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Fantasy basketball: Take Harden over Westbrook at No. 1

Before we dig too deep into things, let me lead by saying this — if you prefer Russell Westbrook over James Harden for your fantasy basketball team, take him. Don't think twice.

Nobody is going to laugh at you and question the pick. In fact, there's a good chance many will agree with it. Jim McCormick made a strong case for drafting Westbrook first, and he even found a way to weave the great Oscar Robertson into the story to support his case.

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It's true — Westbrook is a triple-double waiting to happen just about every time he steps on the floor. He's a better rebounder than Harden, he gets more assists than the Rockets star and, without Kevin Durant around to shoot 19-20 times a game, it's a foregone conclusion that Westbrook's scoring will skyrocket from the 23.5 PPG he averaged last season.

To be completely honest, I was firmly on the Westbrook bandwagon not too long ago as well.

So what changed?

While I still see Westbrook and Harden as the clear top two picks in fantasy hoops this season, all it took was an explanation from new Houston Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni for me to re-evaluate my stance. D'Antoni, as you know by now, announced early in Rockets training camp that Harden would move to point guard this season.

"He's more or less responsible giving rhythm to the team, that's what a point guard does," D'Antoni told reporters late last month. "He's going to be on the ball, and he's going to be distributing the ball, and it will take some adjusting. He's got a lot more responsibilities as a point guard. A playcaller, a good basketball mind, he's already telling guys we can do this, we can do that."

This is meaningful for the following reasons:

It closes the assist gap

Naturally, Harden running the point means there's a good chance his assist numbers are going to bump up from the 7.5 APG he posted last season. Already, we're seeing a change in his role during the preseason; he dished out 10 helpers in his first exhibition game and followed that up 11, 15, and 8 in his next 3 contests.

As mentioned above, this was one of the main areas where Westbrook (10.4 APG) had a big advantage over Harden last season, dishing out 2.9 more assists per game. You can see the players' stats in the chart below:

2015-16 season stats
Westbrook 23.5 7.8 10.4 2.0 0.3 1.3 4.3 45.4 81.2
Harden 29.0 6.1 7.5 1.7 0.6 2.9 4.6 43.9 86.0

Fast-forward to today, and suddenly it's not unreasonable to envision that gap closing entirely with Harden taking on more of a distributor role and Westbrook losing a future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer on the receiving end of his passes.

They are trending in opposite directions as far as assists go, and it wouldn't be surprising if both ended up averaging right around 9 APG this season.

D'Antoni widens Harden's advantage from 3-point land

Without a big assist advantage to hang his stylish hat on, Westbrook is only noticeably better than Harden in one category — rebounding — which happens to be the easiest to address on the waiver wire. Experienced fantasy hoops players know how simple it is to stream bigs in and out of the lineup to win the rebound category.

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The same can't be said of 3-point shooters. They are not a dime a dozen — at least not the good ones.

Sure, as McCormick mentioned in his story, you can always hit the waiver wire to find a 3-point specialist or two if you draft Westbrook over Harden, but too often those specialists come at a cost. Why? Because they're a complete non-factor in all the other categories aside from scoring.

Wouldn't you know it, this also happens to be the one category where Harden has a huge advantage over Westbrook.

Harden made 2.9 3-pointers per game last season to Westbrook's 1.3, and that was before D'Antoni arrived. This season, you can expect that discrepancy to grow. Harden will have the perpetual green light from long range under D'Antoni and almost surely take and make more 3s than last season. The same can't be said of Westbrook, who has never made more than 1.5 3-pointers per game in any of his eight NBA seasons. That's one part of his game that's unlikely to change with Durant gone.

Any way you slice it, Harden is a much bigger 3-point threat than Westbrook.

Harden is now eligible at PG and SG

So the biggest advantage Westbrook previously had over Harden — dishing out assists — probably is reduced, and Harden's biggest previous advantage — making 3-pointers — is probably even more extreme. Unbelievably, neither of these may matter as much as the fact that Harden is now draftable at both shooting guard and point guard.

Value-wise, this gives Harden a huge boost over Westbrook, who is only point guard-eligible at ESPN and most other prominent fantasy sites. As I've been saying since the start of September, it's important to draft a top-level point guard early in drafts this year due to a huge talent drop-off at the position from pick 30 to pick 50, and now drafting Harden makes that possible.

What Harden's dual eligibility does is take the edge off during the draft process. If you draft him, you can always look for another point guard in rounds two or three and utilize Harden at the SG spot. You could also be in range for someone like Chicago SG Jimmy Butler in the second round, which would then allow you to use Harden as your primary PG.

The point is, having a quality point guard and still managing to find a good shooting guard isn't easy this year, with shooting guard again being one of the thinnest positions, and drafting Harden provides flexibility you simply cannot get by selecting Westbrook.

Think of the flip side. If you draft Westbrook, you still have to find a shooting guard and someone — shooting guard or not — who can make up for Westbrook's lack of 3s.

It's a close call, but the more I look at it, the more I prefer Harden — who missed only one game over the past two seasons compared to 17 by Westbrook — as my choice for the No. 1 pick.


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