(Photos by Getty Images)

As much as Russell Westbrook has been a triple-double machine for the Thunder this season, James Harden has kept pace with him every step of the way in the MVP race. The 27-year-old Rockets guard is leading the league in assists and is rebounding better than ever while still doing plenty of scoring for his 42-19 squad.

So what’s the secret to Harden’s success, in which he’s been able to thrive even while adding more responsibilities than ever as the focal point of Houston’s attack? To hear him tell it, the key was subtracting something from his life.

Namely, Khloe Kardashian.

Harden had been dating the 32-year-old reality-TV superstar for much of last season. In a lengthy profile published Tuesday by Sports Illustrated, the five-time all-star talked about how he had to “eliminate” the circus-like atmosphere that the Kardashians generate, for the benefit of both himself and his teammates. Here is the pertinent passage:

“I’m not worried about anything but hooping,” says Harden, 27, “and that may be why I’m having this kind of success.” The process of untangling a crowded life began a year ago, when he and Khloe broke up after an eight-month romance, which began with a meeting at Kanye West’s basketball-themed birthday party at Staples Center in June. Harden does not reference Khloe but reflects on the tabloid apparatus that accompanies her. “I didn’t like all the attention,” he says. “I feel like it was for no reason. I wasn’t getting anything out of it except my name out there and my face out there, and I don’t need that. It wasn’t uncomfortable, but it wasn’t me. I don’t need pictures of myself when I’m driving my car. Who cares? What shoes am I wearing? Who cares? Where am I eating? Who cares? It was unnecessary stuff that I think trickled down to my teammates. I had to eliminate that.”

Kardashian, who has made a habit of dating NBA stars, including an ill-fated marriage to Lamar Odom, has gone on to an apparently serious relationship with the Cavaliers’ Tristan Thompson. However, she, or someone in her camp, wasn’t going to take Harden’s comments lying down. Here are the pertinent passages from a certain gossip website:

“He’s only making himself look bad trashing her like this,” a source tells HollywoodLife.com exclusively.

“She thinks he’s mad because she stopped returning his calls and moved on to someone younger and hotter,” the insider also shares with us (obviously referring to the extremely yummy Tristan Thompson, 25). “James is a bitter ex-boyfriend, and he’s in her past.”

As for what Khloe will do if James ever wants to try to win her back? “She’s with Tristan now and he’s an upgrade in every way,” the source declares.

My love 💙

A post shared by Khloé (@khloekardashian) on

You never say never, especially when your reality show has been renewed for a 13th season and you need to keep churning out juicy story lines, but it’s hard to see Kardashian getting back together with Harden after his “eliminate” line. From Harden’s perspective, it sounds like that would be just fine, especially if the 2012 sixth man of the year can turn being a single man into an even more prestigious award.