By Max Zavidow
James Harden is for real. If you hadn’t learned that from the previous two or three seasons, you should know it by now. Harden has been playing head and shoulders above anyone (looking at you, Steph Curry) and here’s why he is my Most Valuable Player heading into the All-Star break.
The biggest reason? James Harden has finally shed his reputation as the league’s worst, laziest defender (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-J7XX0TGfsQ). He was that bad. But look at him now and you’ll have a troubling time trying to catch him making plays like that. His defense on the perimeter is tighter. He is hustling on defense. James Harden is finally giving 100% on D and, as it turns out, he’s pretty incredible. His 2.0 steals per game, 0.8 blocks per game, and 5.7 rebounds per game are all career highs. Harden is stepping up on the defensive end, and proving he is more than just a one dimensional offensive threat.
His numbers on the offensive side are unparalleled. Harden has been scoring this year, and he is doing it at a pace nobody else can keep up with. His 27.6 points per game are more than a point ahead of the league’s second leading scorer (Lebron James) and the Bearded Menace is showing absolutely no signs of slowing down anytime soon. James Harden has been scoring at will, and the scariest part is that he can do it anywhere he wants. Guard him too tightly? He is gone before the defender knows what hits them— that’s how quick he is. Give him a little bit of space? Harden has no problem knocking down the three, no mercy. His 3 three-pointers knocked down each night, shot at a clip of almost 40% from beyond the arc, might make defenders think twice about giving him more than two inches of breathing room. Nothing else to do, right? Guess the best thing would be to foul him. As a defender, that might be the worst thing to do. To send Harden to the free-throw line is to send an 89% free-throw shooter to the charity stripe. Maybe defenders could try and double team him, but that couldn’t work too well either considering he averages nearly 7 assists per game when only one person guards him. If you’re a defender and James Harden is charging down the court, you may as well take a page from the old James Harden and stop trying on defense, because he’s going to do something spectacular regardless.
There’s no question about it; at this point in the season, the MVP race is stripped down to Harden and Curry. The two of these players have separated themselves from any other contenders at this point. Some would likely give the edge to Curry based on the fact that he has his Warriors resting comfortably in first place in the wickedly competitive Western Conference. But to say that Curry is doing it on his own would be blasphemous. Golden State is playing as a team, and they are doing it better than anyone else, but Curry is playing with the best, most cohesive rotation in the league. Steph Curry is playing with a young team loaded with potential, and just the right amount of veteran leadership. Curry is playing with some of the great young talent in the league in Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson, in addition to Andre Iguodala, David Lee, and a surprisingly resilient David Bogut. The latter three have been thriving in their new roles, which has allowed the younger players to truly flourish. On the other hand, Harden gets a pair of washed-up has beens in Jason Terry and Josh Smith, Trevor Ariza who has done a sad job of filling the void left by Chandler Parsons, and a badly banged up Dwight Howard. When the votes get tallied, the truth that Harden doing more with much less cannot be ignored. Harden’s running mate, Howard (arguably the best center in the league when healthy), has missed significant time with injury and, when he has played, he has yet to be fully healthy. Harden has put the Rockets on his back, and as it stands, Houston is less than 2 games back of the 2 seed in the West. When Dwight Howard gets back to complete health, the Rockets should be on serious championship watch, but until then Harden will have to single handedly kept his team in contention, most likely for an extremely high seed. Steph Curry is essential to his team’s success, there is no doubt about that, however he is not as much of an asset to his team as is Harden.
James Harden is a top player in the league. Whether or not the voters agree with me that he is the most valuable player to his team, as well as the best player in the league, will remain to be seen. However, if Harden maintains his absurd level of play and can bring the Rockets to a high seed in the West on his own merit, I see no reason the award should be travelling anywhere else come June.