January 16, 2019

What MVP means is a somewhat dynamic thing. The exact same criteria might change slightly from year to year depending on several nuances. Lately, though, it seems like those nuances are being used to find a reason to not consider James Harden for the award.

Now, it’s not an overwhelming thing. Harden has finished twice in the last three years, so it’s not like he isn’t getting any support. But there’s a certain inconsistency Rockets fans are understandably troubled by.

In 2015, Harden had very little help. Trevor Ariza was second in minutes, followed by Donatas Motiejunas, Patrick Beverley, an ancient Jason Terry, Corey Brewer and an oft-injured Dwight Howard. That’s everyone who played over 1,000 minutes. Harden dragged that team to 56 wins, the third-most in the NBA and second-best in the Western Conference.

Steph Curry won the MVP, largely because the Warriors were by far the best team in the NBA.

In 2017, Harden again carried a team to the league’s third-best record, this time without the help of a single All-Star. He has one of the greatest offensive seasons in NBA history in doing so. But Russell Westbrook won the MVP, in part, because he “didn’t have help.”

This season, Harden is leading the league in scoring and points generated by assist per game. He’s also the league leader in 3-pointers made.  The Rockets own the best record in the league. He’s doing this in spite of having played half the season without Chris Paul, and not having a single teammate that was an All-Star last year.

In fact, he’s played 11 games all season with anyone who has ever made an All-Star Game at all.

Harden is leading the league in Win Shares, Win Shares per 48 minutes, Player Efficiency Rating, Box Plus-Minus and Real Plus-Minus.

He’s averaging 32.0 points per game on 63.4 percent true shooting. The only player in history to score as many points with more efficiency was Kevin Durant in 2013-14 when he averaged 32.0 points on 63.5 percent shooting.

He’s averaging the second-most win shares per 48 minutes (.336) in NBA history. He’s tied for the fifth-highest PER.

The Rockets, meanwhile, have the eighth-highest Simple Rating System in history.

If we’re talking about an elite player making a team an elite team,  three other players in history have been Kareem Abdul Jabbar on the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks, Micahel Jordan on the 95-96 Chicago Bulls and Stephen Curry of the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors.

Obviously, all three won the MVP.

Yet, even with an argument that ironclad, we’re getting arguments like “What LeBron James is doing at his age.” Or how James, with Kevin Love, Dwyane Wade and Kyle Korver has “less help” while Harden has played 11 games with teammates who have ever made an All-Star game. This argument ignores the preseason rhetoric about how much deeper the Cavs go.

Does that mean there’s a conspiracy against Harden? Not entirely. I think there are a couple of factors at play here.

First, you can’t have a debate if there’s unanimity, and sports discussion is more about debate than people standing around agreeing with one another. Since LeBron is a clear second, it turns into a “LeBron or Harden” debate and that, by default, gives the LeBron argument more credibility than it actually merits.

The second thing is Harden’s style of play is not aesthetically pleasing to everyone. Drawing fouls isn’t exactly mesmerizing, but it’s effective. That’s a tandem that can really work against a guy. The only thing worse than a dude beating you is beating you ugly. I mean, if it’s Curry hitting 3s from across the state line, you can deal with it. If it’s Harden getting to the stripe by hooking you with his jumper, it’s downright annoying.

While there may be some anti-Harden bias out there, though, I don’t think it rises to the level of conspiracy. But voters should be cognizant of their bias and vote based on Harden’s value–not based on how pretty he plays.

1. James Harden: See above

2. LeBron James: What’s said above might seem like it’s disparaging LeBron. It’s not. He’s clearly having the second best season right now. The gap between him and No. 3, Giannis Antetokounmpo is as big as the one between James and Harden, and it’s in part for the same reason. If all three are on the same level statistically (they are 1, 2 and 3 in win shares), team success should be the difference. The Cavs are 3.5 games behind the Rockets and the Bucks are 3.0 games behind the Cavs.

4. Kevin Durant is leading the charge with Stephen Curry out. In the two games Steph has missed, Durant averaged 32.0 points, 9.5 rebounds, 6.0 assists, and 4.0 blocks.

5. LaMarcus Aldridge might be getting his last nod here. But he deserves a mention, as he helped carry the Spurs to a 19-8 record in Kawhi Leonard’s absence. It will be interesting to see how the return of the Kalw affects Alrdidge.

Honorable Mention: Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, DeMar DeRozan, Al Horford, Jimmy Butler, DeMarcus Cousins


Kelly Scaletta

Kelly Scaletta writes for Vantage Sports, Bleacher Report and BBALLBREAKDOWN. He has the crazy notion that watching games and understanding stats are not mutually exclusive.

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