The field for the 2015-16 NBA Most Valuable Player Award projects to be the deepest in recent memory. From reigning MVP Stephen Curry to four-time winner LeBron James to the return of 2014 recipient Kevin Durant to a list of other contenders that includes Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul, this season will be a veritable battle royal for the sport’s top individual honor.
However, even though he sputtered out of the gate in the season opener, Houston Rockets guard James Harden will be hoisting the Maurice Podoloff trophy when the smoke clears. The 26-year-old manages to improve some area of his game every year, and after finishing second to Curry in last year’s MVP voting, he’s motivated to prove the voters made the wrong choice.
“I know I was the MVP. That’s 100 percent given all the things that happened last season,” Harden said. “Credit the Golden State Warriors for an unbelievable year. They had an unbelievable team, coaching staff, everything. But that award means most valuable to your team. We finished second in the West, which nobody thought we were going to do at the beginning of the year even when everybody was healthy. We were near the top in having the most injuries. We won our division in a division where every single team made the playoffs. There’s so many factors. I led the league in total points scored, minutes played. Like I said, I’m not taking anything away from Steph, but I felt I deserved the Most Valuable Player. That stays with me.”
The chip on Harden’s shoulder didn’t help him in a 105-85 loss to a Denver Nuggets team that finished 30-52 last season. The Beard finished with 22 points in 36 minutes but shot a horrid 6-for-21 from the field including 2-of-12 from behind the arc. Still, Harden was able to spill ink across the stat sheet in his 2015-16 debut, contributing six boards, six assists, two blocks and two steals to his overall output.
Furthermore, Harden isn’t the only MVP candidate getting off to a slow start this season. Davis, playing in an Alvin Gentry-coached offensive system that’s expected to produce gaudy numbers, is shooting just 37.8 percent from the field in his first two games. Fighting through a back injury that could hinder him all year, James is averaging 18.5 points through two contests while shooting 45.7 percent from the floor and 12.5 percent from downtown. Durant, stepping on the court for the first time since February and coming off three foot surgeries, is still working his way back to elite form, as well. He scored 22 points in his 2015-16 debut but converted just six of his 19 attempts.
Despite Harden and the Rockets’ poor performance, there are still plenty of reasons to like the former Arizona State standout’s chances of taking home the MVP this season.
First, while mostly known for being a dynamic scorer, Harden’s assists per game have increased every year since he entered the league. Even though he finished with the second-most field goal attempts in the league and just narrowly missed nabbing his first scoring title, he still found time to finish ninth in assists (seven per game) and 13th in assist percentage (34.6) last season. With a healthy Dwight Howard and new addition Ty Lawson occasionally playing off the ball to go along with a strong supporting cast, Harden has a good shot at topping last year’s career high in dimes. While sharing the backcourt with Lawson means fewer touches and less opportunity to make plays, it also means Harden will have more energy to utilize at the other end of the court.
Routinely knocked for his mental lapses on defense, Harden stepped it up as a perimeter stopper last season. He allowed a career-best 103 points per 100 possessions in 2014-15, which was four points less than his 2013-14 defensive rating. In his 2015-16 debut, he held Nuggets shooters to just 22.2 percent from the field. Harden is also one of the better rebounding guards in the league. His 8.5 total rebounding percentage was eighth-best among guards who logged at least 25 minutes per game last season.
Also, while the record currently reads 0-1, the Rockets will still be a contender for the top seed in the West if they can remain healthy and avoid poor shooting nights like the one they had against Denver. Harden can make an even bigger case for MVP by upstaging Curry when the two meet on Oct. 30 in a rematch of the Western Conference Finals. A win there would help Houston avoid an 0-2 start while Harden proving to be the best player on the court against the defending champs would go a long way to aiding his case for MVP.
Harden did everything he could to win the MVP last season, including carrying a team ravaged by injuries to the No. 2 seed in the West. Inevitably, the majority chose Curry. With that slight sticking in his craw, Harden’s all-around excellence will ensure he doesn’t come up short for the second year in a row.