The storyline of James Harden finally nabbing the MVP award has been well-documented this year, with many pundits and bloggers trumping him up for the honor. For sure, he has looked the part and he is indeed pushing his game into a new gear this season.
That said, a grand new-found opportunity to seize the award is staring Harden right in the face. With Dwight Howard likely out for at least a month with a banged-up knee, Harden will have the chance to carry his team past the finish line almost all by his lonesome.
If you didn’t notice, Harden is having one a heck of season. He is averaging an NBA-best and career-best 27 points per game. Not only has he continued to do what he always has done–score in bunches–but Harden has become more of a facilitator too, also averaging a career-best 6.8 assists per game. And to round it all out, Harden is also crashing the boards at career-rate, while hauling down 5.6 rebounds per game.
Those are some pretty damn good numbers across the board.
Although he is not the most charismatic or engaging man off the court, say like a Stephen Curry (his main competition for MVP), Harden is letting his actions on the court do all the talking for him. He has matured into a seasoned leader, and the the Rockets are following his lead to the tune of a 34-15 record while in line for a high seed in the NBA playoffs.
With the team missing Howard, Harden will obviously have to take on more of a load, and how he handles himself down the stretch will be vital in his quest to win the MVP. It’s not like Harden hasn’t had to do it before, as Howard has already missed 16 games this season with various ailments. With Howard out of the lineup, the Rockets are still a more-than respectable 11-5. So Harden has proven that he can get the job done while keeping the Rockets on the winning path.
This will be a crucial month for the Rockets as they try to contend for the Southwest Division title and earn a high seed in the playoffs. The Rockets are three games behind the Memphis Grizzlies in the Southwest Division and if they can win the Southwest title, they can lock up a nice, cushy spot as the two-seed in the West (the Warriors at 39-8 seem like they will run away with the no.1 seed). If that were to happen, Harden could be in prime position to nab the MVP.
Even if that were not to occur, Harden’s candidacy is still at an all-time high.
While Curry, who is probably by far the leading candidate for MVP, has healthy teammates to work with at the moment, Harden has—and will for the duration of the rest of the season—had to carry more responsibility all year. With a so-so point guard in Patrick Beverley beside him and Howard missing time, Harden has had to do a lot of heavy lifting. Definitely a lot more lifting than Curry.
Although Trevor Ariza, Donatas Motiejunas and Josh Smith are no slouches, I’d rather be flanked by Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, etc.
(Yeah, yeah, I know I say all this after Curry went for an absurd 51 points on Wednesday).
The thing with Harden, though, is he is not just doing it on the offensive end either. Harden has started to play some defense (he hardly did before) this season, too. Some people are recognizing that Harden, is indeed turning into a complete player.
One such player is former teammate Chandler Parsons, as well as Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle.
From Tim MacMahon of ESPN.com:
“For sure. He’s the best player in basketball right now,” Parsons said before his Dallas Mavericks fell 99-94 to Harden’s Houston Rockets on Wednesday night. “The things he’s doing are incredible. The scouting report is focused in on stopping him and you see he’s still getting 30 a game. It’s impressive.”
“Right now, there’s nobody playing better basketball on the planet,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said.
“It doesn’t really surprise me,” Parsons said of Harden’s season so far. “I saw firsthand how talented he is. He works extremely hard. He’s playing better defense this year. He’s leading their team. He’s hitting tough shots. There’s not much he’s not doing.
The race between Curry and Harden should be an intense battle until the bitter end. They both are scoring by the truckloads and both of their respective teams are the No. 1 and No. 4 teams (at least in regards to overall records) in the NBA. Plus, both have stats that back up that they are doing more than just scoring.
With Howard going down, the spotlight will only intensify on Harden. Harden now has a major chance to sway some undecided voters if he can show that he can carry a team mostly all by himself. It’s a platform made for players like Harden.
If Harden can capitalize on this chance, it will legitimize his greatness, as if there was any doubt of that in the first place. Plain and simple, Harden has put himself on a new plane this year and that may be enough for him to earn his first MVP.