James Harden has been one of the NBA’s best players in recent seasons. The once 6th man of the year for the Oklahoma City Thunder is now one of the NBA’s most dangerous weapons offensively. Harden became an all-star in his first season with Houston, and has slowly upped his scoring and assist averages since he became a Rocket.
Harden led the league in assists last season, and he led his Rockets to a 55 win season before falling short to a deep San Antonio Spurs team. Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey responded by acquiring star point guard Chris Paul in a blockbuster deal with the Clippers.
After the Paul acquisition, the thought was that there wouldn’t be enough touches for both of them to play at a superstar level anymore, and that their days of having a chance at the MVP award were over. Harden’s play has said differently.
The Beard is torching the NBA for 31.2 points, 9.1 assists, 5.0 rebounds, 1.8 steals, and 0.7 blocks per game. He is scoring in a balanced method as well, as he is averaging 4.0 three point field goals, 5.3 two point field goals, and 8.5 free throws per game.
Despite having missed seven games, Harden is leading the league in win shares (9.7), usage percent (35.7), box plus/minus (+10.5), PER (30.0), free throws (372), and is even beating notorious shooters like Stephen Curry to lead the NBA in three pointers made (177).
Perhaps most impressive is the fact that Harden has led this Rockets team that went all in to get Chris Paul this summer (trading Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, Darrun Hilliard, DeAndre Liggins, Kyle Wiltjer, a protected first-round pick next year, and cash considerations) to the 2nd best record in the entire NBA (38-13) without Paul for 18 of those games.
When Houston has had there starting line-up of Paul, Harden, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, and Clint Capela, the team has gone 16-1. Houston is still 2-0 against Golden State this season with James Harden in the line-up.
With all of these things in mind, is there even a debate for the MVP award this season? Russell Westbrook is still playing unbelievably with 25.4 points, 10.3 assists, 9.4 rebounds, and 2.0 steals per game on 44.4% shooting, but going 30-24 with Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, and Steven Adams on his team can and should be used against Westbrook when factoring in award consideration.
LeBron James is doing his thing again this season. The King has posted 26.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, 8.7 assists, 1.6 steals, and 1.1 blocks per game on 54.2% shooting thus far, but there’s a different story in the news everyday about the Cavaliers’ frustrations. LeBron might be the best player in the league, but he has not been the most valuable to his team’s regular season success.
When was the last time the MVP award went to the best player on a team with the 3rd worst defense in the entire NBA? That defense is inexcusable when the same core group of Cavaliers posted the 10th best defense in 2015-16.
The same argument of value to their team must be used when evaluating Curry and Kevin Durant. The two of them have missed a combined 23 games this season. To show how each team has fared without its stars, here is a table:
|HOU wo/ Harden||4||3||0.571|
|HOU w/ Harden wo/ Paul||11||7||0.611|
|HOU w/ Harden and Paul||23||3||0.885|
|GSW w/ Durant wo/ Curry||11||3||0.786|
|GSW wo/ Durant w/ Curry||7||0||1.000|
|GSW w/ Durant and Curry||23||8||0.742|
This table not only shows the value of Harden, but the lack thereof for Curry and Durant individually. Without James Harden, Houston is basically just another team. The Rockets wins without Harden were against Orlando, Chicago, Portland, and Phoenix. I count three lottery teams and one mediocre team. The losses came against Golden State, Detroit, and the Clippers – teams that Houston beats with Harden.
Even without Chris Paul, Harden is still able to carry the Rockets to a 61% winning rate. This would still win the Rockets 50 games over an 82 game season. With his back court mate healthy, however, the Rockets’ 23-3 record is insane. 23-3 over an 82 game season is a 73 win season: the same amount of wins Stephen Curry won the MVP award unanimously with in 2016.
With Golden State’s best players, however, the team actually has won games at a lower rate with both Durant and Curry healthy. This is not to suggest that the team is better off with just one, rather that the team does not need both players active to win large amounts of regular season games. The Rockets do need Harden to win regular season games, and would likely get swept in a playoff series without Harden.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only other player with a realistic shot at the award this season. His averages of 28.0 points, 10.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.3 blocks per game on 54.4% shooting are very impressive, and should not be overlooked. Antetokounmpo, rather, lacks the factor of elevating his teammates’ levels of play that Harden has.
Harden is bringing out the best in role players like Eric Gordon (19.1 points per game), Clint Capela (14.2 points, 10.8 rebounds, 65.6% shooting), Nene (35 years old, 7.0 points on 60.6%), and everyone else on the team. Antetokounmpo has a team with fringe all-stars like Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton, last year’s rookie of the year Malcolm Brogdon, and solid role players like John Henson and Tony Snell, yet are only at 29-23.
Russell Westbrook was the only MVP in modern NBA History to win the award without a team that could be reasonably expected to win a championship, and 29-23 is not winning a championship in an era with LeBron James in one conference and the Warriors in the other.
Harden has now beat Golden State with his team in the regular season, twice, and he beat LeBron by 32 on Saturday. He isn’t a favorite to win, but he certainly has a chance to bring a championship to Houston.
At the end of the day, unless he suffers from a season ending injury, Harden should absolutely win the MVP award. It is not going to be unanimous. The players I listed above are going to garner attention and some votes, and maybe even Kyrie Irving, DeMar Derozan, or Karl-Anthony Towns will too. Harden has simply been the most valuable player in the NBA and to Houston, and no one else has had both the amount of individual success as Harden and the ability to convert it into wins too. This seasons’s MVP belongs to The Beard.