This year's MVP race is the most compelling in recent memory, with James Harden, Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook putting up mind-boggling numbers and jockeying for position on playoff-bound teams. If that trio wasn't enough, LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard trail closely behind with campaigns that would compete for the NBA hardware any other year.
Each of the stars possess strong arguments: Harden has elevated to the Rockets to the West's top tier while becoming an elite playmaker and leading the league in assists. Curry, the reigning two-time MVP, has put up similar stats to his award-winning seasons while captaining the NBA's best team once again. And Westbrook has made each game appointment-viewing television, shattering expectations and becoming the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple double.
While many hours and words have already been spent debating this year's MVP race, we decided to present a big–picture hypothetical as we hit the NBA's stretch run. If you were starting a franchise, who would you rather build around: James Harden, Steph Curry or Russell Westbrook? We asked out experts.
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To clarify, this is different than asking who is the MVP. I’ll take Harden because he is the youngest of the three, he never misses time with injury and his game is perfectly suited to the NBA’s present and future—given his preternatural ability to make and create the most efficient shots on the floor: three-pointers, layups and free throws. Harden should age gracefully because he has already developed an unrivaled old man’s game, thanks to all his crafty stops, starts and head fakes. He’s arguably the best offensive player in the league right now, but he’s going to be confounding defenses for a long time.
We have a much better idea of what a championship team looks like with Curry as its best player and empirical proof that the formula works. With Curry, you're guaranteed impeccable spacing; Golden State makes hay with a motion-heavy offense, but a simpler, pick-and-roll-heavy attack would still give teammates a ton of room to work. That influence will age beautifully. What Curry does best exacts its influence on every play, regardless of whether he touches the ball. Harden has some of that appeal but offsets it with broader, lingering questions around his dependability and chemistry. Westbrook may never be better than when operating at the kind of volume untenable to championship basketball. There's no losing here, but I tend to favor the all-time shooter who makes building around him a breeze.
You have to take Curry here, and I don't know how you can choose anyone else. Over the last two-plus seasons, Curry has been an offensive force that has routinely broken the will of even the best defenses. Curry’s gravitational pull and the fear he strikes into the hearts of opponents is unlike any other player in the league. Teams will abandon their defensive principles to leap out at Curry 35 feet away from the basket to make sure he doesn’t get any air space to launch. Steph is the linchpin of the Warriors’ attack. His three-point prowess (and underrated game at the rim) completely opens up the offense for the rest of his teammates. Having Curry on the court is like a cheat code for Golden State, because opponents practically have to assume he won’t miss if given a fraction of a window to shoot. Steph is a deadlier shooter than both Russ and Harden, and his passing ability rivals either of theirs. Give me Steph, and I’ll build a team that will bend your defense until it shoots you out of the building.
After much deliberation, I think I'm going to have to build my franchise around James Harden. Steph Curry might very well be the best player in the world. His unique, explosive skillset has single-handedly evolved basketball offenses across the world. And he's currently my favorite player to watch night in and night out. But don't let that baby face fool you. He's suddenly 29 years old while Harden won't turn 28 until August. Houston's MVP candidate has played at least 73 games in all of his eight non-lockout seasons. I hate the cliché saying “the best ability is availability,” but having closely observed the Sixers my entire life, I can personally attest how valuable that asset is to a franchise. The contrast between Allen Iverson's invariable presence and Joel Embiid's fleeting dominance cannot be more vast. And while Curry's injury issues (please basketball Gods) seem to be behind him, I'd rather invest in a similarly-skilled, chiseled bowling ball than the objectively more fragile frame.
The answer is Curry, and the reasoning for me is simple: his attitude is the basis of the Warriors’ culture, and the Warriors are the most successful franchise of this decade. These guys look like they’re having fun more often that not, and it has a lot to do with Curry’s Tim Duncan-like influence on that locker room. He’s steadying and doesn’t take himself too seriously. On the court, the bones of their system obviously revolve around his shooting ability, but if Curry wasn’t who he is, it’s reasonable to think the Golden State personality experiment wouldn’t work. I mean, it’s the reason Kevin Durant signed on. I think we’ve seen Harden turn a corner as a teammate this season, to his credit, and Westbrook is Westbrook and it’s hard to see that changing. But Curry’s proven his secret sauce works, and the Warriors’ success and his role in it are hard to argue against. Ankles aside.
Nobody is better designed to lead a franchise in the space-and-pace era than James Harden. The former third banana in Oklahoma City has evolved into an offensive maestro alongside Houston’s cadre of shooters, becoming the first player in NBA history to both score and assist on 2,000 points in a season.
Harden projects to age better than Curry and Westbrook as well. He has never missed significant time due to injury, while the reigning MVP had ankle surgery in 2011 and battled lower-leg injuries throughout the 2016 playoffs. Westbrook has also seen his fair share of time under the knife, undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery after being knocked out of the 2013 playoffs by Rockets guard Patrick Beverley.
Unlike Curry and Westbrook, Harden doesn’t rely entirely on threes or violent attacks on the basket. Rather, he leans on his uncanny ability to exploit defensive tendencies. Harden leads the league in free throws attempted per game since 2012–13 and is third in made threes. Rockets GM Daryl Morey couldn’t have built a more efficient superstar if he tried. With Mike D’Antoni leading the way, Harden has established himself as the league’s premier playmaker for years to come.