The Case For James Harden: Most Valuable Player

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It's pretty crazy how we all got here. One year ago, NBA fans and Rockets fans all celebrated as the Golden State Warriors eliminated one of the more forgettable teams in NBA history and put an end to possibly the most miserable season in Houston Rockets franchise history. The Rockets had fired a head coach 11 games into the season, general manager Daryl Morey's seat quickly became hot, and franchise centerpiece James Harden had gone from finishing 2nd in the 2014-15 MVP race to completely missing all three All-NBA teams. Twelve months later and new head coach Mike D'Antoni is a frontrunner for Coach of the Year, Daryl Morey is a candidate for Executive of the Year, and James Harden will likely finish Top 3 in MVP voting. This has quickly become one of the more dramatic redemption stories in the history of sports. So, what's the reason for this dramatic turnaround? Who are we supposed to credit?

Some wouldn't hesitate to credit Mike D'Antoni, as he is the the consensus Coach of the Year frontrunner for a reason. D'Antoni brought his system of spread pick-and-roll and pace and space to Houston, found the perfect superstar in James Harden to run his system, and moved him to point guard, which was a huge success.

Some would credit Daryl Morey. After all, Morey is the man who hired Mike D'Antoni and signed Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, and Nene Hilario, who were all instrumental to Houston's success this year.

However, without supreme talent you just can't succeed at a high level in this league, no matter what the surrounding cast and coach is, and James Harden is just that - supreme talent. In fact, Daryl Morey was asked straight up on ESPN's TrueHoop Podcast on Wednesday who deserved the most credit for the Rockets turnaround and he responded with the following:
"I can promise you James Harden is the reason we're winning. I love that people are saying MIke D'Antoni is doing a great job because he is, I love that people that have said nice things about our sixth men and myself and that's all well and good, but the engine that makes us go is James Harden." - Daryl Morey.

So it's well established that James Harden is the primary factor for this turnaround. That's all well and good, but how the hell did we get here?

Harden was heavily scrutinized for coming into training camp last summer out of shape, displaying poor leadership throughout the season, not getting along with star teammate Dwight Howard, and just not putting forth his best foot forward in general.

Immediately following that mess of a season, James Harden took it upon himself to rededicate himself to his craft and to his franchise and showed great signs of maturation. He withdrew himself from Team USA, trained hard and got back into shape in Arizona, took significant part in the Rockets draft process and free agent meetings, organized several workouts for his new teammates, and inked his commitment to the Houston Rockets via a massive 4-year contract extension.

James Harden was stepping into the 2016-17 season with a fresh approach and newfound dedication.

Before the season even started, James Harden was tasked with the process of getting acclimated with new head coach Mike D'Antoni. Many were skeptical as to whether the pairing of James Harden and Mike D'Antoni was going to work out or if they would even get along.



It's safe to say many were wrong.



Moving James Harden to the point guard position was met with mixed reactions. Some believed Harden was already playing point guard given his previous playmaking responsibilities, some believed Harden wouldn't be a willing enough passer for the position, and some genuinely believed this was a smart move.

As it turns out, it was in fact a smart move.

With the Rockets already surrounding James Harden with shooters and pick-and-roll big men, Harden would soon thrive in this system.

James Harden's statistics for 2016-17:

29.1 PPG *

11.2 APG *

8.1 RPG *

61% True Shooting

 

There's also all this talk about the historic statline that Russell Westbrook is averaging, but what few realize is that James Harden is the only player to put up 29 PPG, 11 PPG, and 8 RPG since Oscar Robertson in 1964-65.



What's also fascinating about James Harden is that his assists are leading to an incredibly high amount of points (27.1 PPG). Combined with his own points per game, James Harden is creating an astonishing 56.2 PPG for the Rockets. With the Rockets averaging 115.3 PPG, Harden is generating nearly 49% of the Rockets' total points per game on his own. According to NBA.com/stats, James Harden also finished the season generating 4554 points (points + assists) breaking Nate 'Tiny' Archibald's record of 4539.

Harden will also go down as the 1st player in NBA history to record 2,000 points, 900 assists, and 600 rebounds.

Bottom line - James Harden's had a pretty magnificent season.

However, to win the MVP award, you not only have to have a great season, but a more compelling case than the other leading MVP candidates on the ballot.

Now, instead of trying to bash the other candidates (Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, and LeBron James), let's simply state why James Harden's case may be more compelling than theirs.

 

  • James Harden led a team with no other all stars to a historically great offense (10th greatest of all time)

  • Harden elevated and restored the careers of Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, and Nene Hilario, all of which were quickly being written off as useful players before this season

  • The Houston Rockets ended the season 55-27 with a decent chance at contention when many expected them to be nearly 10 wins worse (Las Vegas over/under was set at 41.5)

  • James Harden will end up being more efficient (true shooting percentage of 61%) than all candidates except LeBron James (62%), who has an inferior case anyway

  • Historically, this award has seldom gone to candidates of sub-50 win teams and Harden is a candidate that fits the historical criteria very well (Harden has a 34% probability to win the award based on how the award has been handed out in the past).


This was the cleanest way to make James Harden's case in relation to the other candidates without tearing them down. In summation, James Harden possesses the perfect amount of team success, scoring efficiency, and narrative that we traditionally look for in an MVP candidate.

I don't know how we got here with James Harden and the Rockets, but we're here and it's a hell of a lot better than what was expected of this team preseason, and Harden should be rewarded for it.

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