This season's MVP race is shaping up as a photo finish. Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Damian Lillard, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo all have a case. And, yes, so does James Harden. It's a unique case for Harden, who would be the first player in NBA history to win MVP after switching teams midseason, but it's impossible to ignore how great he has played since he was traded to Brooklyn in mid-January.
After posting 44 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists in Brooklyn's win over Detroit on Friday, Harden pulled no punches when he was asked whether he belongs in the MVP conversation.
"I feel like I am the MVP," Harden said. "It's just that simple."
Here’s James Harden tonight when asked if he belongs in the MVP conversation: “I feel like I am the MVP” pic.twitter.com/2D6cKn7xp8— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) March 27, 2021
There are probably voters who are going to hold against Harden the way he forced his way out of Houston, but you could also argue what Houston has turned into in Harden's absence is one of the strongest indicators of his value. Another thing working against Harden is the super-team stigma. If Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant effectively cancel each other from consideration for playing on the same team, surely the same can be said for Harden and Durant, right?
But the thing is, Durant hasn't played since February 13th, a span of 15 games, 14 of which Harden played in, leading Brooklyn to a 12-2 record with a 118.4 offensive rating. That registers a point better than Brooklyn's 117.4 rating for the year, which in turn leads the league. Since arriving in Brooklyn, Harden is averaging 26 points, 11.4 assists, 8.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals over 31 games.
Pretty simply, you can make a legitimate argument Harden has been the best player in the league since he went to Brooklyn, and with LeBron and Embiid in the middle of extended injury absences, and Antetokounmpo fighting extreme voter fatigue, suddenly the pieces are falling into place for Harden to become a real candidate.
In my opinion, he's fifth right now. I think Lillard has been the MVP for his insane clutch performances, and ultimately for keeping the Blazers in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race despite his second- and third-best teammates, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, missing more than 60 combined games. Jokic has been absolutely brilliant, too. He owns the advanced stats and Denver has been really good since a tough start. Embiid hasn't been out long enough yet to cancel out what he's done through the majority of this season. Watching the Lakers go in the tank without LeBron speaks to his value, and I would have him fourth.
But yes, Harden is absolutely in the conversation despite defecting to a super-team midseason. And there's still a long way to go. Durant is still out. So is Kyrie Irving. If Harden keeps the Nets rolling like they are, his case will only get stronger.