James Harden MVP

The NBA MVP is Harden’s to lose

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.

Stats

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.

James Harden MVP

James Harden during his 60-point triple-double performance against Orlando. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

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.

Praise

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.

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.

Defense

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.

James Harden MVP

Harden guards LeBron James. (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)

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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Making the case for every fringe playoff team

The NBA season is halfway over, which means it’s time to start evaluating potential playoff teams.

The top four seeds in each conference are virtual locks, due to overall talent and coaching. The fifth-seventh seeds will do some changing around as teams jockey for their playoff seeding. Although, close followers of the NBA probably wouldn’t be surprised if the Pistons or the Trailblazers fell out of the playoff picture after overachieving slightly in the first half of the season.

As with any sport’s playoff, however, the most interesting storylines are the ones involving the teams on the bubble.

With that in mind, let’s look at each conference’s eighth seed and first two teams on the outside looking in.

Eastern Conference

Indiana Pacers (21-19, No. 8 seed)

The Pacers have been just fine without Paul George. Victor Oladipo has been playing close to his ceiling, although they’re still overpaying for him. The other piece of the trade that sent George away, Domantas Sabonis, has also been playing nicely. He’s two rebounds shy of averaging a double-double, and will probably end up setting career-high averages in every meaningful category.

While their offense has been clicking, their defense is some of the most below average in the Association. Not awful, just very mediocre. Their offense alone can win the Pacers enough games to keep them in the 8th spot. Lack of defensive consistency will have been their downfall if they fail to make the cut.

Philadelphia 76ers (19-19, first team out)

Philadelphia is one of the most exciting stories in the NBA this season. The “process” seems to have finally come to fruition, and we are finally seeing glimpses of what this long and arduous rebuild has wrought.

Even though the 76ers are a .500 team, don’t be fooled. They’re currently first in the league in rebounds per game, second in assists resulting made field goals, and sixth in points. A rested and re-energized team could ride that kind of momentum to a playoff spot after the All Star break. Plus, their first overall draft pick hasn’t even played five games yet.

NBA Playoffs

Embiid scores on Whiteside. (Photo by: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

What will keep them out of the playoffs is their youth and inconsistency in their game to game performances. As the season drags on, the young players might start to slow down, which will only exacerbate their inconsistency issues. Those red flags usually mean a .500 team will stay a .500 team, but playing in a weak conference will definitely help.

New York Knicks (19-21, second team out)

The Knicks are a force to be reckoned with in the paint on both ends of the court. They are ninth in points in the paint and second in points allowed in the paint. Yes, we’re talking about the New York Knicks.

The team is huge, size-wise. Porzingis, O’Quinn, Kanter and Noah are all either over or close to 7-feet. That length pays dividends over a long regular season, but could actually be a problem if they sneak into the playoffs. The East is full of jump shooting teams, which will stretch New York’s strengths too thin to make them truly effective.

Western Conference

New Orleans Pelicans (20-19, No. 8 seed)

New Orleans might very well be a better team than their record indicates. They’re second in points in the paint thanks to Anthony Davis and Demarcus Cousins. They’re also second in the NBA in assists per game thanks to some great guard play both from starters and off the bench. Not to mention they have the second toughest schedule in the NBA (according to 2016-2017 team records).

Team defense leaves a lot to be desired for the Pelicans. Bottom five in opponents points in the paint per game doesn’t make a lot of sense considering the front court they have. They also give up the third most points in the league per game.

NBA Playoffs

Davis and Cousins during a game against the Spurs. (Photo by: Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

It’s an especially strange case on New Orleans’ part. The chemistry and coaching is clearly there, as evidenced by the assist totals. But the defense is nowhere near where it should be, in spite of Cousins and Davis. Remember that Alvin Gentry was brought on to be a defensive mastermind, and the roster has only gotten better since he came to town. Maybe look for a coaching shake-up if the Pelicans miss the playoffs.

Los Angeles Clippers (18-21, first team out)

Doc Rivers’ team is hurting out west. The Clippers have been a staple of the Western Conference playoffs for the past six years, but the days of Lob City have finally come to an end. Chris Paul’s departure marked a culture change for the Clips, and the team has not found its stride just yet.

Los Angeles still has a great 3-point game. Beverley, Williams, Rivers and even Griffin can all pull up from distance. They also have great personnel for man-to-man defense. Those two things are golden in NBA playoff basketball. But, yet again, team defense is going to be the main hurdle between them and their playoff streak.

Utah Jazz (16-24, second team out)

The new look Jazz are in a soft rebuild. After losing their number one scorer in Gordon Hayward, the Jazz were almost certainly take on a new identity. But picking up Ricky Rubio and finding a steal in Donovan Mitchell should have stopped the bleeding more than it has.

Their defense is some of the best in the NBA, all around. In fact, the Jazz are top 10 in almost every meaningful defensive category under Quin Snider. Against the trend, the offense is what will probably keep Utah out of the playoffs this year. Although, again, this is a new look team. And offense almost always comes together more quickly than defense. If they can keep up the defensive dominance, they won’t be out of the playoff picture for long.

 

Featured image by ANTHONY GRUPPUSO-USA TODAY

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