What Could Russell Westbrook Do With James Harden's Teammates?

What would happen if we substituted one MVP candidate for another?

In his 44th game of the regular season -- against the Golden State Warriors -- Russell Westbrook tallied his 21st triple-double of the season.

He scored 27 points, dished out 13 assists, and grabbed 15 rebounds in 35 minutes of action, but he turned the ball over 10 times.

Who can blame him, though?

According to Basketball Reference, Westbrook used 44.3% of his team's plays while he was on the floor in their 121-100 loss. The next closest usage by a Thunder player was Enes Kanter's 29.1%. And in the same way, OKC's star point guard accounted for 27% of the Thunder's points, 56.5% of the team's total assists, and 41.7% of their rebounds.

Yet the Warriors defeated Westbrook and company by 21 points, which got me thinking about a recent game telecast in which the commentators compared Westbrook to the Houston Rockets' MVP candidate point guard, James Harden.

The announcers discussed a hypothetical situation involving Westbrook replacing Harden on the Rockets. The primary question was obvious: "How much better would Westbrook be with Harden's teammates?"

The reason for the discussion? Harden, unlike Westbrook, has been surrounded by players who play perfectly off of his playmaking skillset. They're all primarily three-point shooters who provide Harden with the offensive floor-spacing necessary for him to operate at maximum efficiency.

The same can't be said for Westbrook.

So, if we were to put Westbrook in Harden's place would he be any better? And would he be any better than Harden is in Houston?

Individual Efficiency

In terms of just Westbrook versus Harden, in short, it's basically a toss-up based on some advanced stats such as win shares, box plus-minus, and value over replacement player.

Advanced WS WS Per 48 BPM VORP
James Harden 9.1 .264 10.2 5.1
Russell Westbrook 6.4 .203 13.9 6.1

The Beard has the clear advantage in both win shares and win shares per 48 minutes of play. However, not many players can say they're better than Harden in those two categories. He ranks first and fourth among all players, respectively.

On the other hand, Westbrook edges out Harden in box plus-minus and value over replacement player, as he ranks atop both box score estimates.

The two also split two alternative measures of on-court impact.

In ESPN's real plus-minus -- which measures impact in net point differential per 100 offensive and defensive possessions, and takes teammates, opponents, and other factors into account -- Westbrook's 6.55 real plus-minus trumps Harden's 5.29.

This means that, over 100 possessions, Westbrook is slightly more valuable than Harden and is only less impactful than four other players in the entire Association.

On the contrary, in numberFire's own player ranking, nERD, which measures a player's total contribution over the course of a season (based on efficiency), Harden is superior.

His score of 10.9 tells us that a league-average team with Harden as one of its starters would be nearly 11 games over .500 during a full season. Compare that to Westbrook's 6.4 and you get a difference of 4.5 games, which, as we know, can be ever so valuable in today's highly competitive league.


There is much more to it than that, though.

Logic tells us that we can then infer that, given that the Rockets (33-12) are 10.5 games above .500 and the Thunder (25-19) are only 3.0 games above .500, Harden's teammates are very marginally below league-average and Westbrook's supporting cast is moderately below league-average.

In looking at each team's makeup, the Rockets generally have more productive and efficient players based on nERD.

Montrezl Harrell3.24.7Enes Kanter
Trevor Ariza2.52.7Steven Adams
Clint Capela2.10.1Joffrey Lauvergne
Ryan Anderson1.90.0Nick Collison
Patrick Beverly1.8-0.3Jerami Grant
Eric Gordon1.0-0.4Alex Abrines
Nene Hilario1.0-0.4Victor Oladipo
Sam Dekker0.6-0.5Anthony Morrow
Chinanu Onuaku0.2-0.6Cameron Payne
Kyle Wiltjer-0.2-0.9Kyle Singler
K.J. McDaniels-0.4-2.1Andre Roberson
Tyler Ennis-1.3-2.3Domantas Sabonis
Corey Brewer-1.7-2.4Semaj Christon

A difference of 13.1 nERD between the two squads is more than notable. While, theoretically, the Rockets would be close to 11 games above .500, the Thunder would be more than two below even.

There are many things that come into play here. You could say that it's because of Harden, but the numbers don't exactly agree because we're looking at this in a vacuum. What is possible, however, is that Houston head coach Mike D'Antoni's offensive space-and-pace system has brought out the most efficient versions of Houston's players.

That could certainly be the case. And the most obvious element of the Rockets offense? Three-pointers.

Three-Point Facilitation

On the season, the Rockets are splashing in a league-best 14.8 three-pointers on a league-high 40 attempts per game. They connect on 37% of their shots from deep, placing them sixth in the league.

The Thunder are not so apt to hit from deep, having hit just 8.5 threes in 26 tries a contest. Their shooting percentage of 32.5% is 29th among all teams while the previous two numbers rank 21st and 12th.

The two teams have absolutely different philosophies as it pertains to their individual offensive attacks and their emphasis on three-point shooting. OKC takes 30.2% of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc, so naturally they're in the middle of the pack in effective field goal percentage (50.6%), which adjusts for the fact that a three-point field goal is worth one more point than a two-point field goal.

The same cannot be said for Houston. D'Antoni's offense is chucking up a league-high 46.1% of their attempts from outside the three-point arc. Their effective field goal percentage of 55.2% ranks second.

Of course, this tells us that the two offensive approaches are different, but it also tells us that the Rockets have the ideal players necessary for the system and themselves to thrive.

According to Basketball Reference, the average three-point shooting percentage for a player in the NBA stands at 35.8%. The Rockets have four players shooting at least 37.5% from three.

Each of those four -- all of whom average at least 30 minutes per game -- make more than one three-pointer per game and, as a group, combine for 10.8 three-point makes on 27.4 attempts a night.

Conversely, the Thunder possess just two players shooting over league-average while contributing at least one make per game. Victor Oladipo and Alex Abrines shoot a combined 36.7% on 9 attempts, equaling 3.3 three-pointers per game.

Despite the Thunder's lack of three-point shooting, according to, Westbrook is averaging 10.4 assists each time he hits the hardwood. On Westbrook's passes, his team shoots 8.5 three-point attempts per game, but make just 2.7 of them, amounting to a conversion rate of just under 31.8%. In line with their averages, Oladipo and Abrines are the only two players who find success off Westbrook passes.

Oklahoma City players aren't nearly as likely to get up a three in anything less than wide-open situations, as is clear from the gap in three-point rate. So, if Westbrook was dishing to Rockets players, his numbers could certainly be higher. At 14 attempts per game, even at the Thunder's percentage, is another assist or more per game. If given the Rockets' percentage and the resulting 5.3 makes per game, that's another 2.5 helpers per game.


There's no exact science to this because you never how much less or more Westbrook would kick out to the three-point shooters waiting on the perimeter if he played for Houston. But, we can imply that Westbrook's numbers -- and, to follow, his efficiency -- would be even better if he were surrounded by more shooting talent.

Harden should consider himself blessed. After all, Westbrook has it much worse off than he does.

That is, unless MVP voters, at season's end, decide that Westbrook's burden is that much greater than Harden's -- so to say that Westbrook is more deserving of the award.