The MVP race this year has been absolutely crazy. Russ is averaging a triple double. Harden is about 2 rebounds away from doing the same. LeBron is having one of his best seasons of his career. I don’t really want to hear about Kawhi as your MVP because that’s just silly.
Regardless of where you stand on the MVP race, there is a narrative in the NBA: Harden has a better team around him than Westbrook.
Obviously both of these teams are nowhere without their respective stars. Neither of these teams are getting relatively close to the playoffs without the floor generals. But who really has the worse roster?
I know the story all year has been about how Russ is leading his group of D-Leaguers to the playoffs. There’s a couple problems with that picture that everyone seems to be painting:
- The Thunder have some really quality players around Westbrook
- We forget that Harden has led a team with lower expectations to the 3rd best record in the NBA (Vegas is smarter than all of us).
This is not me making the case for Harden for MVP. I’m going to keep my opinion out of this and strictly try to compare the two teams without their stars.
The case I am trying to make is that the Thunder, without Westbrook, are better than the Rockets, without Harden. However, the Rockets’ roster has been built much better around a ball-dominant guard like Harden or Westbrook. That sounds confusing, but hear me out.
The Thunder offensively rely heavily on Westbrook making everything happen. Alongside Westbrook on the floor for the Thunder, we usually see Kanter, Adams, Oladipo, and either McDermott, Roberson, or Abrines. For a system built around playing off the ball, that lineup isn’t very good. Adams may have the best hair/facial hair combo in the league, but he is essentially a non factor on offense. Oladipo isn’t a bad shooter, but he isn’t great at spotting up. People seem to forget that in Orlando, he did most of his work with the ball in his hands. Roberson is worse at shooting a basketball than Shannon Sharpe is at debating or sounding smart. Kanter is gifted on offense, but he is at his best with his back to the basket, not in pick and roll. Same for Sabonis, he’s a good faceup big, but he isn’t all that effective out of a pick and roll. Abrines and McDermott are the two players that are built to play off ball, knocking down open threes at an elite level (sometimes).
For Houston, the lineup with Harden consists of Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, and Clint Capela. Beverley and Ariza are great defenders that specialize in knocking down spot up treys. Capela is a good rim protector and thrives in pick and roll offense when Harden heaves the ball at the rim for him to flush down. Though Anderson couldn’t stop a nosebleed on defense, he’s absolutely lethal from downtown. Off the bench, Eric Gordon, Nene, Sam Dekker and even Montrezl Harrell are perfect fill ins for Ariza, Beverley and Capela. Lou Williams is also a great fit because he can play off ball with Harden or take on the playmaking duties when Harden hits the bench.
Okay so I just complimented the shit out of Houston and really hated on the Thunder, so why is this even worth talking about?
Because even though the Rockets’ roster works so well with Harden, it would be a mess without him. Everybody else on the Rockets’ roster is best off ball and has proven that this year. Throughout his career, people thought Eric Gordon could be a high end 2-guard if he just stayed healthy. After coming to Houston, we see that he’s most effective taking spot-up threes. Ryan Anderson has always been a spot up shooter, as well as Trevor Ariza. Nene, Clint Capela, and Montrezl Harrell trying to create for themselves on the block would be about as effective as Kwame Brown. However, with Harden and that D’Antoni offense, they can thrive in the pick and roll. Everyone on the Rockets is meant to play off ball. If any of them were to take a ball dominant approach without Harden, we would be looking at a bottom-tier team.
With Oklahoma City, we see a bunch of guys that aren’t exactly good fits to play with someone who has the ball 99% of the time on offense. Oladipo would be much better as a combo guard with a greater handling role. Kanter would improve his game with a back to the basket niche as opposed to his current pick and roll style. Sabonis could be a nice offensive piece if he were given the chance to do anything other than screen for Russ.
Looking at the Thunder without Russ, they have the players that can do things on the basketball court by themselves. I just don’t see that when I look at the Rockets’ roster. The Rockets are better at being role players, but as individual basketball players, they aren’t all that close to OKC. I know this does somewhat feed into the narrative that Harden’s team is better because, well, it’s better for what he is. But I really feel like if you take the stars off of their teams, the Thunder would be somewhere around 10th in the West, while the Rockets would be stuck at the bottom of the standings with the Lakers and Suns.