As the calendar is set to click over to 2020 in just a few days, we’ve been reminiscing about the past decade of The NBA. Whether it be players, teams, moments, or anything else, the last 10 years have been chock full of excitement. But it has also been full of debate. Which championship team was the best? Which game winner or dunk was most memorable? What were some of the biggest “what if’s”? The biggest discussion has surrounded the best players of this decade. More specifically, who are the players that fit on the decade’s “Mount Rushmore”?
The Mount Rushmore analogy has been passed around sports for quite a long time. It basically establishes who is the four greatest players for a certain category. For example, the “Mount Rushmore” of greatest NBA dunkers would consist of Michael Jordan, Vince Carter, Dr. J, and Dominique Wilkins.
The discussion has naturally shifted to the four greatest players the NBA has seen over the course of this decade. And, just as naturally, nobody can agree.
About who is fourth on the list, that is.
The consensus among NBA fans is that the first three slots are occupied by LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry. Between the three, there’s seven league MVP’s, eight championships, five Finals MVP’s, and 26 All Star appearances. Their dominance cannot be understated.
But that fourth spot is where there is some debate. Of course, there’s many players that have been spectacular since the turn of the decade: Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Tony Parker, Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, Paul George and Anthony Davis are just a few. But there are only three players that have been so superbly dominant over the past 10 seasons to garner a spot on the proverbial mountain side. Those players are James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Kawhi Leonard.
Three incredibly talented players. Plenty of individual and team success for each. Countless big games and unforgettable moments. But only one spot left.
So who gets it?
Well, let’s break it down.
What’re we looking for? Three things: Team success, individual success, and statistics.
For the sake of argument, team success will come in the form of playoff appearances, Conference Finals appearances, Finals appearances, and Finals victories. Individual success will come in the form of All Star appearances, All NBA appearances, and season awards. Statistics are very straight forward: points, assists, rebounds, steals, blocks, and shooting percentages for both their best single season, as well as their averages for the decade. We will also be looking at any titles those numbers may have won them (scoring title, assist title, etc.). Breaking down all these categories will help answer the question of who truly deserves the fourth and final “Mount Rushmore” slot.
We’ll start with the last Finals MVP of this decade, Kawhi Leonard.
- 7 playoff appearances (Spurs made playoffs in 2017-18, Kawhi only played 9 regular season games and did not play in the playoffs due to injury)
- 4 WCF appearances, 1 ECF appearance (5 total)
- 3 Finals appearances
- 2 championships
- 3 All Star appearances
- All NBA Rookie First Team
- 3x All NBA (2x First Team, 1x Second Team)
- 5x All NBA Defense (3x First Team, 2x Second Team)
- 2x Defensive Player of the Year
- 2x Finals MVP
Kawhi’s best season of the decade is a tough one. I chose his 2016-17 season with San Antonio because this is when he finished third in MVP voting, and he also appeared in 74 games. The other season up for consideration was his 2018-19 season with Toronto, but he only played only 60 games, and came in ninth in MVP voting.
2016-17 averages: 25.5 PPG, 3.5 APG, 5.8 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 0.7 BPG, 48.5% FG, 38.0% 3PT, 88.0% FT
Decade averages: 18.0 PPG, 2.5 APG, 6.4 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 0.7 BPG, 49.3% FG, 38.2% 3PT, 85.0% FT
- 1x steal leader
- 1x leader in defensive rating
Secondly, we’ll go with the most recent MVP of the decade (out of these three), James Harden.
- 10x playoff appearances (made playoffs every year of decade)
- 4x WCF appearances
- 1 Finals appearance
- 7x All Star appearances
- All NBA Rookie Second Team
- 6x All NBA (5x First Team, 1x Third Team)
- 1x Sixth Man of the Year
- 1x MVP (3x runner up)
Unfortunately, there’s a chance that Harden’s best season yet is the one currently in progress. Harden is currently averaging 38.8 PPG on 45% FG to go along with 7.5 APG. At the same time, he’s had three runner up MVP seasons. But, I obviously had to go with his MVP season.
2017-18 averages: 30.4 PPG, 8.8 APG, 5.4 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 0.7 BPG, 44.9% FG, 36.7% 3PT, 85.8% FT
Decade averages: 24.9 PPG, 6.2 APG, 5.2 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 44.3% FG, 36.5% 3PT, 85.9% FT
- 3x scoring champ
- 1x assist leader
- 4x leader in win shares
- 2x leader in total box +/- (1x leader in offensive box +/-)
- 1x leader in VORP
Last, but certainly not least, the 2016-17 MVP Russell Westbrook.
- 9 playoff appearances
- 4 WCF appearances
- 1 Finals appearance
- 8 All Star appearances (2x All Star Game MVP)
- All NBA Rookie 1st Team
- 8x All NBA (2x First Team, 5x Second Team, 1x Third Team)
- 1x MVP
Russell Westbrook, unlike any player in NBA history, has averaged a triple double for three times. He’s put up historic numbers for the last three seasons, but without a doubt, his best overall season is his MVP season.
2016-17 averages: 31.6 PPG, 10.4 APG, 10.7 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 0.4 BPG, 42.5% FG, 34.3% 3PT, 84.5% FT
Decade averages: 23.8 PPG, 8.7 APG, 7.3 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 0.3 BPG, 43.7% FG, 30.7% 3PT, 80.0% FT
- 2x scoring champ
- 2x assist champ
- 1x leader in PER
- 2x leader in box +/-
- 1x leader in offensive box +/-
- 1x leader in VORP
So I’ve provided the numbers. What does it all mean?
Well, it proves that these three guys have been phenomenal over the past 10 seasons. They have undoubtedly been three of the most dominant players during this stretch.
But we can only pick one for our last “Mt. Rushmore” spot.
Let’s look at it this way: who won each category?
Kawhi Leonard takes home the crown for team success. His two championships to Harden’s and Westbrook’s zero clearly wins.
For individual success, it’s really close between Harden and Westbrook, but Russ has a slight advantage. Yes, Harden won a Sixth Man of the Year award, and they each have one MVP. But Westbrook has eight All Star appearances and All NBA selections, to Harden’s seven and six. At the same time though, Harden has been a runner up for the MVP award three times. Westbrook’s next best finish ever was fourth. It could really go either way here.
As for statistics, this easily goes to Westbrook. As previously mentioned, he’s averaged a triple double for three consecutive seasons. He, as well as Harden, is both a scoring champ and an assist champ. He has the best stat line over the course of the decade. His numbers are unreal.
So, upon first glance, Westbrook is the fourth best player of this decade. But let’s look a little deeper.
Sure, Westbrook has put up historic numbers…but so has Harden. Harden’s entire NBA career has come within this decade. During that time, he moved into fourth all time in career 60 point games. In January of 2019, he scored 50 points three times. No player had done that since 1963. Last season, he scored 30 points in a game 32 times…in a row. Including two games before that streak began, he averaged 40.6 PPG. He has shattered multiple Rockets franchise records, including most 50 point games (he has 14, next closest is two) and most triple doubles (he has 41, next closest is 14). With his 36.8 PPG average last season, he has the highest average since 1986. He’s the only player in NBA history to have a 60 point triple double. His scoring numbers have been unbelievable.
The other aspect is his individual success. Sure, he has less All Stars and All NBAs than Westbrook. But let’s not forget that Harden was originally Westbrook’s (and KD’s) third wheel in Oklahoma City. Once he was given the free reins in Houston in 2012, all of his numbers sky rocketed. He hasn’t missed an All Star game during his tenure in Houston. Him and Westbrook also each have one league MVP each. But as previously mentioned, Harden finished second in the award voting three other seasons. He’s been in the conversation every single season since 2013. People still argue that he deserved the award over Curry in ’15 and Westbrook in ’17. Even Even his first year in Houston – his first time ever being the first option – he came in eighth in MVP voting (ahead of Russ). No other player outside of LeBron James and Kevin Durant has been in the MVP conversation as often as Harden during this decade.
As for team success, it gets more complicated. No, he doesn’t have a ring. He hasn’t even been to the Finals since his time in OKC. But we need to remember who he keeps running into: the prime Golden State Warriors dynasty. They lost to Golden State in the WCF during their first championship season. Then again the following season (though in the first round) during their 73 win season. Then again in the WCF in 2018 during Durant’s second year when they repeated as champs. Then one more time in the second round. Every year they lost to Golden State, they made it to the Finals. Also, let’s not forget the ’18 series that most people believe they would have won if it weren’t for the Chris Paul injury. Harden is also the only player of the three to make and appear in the playoffs every year he could have during the decade.
You could argue that Harden has disappeared at times during his playoff career. The same could be said about Westbrook. And despite Kawhi’s legendary playoff run last season, his only other notable playoff run was with the spurs in 2014, where he won Finals MVP for “stopping” LeBron.
With all this being said, James Harden gets the nod as the fourth best player of this decade, followed by Westbrook, then Leonard.
Kawhi has never played more than 74 games. He only has three All Star and All NBA nods to his name. You can’t overlook his two rings, but individually, he doesn’t touch the other two guys.
Westbrook has put up historic numbers over the past three seasons. He has a league MVP. More All Stars and All NBAs than the other two. But he hasn’t gotten out of the first round since KD left.
James Harden has not only been the number one guy in Houston during his entire tenure, but has been incredibly relevant in the MVP race more than Kawhi or Westbrook. Scoring titles and assist titles. Unbelievable scoring records. Triple double machine. He is the last head to go up on the 2010’s “Mt. Rushmore”
Stats provided by Basketball Reference