After a down 2015-16 season, James Harden is giving voters fewer and fewer reasons to vote for anybody other than The Beard. Triple-doubles and super teams aside, this year Harden deserves the NBA’s most prestigious individual award.
Unlike Isiah Thomas’ 52 point rampage against the Miami Heat earlier this week, when James Harden dropped 53 on a hapless Knicks defense a day later it felt like less like an explosion and more of a coronation. He has been doing this all season, and although it sometimes looks like he plays in slow motion, his torrid pace isn’t slowing down anytime soon. This year, it’s his Houston Rockets team, his game, and the mind-bending numbers back it up: not only did Harden set a career high in points to ring in the new year, but also dished a remarkable 17 assists and snared 16 rebounds. He did this while taking a mere 26 shots (including going 9 of 16 from range), adding in a beard-esque 16 made free throws to boot.
No player in The Association is doing more for his team this season, and no player deserves the Most Valuable Player award more. Riding a tsunami of post-Kevin Durant love, Russell Westbrook was a popular preseason pick for MVP. He still is, and deservedly so; the dude is averaging a triple double, which hasn’t been done since the pace-inflated days of the JFK administration. LeBron James always belongs firmly in the conversation as does Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, the resurgent Marc Gasol, and Kawhi Leonard.The problem with the two Warriors is that they play together, not to mention suiting up alongside top-15 stalwarts Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Newfound three point genius aside, Gasol is not winning the award. Neither is Leonard. James shares a similar problem to Durant and Curry, as fellow Cavaliers stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin love are both 20+ ppg scorers for Cleveland. His best chance for winning the award this year would be voters rewarding him for last season’s heroics, when he led Cleveland back from a 3-1 series deficit over Curry’s Warriors to give the franchise its first championship. There is a more compelling case of voter-redemption lingering in this years race, however. Two years ago, Curry narrowly edged out Harden to win his first of two consecutive MVPs, despite the players-only vote favoring Harden. In the 2014-15 season, Harden posted impressive averages of 27.4 ppg, 5.7 rebounds, and 7 assists on 44% shooting. These were awesome numbers, and dwarfed Curry’s 23.4 / 4.3 / 7.7 line. Regardless, Curry led the Warriors to a league-high 67 wins to take home the award. After Golden State defeated a valiant-but-beleaguered Cavs team in the finals, it felt like the right choice.
Since a down 2015-16 season in which he came into the season out of shape and chemistry issues plagued the Rockets, Harden has more than returned to form and made his previous MVP-caliber numbers look downright tame: through 35 games, Harden is pouring in 28.5 points a game, snatching 8.1 rebounds, and dishing 12 (!) dimes on 45% shooting as the lead guard in Mike D’antoni’s go-go spread pick-and-roll system. This is insane. The media hasn’t yet forgotten the controversial 2014-15 voting results, and by upping his numbers across the board, Harden is making it easy on them to, rightly or wrongly, correct past errors.
During the 2016-17 season, only Harden’s former OKC teammate Westbrook has gaudier numbers. But in terms of MVP voting, The Brodie’s case lacks a crucial element: wins. To claim the award, typically a player’s team needs about 55 wins and to finish in the top three of their respective conference. The Thunder’s 21-13 record is impressive given their roster constraints, and is purely a function of Westbrook being a badass every single night. Oklahoma City’s +1.8 point differential suggests something closer to a .500 team, and watching the maniacal effort demanded from the likes of Westbrook and Steven Adams each game add to the unsustainability of their .618 winning percentage. They are not getting to 55 wins, or sniffing the top three of the always-loaded West.
Harden’s Rockets, meanwhile, have found their stride and seem prepared to continue blowing teams off the court for the remainder season. Recently, they dropped a whopping 140 points on the Clippers. A recent 10-game winning streak featured wins over both the Warriors and Thunder. Houston’s +7.8 point differential is better than that of heavyweights like the Cavaliers and Spurs, and they sit only a few games behind the basketball-nirvana Warriors in the Western Conference standings.
About those Warriors: despite what is likely to be another 70-win season and amazing numbers, people need to stop talking about Kevin Durant’s MVP candidacy. However you feel about his decision to sign with Golden State this offseason, the narrative around him is far too toxic for voters to give him first-places votes. It’s just not going to happen, especially considering that the Warriors are likely to send four players to the All-Star game in New Orleans.
Houston will be sending one: Harden. Although it’s an imperfect translation, the words “Most Valuable” still carry some literal meaning when choosing the award, and despite Westbrook’s noble quest for the NBA history books, his team isn’t good enough for him to garner enough votes. Each team’s roster construction can be debated, but it should mean something that Harden’s team hums. While the Thunder have struggled to incorporate new pieces like Victor Oladipo and Jerami Grant, The Beard’s offensive genius has turned unknowns like Sam Dekker and Clint Capela into real NBA-caliber role players. Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, while always a risk for injuries, are hotter than a Houston summer and resemble nothing of dumpster-fire in New Orleans from which they escaped.
James Harden has raised his defense from “embarrassing” to “passable” this season, and redefined what a shooting guard can be. He has made basketball fun again in Houston, orchestrating a revitalization effort worthy of his own transformation as a player and leader. He should, and will, be the MVP.
Written by: Henry Whitehead (@YungLeopold)