If I weren’t a basketball fan—if you aren’t one right now—basketblogging, I swear, would itself be an insurmountable barrier to entry. Cricket has incomprehensible structure; baseball has interminable periods of non-action; basketball has a breathtakingly pretentious universe of bloggers and Twitter goofballs. Get a load of this hysterical mess:
A Paul Bunyan figure, Westbrook accomplished great feats. But you can’t un-invent the steam engine. The numbers always tell.
That mangled metaphor comes to you via this doomed hell blog, from Jason Concepcion of The Ringer, headlined “Russ vs. Harden Is an Argument About the Soul of Basketball.” It wants dearly for you to be the sort of person who thinks Russ winning the MVP last season reflects something important about the state of basketball in these dark times, so that James Harden winning it this season while Westbrook experiences inevitable regression can prove or disprove whatever that important something might be.
The subtitle of this mess—“Where you stand on last year’s MVP and this season’s presumptive winner says a lot about how you see the game”—is every bit as unbearable as the headline. I submit that where you stand on whether there is some grand Russ vs. Harden argument to be settled at all probably says a lot about how much time you spend in the orbit of dipshit basketbloggers. No one is having this argument. Last season, Russell Westbrook led the NBA in points per game, finished third in assists per game, set a new record for usage, and, yes, averaged a triple-double, all while leading a relatively clunky roster to 47 wins, the season after his team lost perhaps the second-best player in the world to free agency. It is fine for NBA fans to argue about whether he should’ve won the MVP, but if there was a small group of wholly worthy MVP candidates last season, surely Russ was in it. That he won the award should not be especially controversial.
But this awful blog doesn’t have the focus to argue that point, nor does it even have the focus to bear all the way down on another, sillier point—that James Harden is a better basketball player than Russell Westbrook (for what it’s worth, I happen to think he is). Instead it pits the two of them against each other as a kind of litmus test of the idealogical purity of the beholder, and this is where it fails the most spectacularly. I am particularly charmed by Concepcion’s indulgent use of the phrase “numbers always tell” at three different points in the article—I prefer to imagine that he wrote this with a gun to his head, and put this in there as a kind of coded cry for help, a plea for his readers to seek numbers and prove the ultimate worthlessness of this exercise.
For example! The main thrust of this mess is that Russell Westbrook is especially a ball-hogging one-man-band, and that James Harden stands in contrast as, say, the benevolent central body of a stable solar system:
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.
“Almost like” is doing an awful lot of work there—without describing anything quantifiable, or even observable, we suddenly find ourselves on the other side of the part where the most easily digestible statistical evidence of Russ’s sharing habits has been reduced down to merely the shrapnel from his pursuit of personal glory. Assists are a wildly imperfect stat, sure—good thing we have “almost like” to fill in where there would otherwise be statistical noise. Glad to be on the same page: Actually Russ’s assists are meaningless in this exercise. Cool, cool.
The article never makes its way back around to actually articulating a contrast of styles between the players, but the inference could not be more clear: if you are Team Russ, you are on the side of more, not better; you are on the side of only sharing as much as you absolutely must; you are on the side of turning an NBA team into a one-man act. But the notion that James Harden stands in contrast to these tenets is absurd—by nearly every available measure, Harden’s game is much more predicated on solo acts of heroism than is Russ’s: Harden leads the NBA in isolation plays per game, at 9.7; Russ, by comparison, averages 5.3 isolations per game. 33.6 percent of James Harden’s plays are isolations, by far the most in the NBA; just 18.4 percent of Russ’s plays are isolations. Russ passes an average of 61.4 times per game, good for 7th-most in the NBA; Harden comes in 30th, at 51.9 passes per game. Russ averages more secondary assists, and more potential assists, and a Russell Westbrook drive is almost twice as likely to result in a pass (7.0 drives to pass per game) as a James Harden drive (3.9 drives to pass per game). I am not here to make the case that Russell Westbrook is not whatever passes for a soloist in NBA basketball, only that whatever qualifies him as one also very obviously grabs up Harden.
Numbers, as, uhh, they say, always tell. In this case, what they tell is that Harden and Westbrook are two of the most ball-dominant players in the NBA, and that whatever details can be said to describe their differences describe them as matters of degree, and not kind. Harden is a more efficient scorer, in large part because he is a vastly better jump-shooter: Westbrook and Harden are one and two in the NBA in pull-up shot attempts per game, at 10.8 and 10.6, respectively; where Westbrook’s effective field goal percentage on pull-ups is a ghastly 38.8, Harden’s is a sparkling 54.2. To the extent that there is a case to be made that James Harden is truly better than Russell Westbrook, it’s right there: James Harden is a deadly outside shooter, and Russell Westbrook very much is not.
The funniest instance of “numbers always tell” in this awful mess of a basketblog comes here, in the most cherry-picked argument of all:
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.
Ah yes, the probative value of box score stats from one single game. In that spirit I offer, by way of counterpoint, the box score stats from one single game from last season, Westbrook’s totally very controversial MVP campaign: November 16, when Houston traveled to Oklahoma City and fell to Russ’s Thunder, 105-103. Westbrook scored 30 points (on 20 shots) and added nine assists, seven rebounds, and two steals. Harden notched 13 points on 16 shots, and six turnovers. I’m not actually all that sure what these numbers are supposed to tell, except that if you’re using the numbers from one single game to highlight a broader point about the Soul Of Basketball, you are playing the absolute hell out of yourself.
Concepcion’s single game sample size segues hilariously into this TNT stat, offered as another instance of numbers telling things:
But, like, come on! This is like when NFL broadcasters used to trot out the number of rushing attempts per win as evidence that the obvious winning strategy was to just run the ball more. Every football fan over the age of 14 has figured out the post hoc ergo propter hoc stupidity of this argument—that its basketball equivalent would show up on a TNT graphic is only mildly disappointing; that it would show up in a forcefully written basketblog on The Ringer is mind-boggling, or hilarious, or both. Either way, it’s incredibly easy to debunk:
Sheesh. What Concepcion wants to be saying is James Harden is better than Russell Westbrook. But because this thing is written in the tradition of The Warriors Are Truly Authentic, Says Jean-Paul Sartre, what it says, instead, is I made the terrible mistake of yoking ridiculous value judgments to the actions and results of friggin’ basketball games. The Soul Of Basketball isn’t up for grabs; nothing is said about the beholder; no one is even having this stupid fucking argument, save possibly some dyspeptic Harden fans who spent last season confusing themselves over the significance of the MVP award.
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.
The debate between Harden and Russ. Yes, “the debate” over which of these men is The True MVP does feel settled: Russell Westbrook won the MVP award, therefore he is The True MVP. If there is some debate over which of them is having a better season, yes, that is also settled, in the same way that “the debate” between Harden and Steph Curry feels “settled” this season, for no reason beyond that Harden has a realistic chance at winning the MVP award and Steph does not. For that matter, “the debate” between Harden and Kevin Durant is also settled, as is the debate between LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard, and Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving. Why these various “debates” aren’t also being saddled with The Soul Of Basketball, here, is an open question. Harden is having a much better season than Russ! Amazingly, if you look around the league, you will notice that many players are having better seasons than many other players. Fascinating!
Get a load of this kicker:
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.
I can’t believe I need to say this, but: Russell Westbrook’s MVP season wasn’t meant to signify anything—only in the insane realm of hair-brained basketblogger nonsense could it be interpreted thus. It was not a data point in some larger Harden vs. Russ conflict; it was not a commentary on the state of the game. It was a recognition of the historic season of a worthy recipient, and nothing more. James Harden is a fantastic NBA player, and he is having a historic season, and he is therefore the prohibitive frontrunner for the 2018 MVP award. If that circumstance ultimately tips the scales in some groaning culture war to which you are a participant, fine, sure, but also, man, you need a new set of friends.