Russ. It’s almost like he views assists as the price he pays to avoid being criticized for taking bad shots. It’s fitting that he stayed in Oklahoma when Kevin Durant fled for the coast. Everyone, at one time or another, has felt abandoned, felt as if all the world is against them. Sports can harness those feelings of aggrievement and loneliness and disrespect in a way that can be cathartic. That’s what Russell Westbrook does. Last year, my colleague Sean Fennessey wrote of Russell: “He is you, stuck in a traffic jam, ready to drive your monster truck over the masses into the great open road.”

Last season, Russell, powered by sheer, near-nuclear rage, won the MVP award. His name was part of every NBA-related conversation. Attempting to quantify his impact on the Thunder became an industry unto itself. The MVP award is the end product of our debate over the meaning of value. It’s an expression of what the NBA hivemind—fans, players, coaches, media—deems important in a basketball player. What makes Russell Westbrook’s 2016-17 MVP win (and his retreat from relevance this season—he’s not even in the conversation for the ’17-18 award) fascinating, though, is this: He didn’t collect the trophy because he defined what “valuable” means. He won because he did the “most.”

Russ hit the 2016-17 season like a meteor—part spectacle, part natural disaster. He shattered Oscar Robertson’s 55-year-old record for most triple-doubles in a season and became the second player, after the Big O, to average a triple-double for a season. He led the league in scoring. He led the league in thinly veiled roasts of his ex-teammate Kevin Durant. Russell scowled and screamed and dunked like the rim said something sideways to him.

His explosive aggression, fueled by his grievances—with KD, with whoever was guarding him, with whichever member of the press was asking him whichever question he didn’t want to answer that particular night—took him to another level. One night, he seared the Orlando Magic for 57 points, 13 rebounds, and 11 assists, with seven turnovers thrown in for flavor. He hung 51, 13, and 10 on the Suns, and 50, 16, and 10 on the Nuggets. He celebrated Christmas two days early by uncorking a 45-11-11 game on the Celtics in Boston.

Even Westbrook’s fans would admit that, when he’s rolling, everyone else becomes a prop. His opponents are there to get crossed up and dunked on. Reporters exist to get shown up. And teammates are Sams to his Frodo. They are there to facilitate his quest, to get him the ball, to make the shot when passed to, or to box out so that he can grab the board. Last season, he used more of his team’s possessions than any other player in history.

Russ’s MVP win briefly settled the essential question we always ask when we watch him play: Is this good basketball or bad basketball? The answer was: Who cares? The dude averaged a triple-double.

A Paul Bunyan figure, Westbrook accomplished great feats. But you can’t un-invent the steam engine. The numbers always tell. If you’ve pulled for the Thunder, there may be no more bittersweet feeling than watching Russ take a pull-up 3 early in a game, with that herky, flick-like motion of his, and make it. He’s shooting 28 percent from deep this season, and averaging more than four attempts a game. When that first-quarter bomb splashes home, it’s hard not to think this means he’s going to miss two or three in the fourth quarter. Averaging a triple-double for a season is amazing and special. It’s also a dead end. Where do you go from there?

If Russ is Paul Bunyan, James Harden owns the lumberyard. Numbers always tell. And numbers are why Harden’s rise from stardom to superstardom to front-runner for this season’s MVP carries a faint feeling of inevitability. His game—predicated on 3s, free throws, and rim attempts—is of a piece with the numbers-driven structural changes shaping the league.

Harden is a player for this moment and he has the wind at his back. Last season, the pro-Harden argument was wonky and faintly intellectual and involved charts and required his supporters to deliver a passionate defense of foul shots. No wonder he lost to the guy who broke a five-decade-old record. This season, Harden’s MVP victory feels like a fait accompli. The Rockets have the best record in the league, a historically great offense, and James Harden is their best player.

As always, Harden works the actuarial tables for his edge. Last season, he launched 756 3s, the third most in history. He led the league in free throw attempts for the third consecutive season, taking a staggering 881 trips to the stripe. That’s the 24th-most free throws ever, 41 more than Russ’s tally that season, and 205 more than Jimmy Butler’s third-place mark. Of the players above Harden’s 2016-17 campaign on the single-season free throws list, only Dwight Howard (897 attempts in 2007-08 and 916 in 2010-11) played contemporaneously with the Beard. He and Michael Jordan, Jerry West, and Oscar Robertson are the only guards in the top 25. All but one (Adrian Dantley) are bigs—Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone, and, of course, Dwight. Put another way, Harden gets fouled at a rate commensurate with superstar players throughout history who got fouled on purpose.

No surprise, then, that finding something to love about Harden’s approach can be a chore. There’s no best way to stan for a dude’s free throw rate. It’s like watching a millionaire cut coupons. Russ’s game is like a Mike Tyson knockout compilation video. You don’t have to explain what’s interesting about it.

Yet, even though the MVP voting and the playoffs and the potential for yet another Harden vanishing act are still months away, the debate between Harden and Russ feels so settled, it hardly feels like a debate at all. They are players headed in different directions. Harden will take over 700 3s again this season and he’s leading the league in points. Clint Capela and Eric Gordon are having career years. The Rockets have had win streaks of 14 and, after casually throttling Russ and the Thunder on Tuesday night, 16 and counting.

The Thunder added two-way All-Star Paul George and (clears throat for five minutes) elite-scorer-in-his-imagination Carmelo Anthony in the offseason, but the loss of defensive specialist Andre Roberson has wiped this team out. They need 10 wins out of their last 16 games to match last season’s win total of 47.

Meanwhile, the players who general manager Sam Presti dealt for George and Melo are thriving. The Rockets added talent and got better. The Thunder added talent and have remained roughly the same. On Tuesday, they were picked apart by Harden’s Rockets, losing 122-112. Harden scored 23 points (on 13 shots) and added 11 assists. He was one of seven Rockets to score in double figures. Westbrook notched 32 points (on 27 shots) with seven assists. The numbers always tell. Speaking of which:

Russell Westbrook is a soloist; maybe the most exciting soloist of all time. But the game is moving past him. And his triple-double-laden MVP season increasingly seems like much sound and fury, signifying nothing.