Through an early but extraordinary stretch of this NBA season, two players have seemed to rise above the rest. James Harden and Russell Westbrook, former teammates, have enacted a constant duel to awe us.
One, Harden, leads the league in assists and, under new head coach Mike D'Antoni, has channeled his electrifying excellence to reach another level. The other, Westbrook, is on pace to be the second player in league history to average a triple-double for an entire season.
Perhaps most important, and in many ways most striking, is that their domination of the ball and the stats that have followed have also helped them lead their teams to strong starts. Westbrook, with a league-high 41 percent usage rate, has his Kevin Durant-less Oklahoma City Thunder sitting at 14-8 and riding a six-game winning streak. Harden, with a usage rate of 34.1 percent, fifth highest in the league, has the Rockets at 14-7.
The natural conclusion has been that if this continues it'll surely be Harden vs. Westbrook for this season's MVP honors.
Not so fast.
While Westbrook's numbers are gaudy on a historical level -- an average of 31 points, 10.9 rebounds and 11.3 assists per game -- there are still some things to see once we look under the hood. He leads the league in turnovers with 123 (Harden is second at 121), good for 5.6 per game. He's shooting 33 percent on threes, 45.6 percent from the field and has at times required a lot of (bad) shots to put up some of those bold numbers: 17-of-44 to score 51 against Phoenix, 9-of-26 to score 36 against Toronto, 12-of-35 to score 35 versus Washington, and so on.
Harden, too, has his imperfections waiting behind the sheen. On top of scoring 28.7 points per game and an NBA-best 11.6 assists per game, he has those turnover issues -- 5.8 per game. His defense still begs some effort, to say the least. He has a 3.7 offensive win share and a 0.6 defensive win share. His "Ole" issues on D remain, to a level that would make Roger Dorn proud.
This isn't to hate on these guys. Far from it. They've been fabulous. But focusing just on these two players doesn't tell the complete picture. If the NBA's Most Valuable Player ballot was due today, here's how I'd rank the respective five best players so far this season.
Between Harden and Westbrook, one would be in the running for my first-place vote. The other's not quite there.
AN EARLY COP-OUT, MAYBE, BUT WE HAVE A THREE-WAY TIE FOR NBA MVP
OK, so I can't yet give you one guy who's at the very top over the others, but I can tell you who it wouldn't be. We have a Harden-less three-way tie.
1a) Russell Westbrook. Yes, his lack of efficiency can drive me crazy, and the nights where he goes Bad Kobe Bryant make me want to pull my hair out. But it's his imitation of Good Kobe Bryant that has him atop a list of players during a stretch that has seen some remarkable individual basketball.
Westbrook's utter toughness, like Kobe's, and his to-hell-with-losing worldview that borders on mental illness has infected his team. No Durant? I won't say no problem, because obviously it is one, but Westbrook has filled that void with his greatness and his will and an approach that has shaped and defined his team and made them so much better than many expected. What more could define a Most Valuable Player?
That, and, damn, if you're going to average a triple-double for a whole season it'll be tough to argue against you.
1b) Anthony Davis: But if I did vote against Westbrook, or elevate someone ahead of him, Davis would get a long look. Yes, he's had injury issues throughout his career, and, yes, his Pelicans team is 7-15. But they are, to use the clinical term, some hot garbage. It's hard to hold Davis responsible. He shows up every night, and boasts a league-leading 31.6 points and 2.8 blocks per game.
He also plays more minutes (38) per game than anyone else in the NBA, and his 31.2 PER is also tops in the league. That, and the eyeball test is off the charts. There may not be as many people watching him play each night as Westbrook, but he is no less a basketball savant and a player to behold. Don't sleep on Davis just because his team loses night after night.
1c) LeBron James: Can we get the King the respect he deserves? I'm still second-guessing myself for voting for Steph Curry over LeBron in last year's MVP race, and while I think I made the right call, I also wonder if we're at a stage now where we simply take LeBron for granted. If we don't give him his due because we've lost our awe for what he does.
He is going to end up as somewhere between the single- to third-greatest player ever, and we're getting too used to just how amazing he is at this game. If familiarity breeds contempt, it can certainly breed a fogginess in seeing someone clearly.
To that point, he's averaging just -- just -- 23.9 points per game. Not as sexy, not as flashy, and not as shiny and new as Russ's triple-doubles and the Beard's freewheeling game down in Houston. But LeBron is shooting 54.6 percent from the field, and averaging 7.7 rebounds and 9.2 assists per game, good for the second-most and most of his career, respectively.
LeBron has reached a stage of his career that is not just dominating, though it is, and not just brilliant, thought that's true too -- it's also graceful in its execution and tactical thinking. He's taking a play out of Gregg Popovich's book, and doing great things while building for the Finals so that he still peaks at the right time, not showing up the world in the regular season and then running out of gas.
How can we doubt the value part of MVP after what he's done the past two Junes? Or after watching the Warriors chase 73 wins and run out of steam?
LeBron is playing at a level as high as anyone, and he belongs on this list -- maybe atop it.
4. James Harden: Howl all you want. He's great, no doubt, but I want to see more to move up. He's got tough, tough company, even if his play is shiny and new and fun to watch. Defense (see: A.D. and LeBron) matters almost as much as offense. Flashiness is great, but it's not everything.
5. Kevin Durant: If I had to vote here at the No. 5 spot, I'd vote for KD. He's averaging not just 27 points per game, but a career-high 8.4 rebounds per game, as well as 4.7 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.5 steals each night. On the season, he's shooting 56.5 from the field, and 42 percent on threes. That's astounding.
The point is this: Westbrook and Harden are dueling dynamos, and watching them paint each NBA night with their greatness and their gotta-be-kidding-me stats is fun, and, more to the point, effective. But there are some other names who belong in their company -- not because those two guys are actually less great than first meets the eye, but because some other players are even better than you might think if you spend too much time watching the Harden and Westbrook show.