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NBA Sunday: James Harden, Improbable MVP

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His team entered the All-Star break one game under the .500 mark. He couldn’t avoid the questions about his recently fired head coach, his fractured relationship with his running mate and what the future would hold for him personally.

It seemed that the Houston Rockets, instead of soaring with the NBA’s celestial bodies, not only failed to take flight. They didn’t even have a successful countdown.

A lot can change in a year.

Just ask James Harden.

“It’s been so much fun,” Harden told the assembled media during the NBA’s 2017 All-Star weekend in New Orleans.

“Not only just winning, but just the vibe of the guys in the locker room,” he said, taking a not-so-subtle shot at the since-departed Dwight Howard.

“They’re just happy to work extremely hard with the coaching staff. That all translates to winning. If you get that in one group, then you can have the third-best record in the league,” Harden said.

Surprisingly, his Rockets have managed to blast off. Arriving at the All-Star break, the team has compiled a 40-18 record. It’s the fourth best record in the entire league and third-best record in the Western Conference.

When one discusses the biggest surprises in the league this season, the Utah Jazz and the Portland Trail Blazers would warrant mention, but it’s fair to say that even fewer foresaw the Rockets returning to prominence.

With Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Nene joining him in Houston, Harden has bought into the ball-sharing philosophy of newly installed head coach Mike D’Antoni. Most surprising, however, is the team ranking in the top-half of the league in defensive efficiency. As a unit, they yield just 108 points per 100 possessions.

In the end, as Harden mentioned, the product is the league’s third-best record. The improbable turnaround is something that the entire league has noticed, and with Harden’s astronomical per-game averages of 29.2 points, 8.3 rebounds and 11.3 assists, under normal circumstances, he would be the runaway winner of the Most Valuable Player Award. Russell Westbrook’s quest to become the first player to average a triple-double since Oscar Robertson (to which Westbrook has a legitimate chance, mind you), is the only threat to Harden.

A man who was ranked in this very space as being the third-best shooting guard in the league behind Klay Thompson and Jimmy Butler has effectively made those who agreed with the premise eat their words.

To put it simply, you can’t mention the league MVP without Harden.

“It feels good,” Harden said about being one of the frontrunners. “To be mentioned in the MVP race, it means you’re doing something really good,” he said.

“You just gotta continue to do it, continue to focus and win games. Being the leader that I am and that I’m still learning how to be—that’s all I can do.”

Indeed, it would be unfair to ask him to do more.

* * * * * *

It was a fairly routine June day. With the Golden State Warriors carrying a 2-1 lead into that night’s Game 4 battle against the Cleveland Cavaliers, another one bit the dust.

In a prepared statement released by the Houston Rockets, James Harden announced that he was joining Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and scores of other superstars who were removing themselves from national team consideration. The concerns over whether the Americans would have enough firepower to emerge from Rio with a gold medal grew louder.

“I have been extremely blessed to wear the ‘red, white, and blue’ and to compete at the highest international level with the greatest players representing the greatest country in the world,” Harden was quoted as saying in the statement.

“I sincerely hope I’ll earn an opportunity to represent Team USA again in the future.”

At the time, Harden’s Rockets were fresh off of a rather disappointing season. Dwight Howard was certain to have played his last game for Houston and Mike D’Antoni had surprisingly been hired just a few weeks prior. The Rockets were in a transition period and, according to Harden, it was the primary reason for his opting to sit out.

“It was extremely difficult, cuz who wants to pass up an opportunity to compete for a gold medal?” Harden asked rhetorically.

“But who’s to say that if I went to compete for that gold medal and things were how they were last year, I would have been just as frustrated,” he said.  “So I made a conscious effort to stay here and make sure we got some kind of help and I feel like we have been. It paid off.”

And then some.

The Rockets have re-emerged as an NBA power. And James Harden, without question, is the primary reason why.

* * * * * *

For the Rockets, only 24 games remain in the regular season. The Rockets currently hold a four-game lead over the Los Angeles Clippers for the third seed in the Western Conference and will have an opportunity to make up some ground on the San Antonio Spurs for the second seed. Of their remaining games, for the Rockets, only 10 will be played on the road. Of those remaining road contests, only four of them will be contested against teams that currently have winning records. Of the 24 games remaining, the Rockets will only play nine against winning teams.

In short, if they simply continue being the team they have been over the first two-thirds of the season, they will have a real opportunity to finish in the top three out West.

Coming into the season, that didn’t seem possible. But behind Harden, the Rockets have improbably reemerged.

As he looked around in New Orleans, without a doubt, the scene was familiar. The media, the questions, the flashing lights and silly questions—they were eerily similar to last season.

Yet the most important characteristic had changed. The beard and his team were being spoken about for all the right reasons.

Soaring with the celestials, the Rockets are mid-flight—to infinity, and perhaps beyond.

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About Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and international basketball.