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James Harden Rising to New Heights as MVP Favorite

Dwyane Wade is right. James Harden is the NBA’s Most Valuable Player.

This was a season where there was an overwhelming opinion that Harden’s team, the Houston Rockets, could take a step back considering the loaded Western Conference. Houston had famously flamed out in the first round of the 2014 postseason, the team had lost Chandler Parsons to the in-state rivals Dallas Mavericks via free agency and Daryl Morey tabbing Trevor Ariza as the Parsons replacement didn’t inspire reason to believe that there was room for growth.

That opinion was wrong, and that’s because James Harden has ascended into a new stratosphere of NBA superstar. Through 70 regular-season games (he has missed just one all season), Harden is averaging a career-high in the following categories: points (27.1), rebounds (5.8), assists (7.0), steals (1.9), blocks (0.8), field goal attempts (18.1) and free throw attempts (10.1). In other words: Harden has it all and he’s being asked to do it all. However impressive that rundown may be—and it most certainly is—we’ve only begun to paint part of Harden’s MVP portrait.

Digging a little deeper, Harden is also posting a career-high PER (26.6), which is good for fifth overall among all players. Only Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant* rank higher than Harden. Additionally, Harden has taken on the King’s role in Houston’s offense, leaving no doubt who’s the real Alpha Dog on this team. With a career-high assist percentage of 34.8 percent to pair with a career-high usage rate of 31.2 percent, it’s abundantly clear that The Bearded One is at the epicenter of everything Houston does—and they do it well.

This isn’t a knock against Steph Curry’s candidacy. Nor is it a dig at Russell Westbrook’s insane post-All-Star break blitzkrieg. And Anthony Davis, are you freaking kidding me? What’s left to say about the guy? He drops 20 points, 10 rebounds, four steals and five blocks like it’s his job, has diversified his game to the point where he’s unguardable and is only getting started in this league. But this year, it’s not going to be enough. And while LeBron James and Chris Paul both certainly deserve to have a higher profile when it comes to their candidacy, this is Harden’s party, and there isn’t anyone who can stop the #YoungSwagChamp from getting his shine on brightly.

When the Rockets announced Dwight Howard (knee) would be out indefinitely, many wanted to bury Houston alive. Harden led his team to an impressive 17-9 record over that two-month stretch, and it wasn’t just Dwight alone who wasn’t on the court. This club has dealt with injuries all over its roster, including key contributors like Terrence Jones (leg, lung), Patrick Beverley (elbow, wrist) and Kostas Papanikolaou (ankle) being forced to the sidelines.  And how has Harden responded? He’s second in the NBA in scoring (27.1) to Westbrook (27.3), the only shooting guard inside the top 10 when it comes to dishing the rock on a per-game basis and is tied for sixth in steals per game.

Most impressively, Harden has made an art out of getting to the free throw line, and he leads the NBA with 707 total free throw attempts, making 612 of them. The next closest player, again in a battle with ex-teammate Westbrook, has 545 total attempts. That means Harden has made 67 more free throws than Westbrook has attempted. The only other player over 500 free throw attempts this season is DeMarcus Cousins at 504.  While some can’t stand the style of game in which Harden plays, he has clearly found an effectiveness to his craft that his peers have been unable to mirror with the same success.

When expectations were lowered, Harden raised them. When his Rockets were left for dead, he saw that they made it to their Houston launch pad and took off in proper fashion. And when the season ends, any MVP announcement that doesn’t start with ‘James’ and end with ‘Harden’ will be an utter disappointment, much like the way his team was supposed to be.

It’s hard to believe this is the same player that the Oklahoma City Thunder foolishly traded away in exchange for a laughable compensatory package, and that’s because Harden has become something nobody expected, and he may even be surprising himself.  Just before Howard returned to action, the big man told Harden something he “needed to hear,” per Sam Amick of USA TODAY Sports:

‘I don’t want you to do anything different. Just go out there and do what you do, and do it at a high level every single night.’ He said, ‘I’ll adjust to you,’ and that right there gave me confidence to just play, and play my game and not worry about anything else. Once you hear that from your other leader, then you know you can just go out there and play the way that I’ve been playing.”

Harden has become a more complete player in his brief NBA career than Howard has after more than a decade in, and it’s just one reason why the shooting guard has left no doubt about which star sits No. 1 on his team—it’s the same guy who sits atop the MVP totem pole.

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