If what you do for your team is most responsible for it being the best, you should be the most valuable player.
That is the argument for James Harden. There are other reasons, which we'll get to, and not a few. Many. A ton. A plethora. But that's the best one I can create. The Rockets are better with James Harden on the floor doing what he does offensively than any other candidate's team is when they're on the floor.
Harden's growth this season is phenomenal. I don't think year over year, for a player or team, should matter in this conversation, but it needs to be recognized. Harden returned from a dismal 2016 masked by good numbers with renewed focus. He brought leadership, a better work ethic, and a willingness to adapt to a system that other superstars had failed to take advantage of. In doing so, he at once maximized what he's been doing since arriving in Houston, and reinvented himself as the maestro of the most amazing offensive symphony in the league.
And so, so much more. Here's the bird's eye look at Harden's case, and then we'll get into the details.
Harden's MVP Résumé
Arguments in favor:
- Led Rockets to what is currently the ninth best offense in NBA history, as the leading scorer and playmaker.
- Averaging a triple-double per 100 possessions, one of three players (Westbrook, LeBron) to do so this year.
- Leads the league in points produced, combined points and points from assists.
- Leads the league in win shares.
- Second in points.
- Leads the league in assists per game, and per 100 possessions among players averaging 30 minutes (14.8).
- Ranks 15th in true shooting percentage, second among leading candidates (LeBron James).
- On pace to be the first player in history to average 25 points per game and 25 points from assists per game.
- Only player to ever score 2,000 points and generate 2,000 points from assists in the same season.
- Leads Westbrook in points per possessions plus-assists per Synergy Sports (1.392, 95th percentile).
- Has made the Rockets into a legitimate contender, with 54-plus wins, more than Westbrook or James, the third most league-wide.
- Most games in NBA history with 30-plus points and 15-plus assists.
- Has made his teammates better than any player has made theirs.
- Has seamless moved to point guard with a greater role, responsibility, and function, not only adjusting, but thriving.
- Still not good defensively, grades out as "fine."
- If wins are the deciding factor, Kawhi Leonard has him beat.
- The Rockets are better when Harden is off the floor, by a huge margin, than the other candidate's teams are when their star is on the bench.
- If you want to use points per possession and assists, per Synergy, LeBron has him topped.
- Leads the league in turnovers per game and per 100 possessions.
- Has faded considerably since the All-Star break, in part due to a wrist injury.
- Westbrook shoots roughly the same from 3-point range (Harden 34.6, Westbrook 34.4).
- Westbrook averages 14.0 assists per 100 possessions to Harden's 14.3, while scoring considerably more.
This season, Harden did what so many other superstars failed to do. He adapted to what was best for his team. Players under Mike D'Antoni have experienced career seasons, but superstars have also stubbornly refused to embrace what he could do for them. Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, even Kobe Bryant were unwilling to adapt and the results were disastrous. Harden, however, saw the opportunity and became the focal point of an offense that isn't necessarily like what you think it might be.
For instance, Harden is stunningly in the 21st percentile offensively in transition this year. Not what you would expect for "Seven Seconds or Less." (Notably, Harden is second in transition assists behind ... you guessed it, Russell Westbrook.) But really, Harden's brilliance has been in the halfcourt.
Watch this play. Harden runs a pick-and-roll with Nene at the top of the arc with Nene rolling to the rim. The defense dives back to try and contain both sides and Trevor Ariza's man sinks down to "tag" the roll man. Steph Curry in that scenario is probably throwing a one-arm hook pass. I mention this because it drives me insane, as Curry gets that pass picked off just about every time, yet continues to throw it. It's easy to recognize, anticipate, and pick off. But Harden doesn't have a clear lane behind Nene to get the pass to Ariza. So he throws the pass in front of Nene to Ariza.
It's that kind of precision you find when you watch Harden's game. He has mastered the pick-and-roll in a way we have not seen outside of Chris Paul since Steve Nash. Harden is second behind Isaiah Thomas in points per possession among players with 1,000 times running pick-and-roll for a score or turnover, including assists, and running it significantly more often. His ability to finish at the rim is uncanny. He's finishing with a 54.6 percent field goal percentage on drives, per NBA.com. He's able to manipulate his Euro step to get to whatever shot he wants, whenever he wants it.
Harden's game has always been brilliant, but it's seldom been this captivating. There's a lot to love about his game, which most casual fans haven't caught on to. His long strides and control has always made his moves seem sleepy, but this season, they feel like harp strings being played over tonal sounds like you're listening to one of those "Focus" playlists on Spotify. And his shot chart is just consistency, from nearly everywhere on the floor:
On a team level is where Harden's case crystallizes. If the strongest argument for Westbrook is how bad his team is when Westbrook sits, then Harden's case is how good the Rockets are when he's on the floor. The Rockets are a plus-6.2 when Harden is on the floor per 100 possessions, with a 113.7 offensive rating, better than Westbrook (104.7) and Kawhi Leonard (112.6), second only to LeBron James among MVP candidates (114.9).
The Rockets are special this season, and that is first and foremost because of the play of Harden.
There are weaknesses, of course.
Want to know a weird one? He's terrible at outlet passes. Harden has a 19.8 percent turnover rate in transition. That's astronomical. Part of this is he doesn't have great leak-out guys, especially with Corey Brewer sent to the Lakers. His best passes are short under-hand dishes to streaking wings. (He and Eric Gordon have sneaky chemistry in knowing when the defense is keyed on Harden and Gordon dives straight to the rim off a casual pass from Harden.) But Harden is legitimately bad at finding offense in transition this season.
He also, and stop me if you've heard this one, hunts for fouls too often. It happens less this year than it has in the past, despite his free-throw rate being way up and is and-ones being way down. A lot of the time, though, he just goes for the nice, easy foul draw without really being aware that if he doesn't get it, which puts his team in a bad spot.
Harden's turnovers are the easy one to point to. He leads the league in turnovers. But really, Harden's turnovers always seem more the result of minor execution issues by teammates or an unexpected wrench in the Rockets' design than carelessness or recklessness. And that matters.
Harden grades out as "fine" this season. I know, that's not going to be popular, because his reputation has been hilarious for how bad it's been on the defensive end the last few years. I tore him apart last year for his defense, time and time again. He's been fine this year. He has moments where he gives up on a play. He has times when he falls asleep back door. He gets taken off the dribble at times. But he's shown way more engagement this year than in any season in the three years prior.
He's also just a big guard. When he bodies Bradley Beal here and drives him to help, he's a legitimate pain to deal with. He's better at anticipating passes and turning them into turnovers than you would expect, and the number of times he's just completely lost his dude off-ball have gone way down. That doesn't mean he's good.
If Westbrook's narcoleptic state is compensated by his ability to convert high-risk steal attempts with his athleticism, then Harden's overall lack of stops or swipes is compensated by the fact that he's remained attached and plugged in.
To no surprise, the Rockets' defense is four points worse with Harden on-court. But per Synergy, he, individually is 56th percentile. His contested field goal percentage (which is a flawed metric for multiple reasons) is a plus-1.0, which is not good, but not terrible.
Harden's MVP case is not built on defense, and if defense is as important to you as offense, and they have to both be "good," then Harden is not your MVP. But his defense has not been nearly bad enough to even approach removing his overall candidacy and he deserves credit for having brought a better effort, focus, and approach this season.
Harden clearly learned from last season, in what was probably the toughest of his career. He rededicated himself, cutting out the noise in his personal life, showing up in shape, embracing D'Antoni's offense, and being a true leader. Harden's clutch numbers are bad. He's shooting 36 percent in the last five minutes in games under five points. But he's also taken literally half of the shots Russell Westbrook has. He's taken a large amount, and taking them does't mean making them, but the Rockets' offense is just different in crunch time than OKC's.
The best case for Harden is this: Of those that have done the most, he has brought his team to being the best. Westbrook and Harden's contributions compare in terms of usage and production, Harden's accomplishments both individually and for his team compare with Leonard and James. Harden mixes those elements and stands out as more than worthy of the Most Valuable Player award.
Check back in our final wrap-up for who should win MVP of these worthy candidates, and read,