A tale of Westbrook and Harden

Russell Westbrook of the Thunder and James Harden of the Rockets have managed to stand head and shoulders above the rest of the NBA League. There is little you can do but admire the two athletes. But admire we must for Westbrook and Harden have made the 2016-17 season special already.

Russell Westbrook, the Oklahoma City Thunder guard, attempts to beat Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert's defence during a NBA match. Westbrook has notched up massive stats this season, much to the amazement of the NBA fans.   -  AP

In the 2012 NBA Finals, Russell Westbrook and James Harden were on the same team. Playing together for the Oklahoma City Thunder, the two, along with Kevin Durant, would go down in five games to the Miami Heat, to hand LeBron James his first NBA Championship. It was the last time Westbrook and Harden ever played together.

Since then, these two former team-mates have enjoyed a good run of form. Westbrook partnered Durant and kept the Oklahoma City Thunder among the Western Conference’s elite teams. Although injuries to both Westbrook and Durant came in the way of the Thunder making it to the NBA Finals again post 2012, they almost did upset the 73-9 Golden State Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference Finals. Westbrook finished as scoring champion for the 2014-15 season following a then career-best 28.1 ppg (points per game) and is now a six-time NBA All-Star.

 

Harden’s career, correspondingly, didn’t play out too badly either. Following his departure from the Thunder in the 2012 offseason, Harden’s game began to bloom rapidly. He joined the Houston Rockets where he was promptly made a starter. With Dwight Howard joining the Rockets in 2013, the duo even carried Houston to the 2015 Western Conference Finals, where they lost to the eventual NBA champions, the Golden State Warriors. Nonetheless, Harden had a memorable 2014-15 season, as he finished second in the MVP race. In his five seasons, since leaving the Thunder, Harden has been a part of each and every All-Star game.

And here they are this season, Harden and Westbrook, their paths converging once again, but as competitors in the MVP race. With about 45 games into the regular season, no two NBA players have made a more emphatic statement with their play in 2016-17 than these two former team-mates.

Westbrook has hit 23 triple-doubles already, the fifth most now by any player in a single season. Riding on his play, the Thunder are well over the 0.500 mark and will mostly make the 2017 post season. Of his 23 TDs, 18 have resulted in the victories for the Thunder. At this stage, Westbrook leads the League in scoring, and is second in assists. He is averaging a 30-point triple-double for the season (including rebounds and assists) and should he maintain that, he will be the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1961-61 to average a triple-double over the course of an entire NBA season. Robertson had 41 TDs in 61-62, the most by any player in a single NBA season.

When Kevin Durant left the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2016 off-season, few doubted Westbrook’s ability to become the face of the Thunder franchise. But that he would go on to notch up such dominant stats, has been beyond everyone’s wildest imagination. In the 55 years since Robertson notched up a triple-double over an entire season, the league has witnessed transcendent talents like Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Yet, Westbrook alone is on track to emulate Robertson.

Then there is Harden. As most experts would concede, with Dwight Howard’s departure, and new head coach Mike D’Antoni’s appointment, the Rockets were supposed to be in some kind of rebuilding mode to begin the season. But Harden embraced D’Antoni’s idea of playing point-guard and has the Rockets in third place in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. Harden is third in the scoring averages, behind Westbrook and Isaiah Thomas, but leads the League in assists. This is phenomenal for a player, who averaged just 1.8 assists in his rookie season, but today is only one of three players in the League to average double-digit assists. Over his previous seven seasons in the NBA, Harden had nine triple-doubles. This season alone he has 13, second only to Westbrook. While Harden had 23 double-doubles in 2015-16, he has already managed 40 double-doubles, the most by an NBA player for the 2016-17 calendar, in 49 games for Houston.

This is how these two singular NBA athletes have managed to stand head and shoulders above the rest of the League. Every game they play is now must-watch. If Westbrook started the season with a 51-point triple-double against the Phoenix Suns on October 28, which was the first such performance by an NBA player since 1975, Harden posted a 50-point (51), 15-rebound (16), 15-assist (17) game, the first ever instance of such a performance by an NBA player, against the New York Knicks on December 31.

There is little you can do but admire Westbrook and Harden. But admire we must for Westbrook and Harden have made the 2016-17 season special already!

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