James Harden seized a rebound with under 10 seconds left, raced from coast-to-coast and finger-rolled in a layup just ahead of the final buzzer to win a game for the Houston Rockets on Monday night. Even if the Denver Nuggets defense on the play was enough to give you a stomach ulcer, that moment was the latest example of Harden showcasing his Most Valuable Player candidacy.
The 27-year-old is having a career year, which is saying a lot considering he’s carved out quite a career for himself. From new-age Vinny Johnson to All-NBA regular, Harden’s exploits have put the whole league on notice, improving his 2016 totals 29.0, 7.5 and 6.0 to the tune of 29.4 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds per game (all career-highs; the 11 dimes leads the NBA). His numbers dwarf his 2014-15 totals, which placed him second in MVP voting. That, plus an improved record (49-22 through 71 games) has Harden as the Vegas favorite to earn his first MVP award, even over the likes of former teammate and human triple-double factory Russell Westbrook.
Harden’s impact on his team as their best player, and a catalyst for making his teammates better is evident. His stats are nothing short of astounding— look no further than his six 40-point and two 50-point(!!!) triple-doubles this season. But there’s an elephant in the room no one is discussing with regards to the step-back god’s MVP bid.
Harden has put up MVP-caliber numbers the last several seasons, but his status as a front runner for the honor took off when head coach Mike D’Antoni brought his “seven seconds or less” style of offense to Houston. By making The Beard his full-time point guard (because why fool with Patrick Beverley when you don’t have to?), Harden’s statistical improvements in this offense were quite predictable. In fact, WE PREDICTED IT in our Rockets season preview last fall.
“With Mike D’Antoni’s offense-friendly/defense-optional brand of coaching, and with Dwight no longer in the picture, Harden (now the starting point guard) will be free to do basically whatever the hell he wants with the ball at all times.
Complete autonomy may not be good for Harden, but his numbers will likely spike again. Although, he quietly averaged 29, 6 and 7.5 last season (Is it even possible to see a spike from those numbers?) .”
We wrote this five months ago— now through 85% of the season, Harden has clearly flourished in this role. As mentioned, all of the Euro god’s numbers are up, particularly assists. If by now you’re thinking this all sounds kind of familiar, your instincts are spot on. We’ve already seen an exceptional player dropped into a D’Antoni system that allowed him to enhance his offensive efficiency— his name was Steve Nash. With Harden as the system’s new maestro, this is like Superman driving the Bat Mobile— but does that actually make him “most valuable”?
We witnessed a similar spike in production from Nash in his first year in the D’Antoni system. Like Harden, Nash saw the single largest increase in assists per game from one year to the next in his career in 2004-05. In year two with D’Antoni, Nash topped that by posting the first of his record four 50/40/90 seasons, the first since Reggie Miller 12 years earlier.
Here’s a closer look at Harden’s numbers last year versus this year through March 20, compared to Nash’s last year in Dallas and his first two MVP seasons in Phoenix under D’Antoni.
*Under Mike D’Antoni
Here’s where the story gets unbecoming. Do you recall how controversial Nash’s back-to-back MVPs were at the time? More importantly, in the years since, how many times have you heard fans and media look back at that two-year stretch with contempt because in hindsight, Nash wasn’t deserving of either accolade? It happens quite frequently. Major websites were publishing articles discrediting Nash not three years later. Bleacher Report’s Steven Resnick had some scathing remarks towards Nash’s candidacy saying, “The only reason he (Nash) won it was because the media fell in love with the Mike D’Antoni style: Wide-open offense that called for a lot of scoring, but absolutely no defense.”
Sidebar: The Harden/Nash parallels continue as this article called Nash’s defense into question repeatedly. And we all know James Harden, even if slightly improved, is still nothing more than a crossing guard on that side of the ball.
Harden’s statistics in this offense obliterate Nash’s (making the South African PG’s two MVP selections appear even more egregious). The careen-down-the-lane-only-to-be bailed-out-by-the-refs god has been outstanding, regardless of the logistics. To what extent though are media and fans simply being seduced by the D’Antoni style all over again? After all, this was 10 years ago. In the years since, we’ve seen D’Antoni wash out in New York and Los Angeles, rendering his glory days in Phoenix a distant memory.
For all his talent, Harden’s bloated and confounding stat lines are largely a byproduct of a system designed to artificially inflate offensive statistics. This system is only amplified in Houston, where the credo from upper-management is quite literally “three’s or lay-ups, and NOTHING else”. The Rockets play at the fourth fastest pace in the NBA and take 40 three’s a game, while defense is a complete afterthought. Harden himself is second in the league in usage rate only to Westbrook; consequently, the ball is always in his hands. He’s the lone creator on the roster. Giving him MVP is kind of like calling Kim Kardashian the world’s most beautiful woman.
With basketball fans collectively looking back at the 2005 and 2006 MVP awards as a mistake, the common belief is they should’ve been bestowed upon the game’s most dominant player in ’05 (Shaq) and the best player in ’06 (Kobe). The best AND most dominant basketball player in 2017 is LeBron James. If there’s any chance that we look back on 2017 in 10 years and think, “Geez, why didn’t we just give LeBron MVP? He put up career bests in several categories, leads the best team in the league (forget win/loss record) and he’s still the best player,” then why not just give Bron the damn award now? Why make the mistake of allowing revisionist history to become revisionist history?
If any part of a voter’s mind will regret this decision in 20 years because they voted for Steve Nash 2.0, they must cast their ballot for someone other than Harden. LeBron, Westbrook and Kawhi Leonard are all worthy alternatives, and most of all, will likely not fill voters with regret down the road. If you could, wouldn’t you want to right the wrong of the 1997 MVP? Or every Grammy for Rap Album of the Year ever?
Some cling to the belief that the award is property of the league’s best player until further notice (aka the Jordan mandate). Of course, this is flawed reasoning, yet a fair amount of media members regurgitate this notion on a regular basis. If this belief is shared by any voters, it should be LeBron winning it for the fifth time.
James Harden has a damn good shot at winning MVP. Between the gaudy box scores, the win total and the jump up from MVP obscurity in 2016, his case makes total sense. He’s been spectacular, and if we’re being real, he deserves tons of credit for brilliantly executing D’Antoni’s scheme. It ain’t like D’Antoni had MVP candidates with the Knicks and Lakers— somebody has to go out and put in the work. Protesting a Harden MVP selection wouldn’t be the best use of anyone’s time. But understanding D’Antoni’s influence on this race; the emptiness felt by basketball people knowing they accidentally lumped Steve Nash in a class with Kareem, Russell, Wilt, Jordan, Bird, Magic, Duncan, Malone, the other Malone and Pettit; and that this generation’s MJ hasn’t missed a beat, is all worth serious contemplation for those lucky enough to cast a ballot.