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James Harden Putting the Rockets on his Back Like an MVP

I have a feeling Stephen Curry is going to win the MVP. Curry is having a phenomenal season on a phenomenal team, the best team in the NBA. He’s super fun to watch. He’s EXTREMELY valuable and the numbers back it up. I would have little problem with Stephen Curry winning the MVP, because it would be well deserved.

But if I had a vote for MVP, my vote would be for James Harden.

Harden’s MVP candidacy took another step forward on Tuesday night with yet another brilliant performance against the Phoenix Suns. Harden –despite appearing to suffer some sort of left arm injury in the third quarter — scored 20 of his game-high 40 points in the fourth quarter in a 127-118 victory. The shooting guard also led the Rockets with 12 rebounds and nine assists.

It was Harden’s sixth 40-point game of the season, an NBA best, and the first time in his career that he reached the 40-point mark in back-to-back games. In Houston’s last game, he put up 45 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, albeit in a loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. But it’s tough to blame a guy for a loss when he scored 45 points and nearly notched a triple-double.

Harden has been doing this nearly all season after a somewhat slow start to the year. He shot just 40.9 percent overall and 33.7 percent from three in November, but that was followed up by a December in which he shot 47.8 percent overall and 38.6 percent from three while putting up 30.6 points per game, 7.1 assists per game and 6.0 rebounds per game.

Harden hasn’t really slowed much, and he’s currently averaging 27.7 points, 6.8 assists and 5.7 rebounds while shooting 45.7 percent overall and 39.0 percent from three. His 27.7 points per game are tops in the league, and he also leads the league in free throw attempts and free throws made. His 27.87 PER is fifth in the league, just ahead of Curry.

If Harden’s numbers keep up, he would be just the 11th player in NBA history to average at least 27 points, six assists and five rebounds in a season, per Basketball-Reference.com. If he somehow managed to get those averages up to 28 points, seven assists and six rebounds, he would be just the sixth player to reach those thresholds in a season.

NBA: FEB 25 Rockets at Kings

But those gaudy numbers aren’t the sole reason I believe Harden should be MVP. You have to look at context as well, and Harden’s brilliance is highlighted even more given the Rockets’ performance this season despite a litany of injuries and a lack of dynamic offensive weapons.

Houston is 36-16 on the season, good for third in the loaded Western Conference. This despite Dwight Howard missing 20 games, Terrence Jones missing most of the year and Patrick Beverley missing 12 games. The Rockets have gone 14-6 in the 20 games without Howard thanks in large part to Harden’s greatness and a solid defense, an area in which Harden has improved after being the butt of many jokes in past years. He may never be considered a defensive stopper, but his 2.0 steals per game would be a career high and there haven’t been as many embarrassing lowlights on that end this season.

But Harden’s forte will always be his offensive prowess, and the staggering difference in how Houston performs with him on the court compared to him on the bench is a key part of his MVP campaign. The Rockets have scored 107.9 points per 100 possessions with Harden on the court this season, which is the equivalent of a top-five offense, per NBA.com. When Harden hits the bench, Houston has scored a puny 91.9 points per 100 possessions, which is a smidge better than the historically bad offense of the Philadelphia 76ers. So just having Harden on the court takes the Rockets’ offense from incredibly awful to elite.

Harden initiates everything for Houston, as he’s essentially the de facto point guard in addition to being the best shooting guard in the NBA. He can score in every way conceivable, and he’s arguably the most lethal player in the NBA driving to the basket. He leads the NBA in Total Player PTS on Drives and Team PPG on Drives, per SportVU. It might not always be the most aesthetically pleasing basketball when he puts his head down and drives to the hoop, but he’s effective because he’s a master at drawing fouls, can finish at the rim and make plays with the pass. The guy truly is the total package on the offensive end of the floor.

As great as Harden is, and as much as I endorse him for MVP, the beauty of this year’s race for MVP is there are a handful of truly legitimate candidates. I already mentioned Curry and think he’ll ultimately win, but in addition to Harden and Curry, Anthony Davis and LeBron James are right there in the running. In fact, I even have Davis in front of Curry in my own MVP Rankings, at least for the time being. This is a wide open MVP race, and it’s going to be fun to see how these players try and separate themselves down the stretch this year.

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