NBA Daily: James Harden’s Complicated Case for MVP

James Harden proclaimed himself to be this season’s MVP. While his numbers have been astronomical since arriving in Brooklyn, his ugly exit from Houston must be factored into the final outcome of the MVP race.

Chad Smith profile picture
Sports Editor
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Every young basketball player dreams of making it to the NBA one day. After achieving that goal, the great ones then focus on the Larry O’Brien Trophy in hopes of becoming a champion. The greatest individual accolade they can earn is the regular season Most Valuable Player Award. This season, the race for the Maurice Podoloff Trophy has been incredible, with many deserving players vying for the award.

Brooklyn Nets star James Harden made headlines last week when asked if he thought he was in the conversation for the MVP this year. After scoring 44 points against the Detroit Pistons on Friday, Harden’s statement could not have been more clear. “Do I feel like I belong in it? I feel like I am the MVP,” Harden said. “I mean, it’s just that simple.”

There is no denying that Harden is putting up insane numbers for the Nets, who continue to cruise through their schedule. Brooklyn has won 19 of their last 22 games, essentially without Kevin Durant. Harden has already tied the Nets’ single-season record with 12 triple-doubles and it only took him 33 games. He is averaging 26.1 points, 8.2 rebounds and 11.2 assists per game this season.

Harden’s numbers with the Nets are even more impressive when you consider that his usage rate has gone from 36.5 a year ago to 32.1 this season. He currently ranks 19th in the league after trailing only Luka Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo last season. During his MVP-winning season, he led the league with a 35.9 usage rate.

Having Durant and Kyrie Irving has helped bring that number down but Irving has been in and out of the lineup all season and Durant’s last game came before Valentine’s Day. The fact is this Nets team is much deeper and the offensive system is vastly different than everything he had in Houston.

This is where Harden’s case for the MVP gets foggy.

Brooklyn was a championship-caliber team well before Harden arrived. His addition to the team moved them to the clear favorite to win the Eastern Conference. After adding Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge via the buyout market, the Nets became the first team in league history to acquire three players with five or more All-Star selections during a season.

Last night in a game against his former Houston Rockets team, Harden suffered a hamstring injury that forced him to miss the rest of the game. The Nets trailed by 18 points early in the game, then stormed back to win after Harden’s exit. The win moved Brooklyn to the top of the Eastern Conference standings, a place they haven’t been since April of the 2002-03 season.

The first eight games that Harden played this season were in a Rockets jersey. Though he made his intentions very clear before the season even began, Houston was reluctant to trade their franchise player. It was an uncomfortable time for both sides, but Harden’s behavior was far from professional.

After entering training camp completely out of shape, the three-time scoring champion was critical of his teammates and was clearly frustrated with his situation. Houston had no choice but to move on as they sent him to Brooklyn as part of a four-team trade. In the end, Harden got his wish but it left a scar on his reputation.

The list of accomplishments for Harden is a long one. The nine-time All-Star has led the league in assists and scoring (three times) in addition to being named to the All-NBA team seven times. He won the Sixth Man Award in 2011-12 and of course the regular season MVP during the 2017-18 season. The one glaring omission is a championship, which is one of the main reasons why he wanted to go to Brooklyn.

Often labeled as the greatest offensive player the league has ever seen, Harden was given everything he ever desired in Houston. The franchise crafted their entire team around him. They surrounded him with role players that fit exactly what he wanted. Kevin McHale was fired after he and Harden didn’t see eye-to-eye. The organization went out of its way to defend him against the media, other teams and even filed complaints against the league.

After eight full seasons with the Rockets, Harden thanked them by reducing them to rubble. His actions and lack of professionalism since the end of last season have put that franchise in a dark place. Houston is arguably the worst team in the league and has a first-year head coach trying to lead a group of misfit toys in an unknown direction.

While not all of this is Harden’s fault, the majority of it lies on his shoulders. A significant component of being the MVP is lifting your teammates through adversity. Before his unceremonious exit in Houston, Harden did the exact opposite of that. This should factor into the equation at some point.

Denver Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic currently has the best odds of winning the MVP this season, according to Caesars Sportsbook. He is the only player in the league that ranks inside the top five in points, assists, rebounds and steals. Without Jokic the Nuggets might miss the playoffs. Without Harden, the Nets are still a top-three team in the East.

While Harden ran from adversity, Damian Lillard has embraced it. He has thrived this season as injuries depleted the rest of Portland’s roster. He and Antetokounmpo have been shouldering heavy loads for their respective teams and continue to be two of the most loyal players in the game today.

Donovan Mitchell is having a career year as the Utah Jazz have the best record in the league. Durant, Joel Embiid and LeBron James were all once at the head of the table but have been sidelined with injuries, which has broadened the field even more. Doncic, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul and Kawhi Leonard are several other names to monitor going forward.

While the extent of Harden’s injury is yet to be determined, it is likely that he will miss some more time as the season winds down. Then there is the factor of Durant returning to the lineup. The Nets are still his team and he will surely let that be known when he returns to the court.

No player has ever won the MVP in the same year that they were traded. If the NBA media votes correctly, that will remain true after this season. If Harden were to perform at this same level next season, there is no doubt that he would be deserving of winning the award. But to completely ignore the first month of the season as though it didn’t exist would be rather ignorant.

By the time the media votes for the MVP, 15-20 percent of Harden’s 2020-21 season will have come in a Rockets jersey. After losing to the Lakers in which he scored 16 points on 5 of 16 shooting, Harden said the rest of the team was not good enough. He quit on the teammates and organization that had put him on a pedestal for nearly a decade.

The discontent, the strip clubs, the press conference, the angry exit from Houston cannot simply be erased with a neuralyzer from the Men In Black movies. Harden has certainly been playing like the MVP in Brooklyn but the reason why he is there may actually prevent him from getting it.

Chad is a Basketball Insiders contributor based in Indianapolis.

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