Thanks to a spectacular three-month long string of performances, Houston Rockets shooting guard and NBA leading-scorer James Harden has asserted himself as one of several stars gunning for this year’s MVP award.
Racking up career-highs in points (27.2), assists (6.9) steals (1.9) per game, and in 3-point percentage (38.5), the 25-year-old has lifted the Rockets to third in the log jammed Western Conference with center Dwight Howard out due to injury.
But can Harden really walk away with the award, considering the also-stellar years from Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry, Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook, and perennial horse-to-beat and Cleveland Cavaliers small forward LeBron James?
There’s a number of ways to look at how media members will glean and pick apart Harden’s resume. They’re certain to look at his stats, but also take into account who’s helping him win games in Houston, how he’s improved as a player, where Houston winds up in the conference standings, and perhaps even take into account Harden’s place in history and whether he belongs aside the greats that have won the award before.
While he’d certainly like to have him on the court, Howard’s absence has no doubt lifted Harden’s chances of winning the first MVP award of his career. With Howard missing 25 games this season, the Rockets offense exclusively runs through Harden, and he’s used the extra touches wisely, ranking sixth in the league in player efficiency ranking at 27.18.
And after Harden, Howard and veteran Trevor Ariza are Houston’s next leading scorers at 16.3 and 12.6 points per game. All told, eight Rockets are averaging better than 10 points a game, so Harden is certainly getting help. But Houston’s bench ranks 24 th in the league with 29.2 points per contest, and with Harden dishing out nearly seven assists a game he’s helping teammates get looks while finding his shots as well.
Harden’s also stepped up his defense dramatically, as evidenced by his steal and rebounding numbers, and Houston remaining in the middle of the pack defensively allowing 99.7 points a game, No. 17 in the league with Howard out.
From a historical perspective, Harden’s season should go down as one of the best in the Rockets storied franchise history, and his stats are highly comparable to last year’s winner in Thunder forward Kevin Durant and Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose in 2011, as well as Kobe Bryant’s dash for the award in 2008.
But the three other players in the MVP discussion are having equally amazing seasons. Curry’s in the process of leading the Warriors to the best record in the West (his biggest claim to the award), and he’s one of the most versatile and lethal scorers in the league. Like Harden, the Warriors No. 1 ranked offense flows through Curry’s hands, and he’s registering a career-high with 2.2 steals per game.
Westbrook, Harden’s former Thunder teammate, is also tearing it up. He ranks second in the league with 26.2 points and fifth in assists with 8.1 per contest. In February alone Westbrook’s averaged 30.4 points and 10.2 assists and the Thunder have moved back into the playoff picture with a 10-2 spell in their last 12 games.
Also like Harden, Westbrook’s achieved so much with Durant sidelined for 31 games with various injuries, and likely out for even more after a new foot injury.
Then there’s James, whose return to Cleveland was at first marred by the team’s struggles early in the year. But James is putting up another one of his incredible all-around years, with 26 points, 5.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game and the Cavs have recovered with an 18-3 run in their last 21 games for the No. 3 spot in the East.
Cleveland going 2-8 without James in the lineup, and All Star forward Kevin Love not playing up to expectations for most of the season, are also feathers in what could be James’s fifth MVP cap.
But voter fatigue could play a significant role for James. It would be unfair to discount Durant and Rose’s years, but even back then James was still by and large considered the best player in the game. Voters tend to look for the best story in a given year, which is one of the reasons Allen Iverson bested Shaquille O’Neal in 2001, and any player who won other than Michael Jordan during his career.
This year fatigue might play a much smaller role given the numbers of each candidate and how well their teams have played. Instead a split of the vote could be responsible for Harden, Westbrook or Curry swiping the award from James.
It’s been nearly a decade since NBA fans experienced as tight and wide-open an MVP race as this season’s. Back in 2006, five players wrangled at least 10 first place votes, with then Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash claiming the award for the second straight year with 57 first place votes, ahead of Bryant’s 22, James’s 16,Chauncey Billups’ 15, and Dirk Nowitzki’s 14.
Of the four times James has won the honor, he’s claimed at least 85 first-place votes in 2012 and a max of 120 back in 2013.
This year’s MVP won’t come close to those totals, even James, but as of right now Westbrook is in the league according to the latest odds from Bovada.lv. The odds have Westbrook’s at 4/1, James 5/1, Harden 6/1, and Curry 8/1.
Those odds figure to change as the second-half of the season wears on, but should Harden carry the Rockets past Golden State in the standings, the award could be his to lose.