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Can James Harden’s MVP Campaign Survive Chris Paul?

Thanks to a combination of novelty and voter fatigue, it’s rare for an NBA player to remain MVP bridesmaid for too long. For every block of seasons where a Michael Jordan or LeBron James dominates the consensus at No. 1, a Charles Barkley or Derrick Rose will still manage to slip in and break up the monotony. That’s a big reason why, in all of NBA history, only three players have finished as MVP runners-up multiple times without ever actually taking home the award themselves.

Two of those are retired Hall of Famers: Jerry West (who came in second an astonishing four times without winning) and George Gervin. The third, James Harden of the Houston Rockets, is still very much active. But the way he’s playing this season, he might not be MVP-less much longer. After finishing second in two of the previous three seasons, Harden has established himself as the early award favorite while leading the Rockets to the best record in the West and the league’s top per-possession point differential. At long last, it might be time for the greatest bearded MVP since Bill Walton — just so long as the recent return of domineering fellow guard Chris Paul doesn’t get in Harden’s way.

By the numbers, Harden has never been better. He’s currently either first or second (behind LeBron James) in virtually every advanced value metric, including Value Over Replacement Player, Win Shares, Estimated Wins Added and ESPN’s Real Plus/Minus (RPM) wins above replacement. Harden has long been known for his ridiculous efficiency — he generates more points per possession than any other big-time scorer in the game today (including Steph Curry) — but he’s taken that approach to an entirely new level so far this year. He’s producing about 122 points for every 100 possessions he’s personally responsible for, a number usually reserved for three-point specialists, low-scoring big men and LeBron, but with the usage rate of a player who controls his team’s every offensive move. Once again, Harden is pushing the boundaries of just how many points one player can create for his team:

If he keeps this up, Harden would become the first qualified1 player since at least the 1976 ABA-NBA merger to use 35 percent or more of a team’s possessions while putting up an offensive rating of 120 or more. Depending on how you look at it, he would either be the most efficient high-usage player ever or shoulder the biggest responsibility of any high-efficiency player ever. Either way, it would make Harden the most valuable offensive weapon in the game.

What’s unique about Harden is how his scoring and passing play off of each other, making it virtually impossible to shut off his firehose of production. He currently leads the league in both assist rate2 and usage rate,3 an accomplishment that has been pulled off only one other time — by Russell Westbrook last season. And while Westbrook ranked 126th in true shooting percentage last year, Harden ranks 25th this season thanks to an eye-popping assortment of shot-making numbers: 51 percent on 2-pointers, 41 percent on threes and 86 percent from the line (where he still finagles himself 9.3 times per game, the most in the league). Among players in the 50-40-85 club for those percentages in a season, nobody has ever come close to doing it with a usage rate like Harden’s so far this year. Whenever Harden touches the ball, almost exclusively good things happen for Houston.

Thanks in large part to Harden’s complete offensive clinic, the Rockets currently rank second only to the Golden State Warriors in points per 100 possessions. They’re shattering their own benchmark for the most made threes per game in NBA history (knocking down a stunning 16.1 a night while taking 53 percent of their field goal attempts from deep), and they also rank third in pick-and-roll efficiency,4 averaging 0.98 points per possession on the play, according to NBA.com.

All the while, Houston is providing an interesting counterpoint to the Warriors in terms of offensive basketball philosophy. Golden State is a joy to watch because of its pure shooting talent, frequently knocking down looks that mortal players have no business making: The Warriors rank only ninth in Second Spectrum’s Quantified Shot Quality metric, which measures the expected value of a team’s shot selection based on league averages, but they lead the NBA in shooting efficiency anyway because nobody outperforms the expected value of their shots by more. The Rockets are the opposite. They make their shots at a slightly higher clip than average, but it’s nothing special; instead, they thrive on relentlessly creating prime scoring chances, leading the league in shot quality with the highest expected value (a 54.1 effective field goal percentage) of any season in Second Spectrum’s database.5 You can argue with the aesthetics of Harden and the Rockets’ methodical exploitation of basketball’s percentages, but it’s never worked to greater effect than in the early stages of this season.

The only unresolved question about Harden and his hardware is whether Paul’s return will disrupt Harden’s early-season flow. Before the season, we noted that the NBA had never seen a pairing of two ball-dominant guards quite like Harden and Paul before, and that Houston’s success would largely hinge on how the two could co-exist and alter their games to complement each other. But with Paul missing 14 of Houston’s first 15 contests, the pairing hasn’t received a great deal of stress-testing yet — Harden has largely been able to play in the manner he’s been accustomed to over the past few years, when he seldom had to share playmaking responsibilities with anybody.

The good news is that in the few games since Paul’s return, Harden has been as outstanding as ever. He’s averaging 34.4 points and 8.2 assists per game with a 68.7 true shooting percentage and an average Game Score of 28.6 — a better number than he was putting up while Paul was out of the lineup. The bad news is that the Rockets have barely scraped past the opposition (+2.4 points per 100 possessions) with their two stars on the court when compared with the +16.3 margin they have with one but not the other. And most concerning (but not surprising) for Harden’s MVP campaign, his stat-stuffing ways are indeed getting curtailed when he shares the court with Paul. According to NBA.com, Harden’s rates of assists, usage and even rebounds all take a hit with Paul in the game. Granted, his shooting efficiency is up with Paul, one of the great passers of his generation, but Harden’s overall production — as measured by the percentage of total “good things” (for both teams) he’s responsible for while in the game6 — is down from 20.1 percent without Paul to 15.7 percent with him.7

To help avoid the redundancy in their stars’ skill sets, the Rockets are staggering Harden and CP3’s minutes some. (And Paul has been on a program of reduced minutes anyway, while working his way back into form.) The Rockets have most of the season ahead of them to figure out how the two players fit together, with the primary goal of finally getting over the hump in the Western Conference playoffs, not to maximize Harden’s stat lines. But as well as Harden has played early this season, this looks like his best shot yet at ending his string of MVP near-misses. He just needs to figure out how to play his hyper-efficient, do-everything game while simultaneously sharing the ball with another superstar — a task easier said than done.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Minimum 25 percent of a team’s minutes played in a season, or about 1,000 minutes over an 82-game schedule.

  2. The percentage of teammate buckets a player assists while on the court.

  3. The percentage of team shot attempts plus turnovers a player records while in the game.

  4. Including both when the ball handler and the roll man finish the play.

  5. Which goes back to the 2014 season.

  6. NBA.com calls this statistic the Player Impact Estimate.

  7. For context, the current league leader is Hassan Whiteside at 20.9 percent.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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