It is not a secret that James Harden is the clear frontrunner for the NBA MVP award. Other names are inevitably mentioned throughout the season, but Harden’s has been the mainstay.
Tuesday’s matchup between the Trail Blazers and the Rockets may have been his victory lap. A 42-point performance against one of the hottest teams in the league solidified his campaign, especially considering Portland’s team features some of the best guard play in the league.
Harden has been a man on a mission this season. After coming second in MVP voting twice, he has been out to show the NBA he is more than just a runner-up. He is an unstoppable force that will go down as one of the best multifaceted offensive players in league history.
Here is an in-depth look at his rise to glory during the 2017-18 season and why he is a virtual lock to take home the trophy.
After Tuesday’s 42-point performance, Harden’s stats stand at 31.2 points, 8.7 assists and 5.2 rebounds per game.
His player efficiency rating is an NBA-best 30.67. A stat like that is not only a testament to what he brings to his team, but also a comment on the success of the Rockets’ analytics-based team-building strategy.
James Harden is also shooting almost 47 percent from the field in his last 10 games, and 45.2 percent on the season. Considering the amount of jump shots he takes, that number is sky high. He is also shooting 86.7 percent from the free-throw line, slightly higher than his 85.5 career percentage.
At 37.5 percent, his three-point percentage may seem weak compared to the NBA’s best percentage, 44.7, held by Darren Collison. But, on average, he takes 7.3 more threes per game than Collison, meaning he hits more threes per game this season than Collison even attempts.
What should not be overlooked here is the assists. Harden is playing with Chris Paul, one of the best assist men in NBA history. He is actually averaging almost an entire assist more per game this season than his own point guard. Even with a prolific passer running the offense half the time, Harden still has the ability to distribute the ball and find his shots.
This is exemplified by his 27 double-doubles and three triple-doubles. Included in those is an NBA-record 60-point, 10-rebound, 11-assist performance that was good for the most points ever scored in a triple-double.
All of those are MVP-level stats, regardless of one’s feelings about the current “offense over everything” identity of the NBA.
Harden’s incredible season is garnering a lot of attention from players and coaches alike.
Of course Harden’s own coach is going to laud his abilities, but Mike D’Antoni took his praise to the next level.
Mike D'Antoni on Harden: He's unique. That's the best offensive player I've ever seen. He has so many weapons and now he;s shooting those step-back 3s. It's impossible to guard him. It's impossible."
— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) March 21, 2018
Calling someone “the best offensive player I’ve ever seen” is a very big deal, especially coming from D’Antoni, who has been coaching professional basketball for almost 30 years.
Considering he has coached some of the biggest offensive names in basketball during his coaching tenures, such as Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and Steve Nash, it takes the praise even further.
Harden’s main competition in the MVP race, Anthony Davis, is a fantastic young player who has put the Pelicans on his back after DeMarcus Cousins’ injury. But even his coach, Alvin Gentry, said the race is, “not even close,” in an interview with The Houston Chronicle.
Eric Gordon, Harden’s teammate, has stated that he can’t imagine anyone else being the MVP this year. Chris Paul has gone on record saying the MVP voting will take care of itself.
The Beard himself, however, has been hesitant to talk about a possible MVP award. Again, he’s been in the conversation for the past five years, and come in second place twice. One of those second place finishes was against Russell Westbrook’s triple-double season last year. That is the very definition of running into a buzzsaw.
All of that aside, it seems as if his time has come this season. He has only one true competitor, and many sports news outlets are starting to ask if he can be the second unanimous MVP. He certainly deserves it, yet it’s likely some votes will swing to Davis, considering he is single-handedly keeping the Pelicans afloat in the playoff race.
The only thing that could possibly stand between James Harden and the MVP is his defensive shortcomings.
Harden has been the butt of many jokes regarding his effort on the defensive end of the floor. The internet is littered with GIFs of him barely running down the court, or simply clearing the lane completely when a player is driving towards him.
The Houston Rockets’ system has found a way to mask these issues though. With the offensive capabilities of the team, defense is not the focus so much as matching the other teams’ shots. If there is anything Harden can do, it’s go shot-for-shot with anybody in the NBA.
Even so, his defensive stats are up slightly from his career average. His steals are up 0.3 per game, and his blocks are up 0.2 per game. Now, these numbers aren’t huge, but consider that if there is a steal made, Harden is usually the one running up the court instead of holding the ball. And guards’ blocks are simply a luxury item, not to be compared to the importance of forwards’ block numbers.
Any coach or player will tell you that defense matters, and it does. But when a team puts up almost 114 points every single night, it can be allowed to take a back seat. Harden’s defense might be another reason he may not be the second-ever unanimous MVP, but it won’t lose him the award by any means.
With Lil B’s curse lifted once and for all, it is finally Harden’s year.
Featured image by Scott Halleran/Getty Images
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