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2018 NBA MVP Race: James Harden vs. LeBron James

LeBron James contends that he should be the 2017-18 NBA MVP, but can he measure up to James Harden?

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The Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James recently made headlines when he boldly contended that he would vote for himself in this season’s MVP race. Even though the honor has been bestowed upon him four times already (twice in consecutive years), the most recent was in 2012-13 when the Miami HEAT won the last of their championships during his tenure.

All James has done since then is lead the HEAT to a rematch with the San Antonio Spurs in the Finals the following year, carry the Cleveland Cavaliers on his back to the Finals with both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on the shelf and defeat the Golden State Warriors in the Finals (with Irving’s help that time); yet he has somehow become an afterthought in the MVP discussion during that period.

This season James has exceeded his career averages of points, rebounds and assists per game at the ripe age of 33. He has accomplished this feat amidst injuries to key teammates and a roster overhaul at the trade deadline. The Cavs were coming off a 33-49 season prior to their reunion with James, and at 48-30 they are likely to have eclipsed the 50-win plateau annually since his return.

The NBA MVP isn’t determined by post-season heroics. That’s a good thing for the Houston Rockets’ James Harden, as his lone trip to the Finals came as the sixth man on the Oklahoma City Thunder team that fell to James’ HEAT in early 2012. In that off-season, Harden forced a trade to the Houston Rockets, thereby creating a new balance of power in the West.

The 2011-12 Houston Rockets managed a 34-32 record in that strike-shortened season, and their most recent playoff appearance beforehand was in 2008-09. The team has been a post-season participant every year since Harden’s arrival. Despite three first-round exits among those five appearances, that trend still constitutes improvement.

At 63-15, the Rockets have already set a franchise high in regular season wins, eclipsing the 58-24 team from 1993-94. Much like erstwhile coach Rudy Tomjanovich’s teams, the current roster has embraced an inside-out scheme; however, lacking the presence of Hakeem Olajuwon and Otis Thorpe underneath, their modern version has emphasized guard-play from the elite backcourt of Harden and newcomer Chris Paul.

So, how do we differentiate between the individual performances of the two superstars?

The Eye Test

A comparison of per-game averages shows that Harden leads James in points per game (30.7 to 27.4) by over 10 percent, and in season totals Harden has made nearly double the three-pointers and sunk over 200 more free throws while playing in nine fewer games. While James has a slight edge in assists per game and he is the far better rebounder (no surprise there), Harden’s production of historic offensive numbers this season cannot be overshadowed.

Winner: Harden

Advanced Statistics

For players who have the ball in their hands the majority of the time, Player Impact Estimate (PIE) can be a useful metric. Simply put, PIE tells us how well a player stuffs the stat sheet while they’re on the court relative to the other participants. Aside from a two-game outlier by the Memphis Grizzlies’ MarShon Brooks, Harden leads the league in Player Impact Estimate at an impressive 19.5 (percentages above 20 are rare). King James is second at 19.1.

Harden also holds a significant edge in both offensive rating (115.0 vs.112.2) and defensive rating (105.0 vs.111.1). Although LBJ holds a slight lead over Harden in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) at 8.6 to 8.1 (top-two in the league), that’s not enough to tip the scales in his favor.

Winner: Harden

Intangibles

No one can deny how important LeBron James is to his team’s success. But what makes this campaign different is that he required a mid-season revamp to produce a squad that is capable of winning consistently. While the initial roster might’ve had poor chemistry, James has shown the ability in the past to carry teams to the NBA Finals that had no business advancing in the post-season without his presence.

Meanwhile, James Harden is enjoying a career year in a “Beard-friendly” offense that allows him to chuck threes at will while continuing to draw fouls in the paint. There was no question that Russell Westbrook was deserving of last season’s MVP award, but with Harden finishing second there could be sentiment among voters that his time has come.

Winner: Harden

Conclusion

James Harden has taken yet another step forward this season and his team has reaped the benefits. Despite being a storied franchise, the Houston Rockets have never won 60 games until now and they are 57-12 (.826) in Harden’s starts compared to 6-3 (.667) without him. Both statistics and non-quantifiable factors support his claim to the NBA MVP award this season.

Although this comparison resulted in a clean sweep for Harden, LeBron James still merits being listed among the finalists for this season’s award, and his contributions shouldn’t be overlooked at this stage of his illustrious career.

Mike Yaffe is a staff writer for basketballinsiders.com. Although his jumper is flat, he makes up for it with moxie in the paint.

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