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The Case For James Harden, MVP

Back in August, during a Drew League game in Los Angeles, one fan sitting courtside had enough of James Harden’s foul-drawing prowess for the day. “How many free throws you got, guy?” he yelled at Harden during a break in the action. After Harden responded that he was tackled on the latest foul, the man responded incredulously, “He ain’t tackle you — you flopping. You Vlade Divac’ing out there! You out there flopping!”

Such is the Harden dilemma. One of the league’s best players goes out of his way to draw foul calls in a way that makes the game less aesthetically pleasing.

But dig deeper into the 27-year-old’s game, past the talking points about the flopping or the antiquated takes about his lackluster off-ball defense, and you’ll see a player who manages to lift the games of everyone around him. He has undoubtedly helped the Houston Rockets — who no one expected to be this good this year, let alone a title contender — become the best version of their offensively-dominant selves. And that, more than anything else, is Harden’s case for MVP.

This is the first entry in our series making the case for five NBA MVP candidates. We’ve also made the case for Lebron James and the case for Kawhi Leonard. Still to come: Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook. Also, check out our NBA predictions.

The Rockets’ offense this season, one of the 10 best in NBA history, has involved a blend of nearly every type of scoring.1 Harden’s been at the center of the team’s fearsome attack, distributing the ball to his teammates in devastating fashion all season. Roll man Clint Capela has been assisted on 97 percent of his slams, more than any high-frequency dunker in the league. He and Montrezl Harrell often back-cut through the lane untouched by defenses, partly explaining how Houston is the most efficient cutting team in the league. Resurgent Sixth Man of the Year candidate Eric Gordon and sharpshooter Ryan Anderson have been more impactful since leaving New Orleans, getting more wide-open 3s than anyone in the NBA, with about four each per game2.

Almost all of those looks have hinged on Harden’s ability to draw in opposing defenses by forcing them to make damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t decisions. Harden owns the highest win-share total in basketball this season despite not quite averaging a triple-double like fellow MVP candidate Russell Westbrook. But the impressive part is how he accumulated all those stats, and the broader role he has played in making his teammates better under new coach Mike D’Antoni.

Harden moved to point guard this season, an abrupt shift that has put the ball in his hands an NBA-high nine minutes per game, a whopping 43 percent increase compared to last year and 50 percent more than in 2014. Harden has more than just handled the adjustment; he has thrived because of it. Defenses have generally had no clue how to slow down the Rockets, because Harden himself has been impossible to guard.

POSSESSION TIME PER GAME
PLAYER TEAM 2015-16 2016-17 PERCENT CHANGE
James Harden Rockets 6.3 min. 9.0 min. +42.9%
Kawhi Leonard Spurs 2.5 3.4 +36.0
LeBron James Cavaliers 5.1 6.1 +19.6
Russell Westbrook Thunder 8.1 8.9 +9.9
Stephen Curry Warriors 5.5 5.0 -9.1
Possession time per game among possible MVP candidates

Through April 9 games.

Source: SportVU

Teams can’t play too far up on Harden when he’s facing the basket because he’s so good — best-in-the-business good — at forcing entanglements and drawing 3-point shooting fouls. You can’t play too far back either, because he’s a good enough shooter that it’s not a wise idea to simply give him a wide-open look. If you try to have your cake and eat it, too, by playing between the rim and the free-throw line and forcing him to choose, he can dance past you with his smooth Eurostep and use his skilled footwork to get to the basket, where he’s shooting 68 percent.3 And God forbid someone tries to get into his body to stop him from drawing a shooting foul. In that case, Harden simply uses a violent jab step to create space for his filthy step-back jumper.

And that only speaks to his scoring. He also creates pressure on defenses with his ability to spray the ball around to his four teammates, all of whom are about equally dangerous and likely to get the ball because of how general manager Daryl Morey built this spacey, 3-point record-breaking juggernaut. A quarter of Harden’s passes have traveled more than 30 feet this season, by far the NBA’s highest rate, according to a query run by SportVU at FiveThirtyEight’s request.

His scoring ability, paired with his ability to hit shooters standing that far away, creates a defender’s conundrum on each play: Should I step all the way into the lane to stop Harden from creating an easy shot at the rim, or should I stay attached to this lethal shooter along the perimeter to avoid giving up an open 3?

Most times, defenses become paralyzed and do neither, and a lot of that stems from Harden’s QB-like ability to look off defenders before he passes the ball.

Take this video from a February game against Indiana, for example. Harden gets a step on his man, then freezes All-NBA defender Paul George, who’s unsure of whether he wants to contest the shot, or if it makes more sense to blanket the corner shooter. George, reading Harden’s eyes, jumps in anticipation of the pass going to the left corner. And only then does Harden throw the no-look lob back to his right to Capela for a dunk.

This sort of efficient scoring and passing combination is something we’ve rarely, if ever, seen. Harden and fellow lefty Isaiah Thomas are about to become the first guards in history to average 29 points or more on 20 shots or less. Along with that, Harden is generating a league-high 27 points from assists per night. (He broke Steve Nash’s record for the number of 3s a player has assisted in a season, which was 285, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group. Harden currently has 361.) In fact, with two games left, he could still eclipse Tiny Archibald’s 44-year-old NBA record for most points produced per game, at 56.84.

None of this is to say Harden is perfect, or anywhere near it. In fact, he makes more mistakes than anyone. Last month, he broke the NBA record for turnovers in a single season, surpassing his own mark of 374, which he set last year. (Westbrook has just 20 fewer turnovers, with 435, as the season ends.) That’s partly a symptom of how often Harden is handling the ball, and the Rockets’ uptempo system, which prioritizes finding good looks early in the shot clock if possible. The faster pace means Houston has more plays each night, which creates more opportunities to score but also more turnover chances.

Harden’s defense is nowhere near as bad as it was in the past, but you won’t hear anyone vouch for him as a two-way player the way people would for San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard, the NBA’s best perimeter stopper. Yet Harden has been pretty active this season, contesting 8.2 shots per game, third most in the NBA among guards. By contrast, Westbrook — who has been accused in some circles of padding his rebounding stats — has been less interested in getting out to shooters, contesting an eye-poppingly low 3.6 shots per night, by far the worst rate of any NBA player who’s logging at least 30 minutes each game.

Still, it’s impossible to ignore Westbrook’s statistical impact in Oklahoma City, which, in some ways, dwarfs Harden’s in Houston. The Thunder are 13.1 points better per 100 plays with Westbrook, whereas Houston is just 2.7 points better per 100 with Harden. But what role, if any, should preseason expectations play in the MVP race? Betting lines expected Oklahoma City to finish about where it is. In almost all cases, the Rockets, who have 54 wins, were projected to finish behind the Thunder, who have 46.

Vegas had Houston’s over/under at 41.5 wins, the biggest undersell in the NBA this year. FiveThirtyEight’s preseason projections sold the club short, too, at 45 wins. But the third-seeded Rockets may even be able to push San Antonio and Golden State in a playoff series should they meet them5.

Taken together, that leaves voters with a question: Is it more valuable for a player to take what would otherwise be a struggling team and get it to a slightly above-average level? Or is it better to take a fringe playoff club, and turn it into an actual contender?

Championship contention is rare in the first place, let alone when no one saw it coming. So is Harden’s personal efficiency, and the efficiency he draws out of his Rockets teammates. And that’s why he deserves to win his first MVP award.

Footnotes

  1. Except for long midrange shots.
  2. Some have raised the question of whether the system, rather than Harden, is most responsible for the team’s bevy of open shots. But keep in mind that Gordon and Anderson also played alongside a superstar with the Pelicans, in Anthony Davis, and that they were coached by Alvin Gentry, who worked under current Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni in Phoenix and has the same philosophy as the Rockets on offense.
  3. The league average is 63 percent
  4. While Harden is close, at 56.6, and may surpass the mark, it’s worth pointing out that Archibald’s feat was even more impressive, since he played before the league had a 3-point line.
  5. According to FiveThirtyEight’s projections, Houston has a 26 percent probability of reaching the Western Conference finals, and a 4 percent probability of reaching the NBA finals.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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