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NBA Sunday: A Third MVP Candidate Rising?

As impressive as Kevin Durant and LeBron James have been this season, James Harden also deserves to be in the MVP discussion … Are Indiana and Miami vulnerable?

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A Third MVP Candidate Rising?

The NBA’s Most Valuable Player trophy is almost always a topic of protracted discussion among sports fans. Sometimes there is one player who is so dominant that there is little room for discussion, but over the last couple of seasons it has really come down to just two names: Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant and Miami HEAT forward LeBron James. There is another player, however, who is making an awfully strong case that he should be in that conversation.

Last season, the Houston Rockets made their triumphant return to postseason play, winning 11 more games than they had the previous season due largely to the contributions of trade acquisition James Harden. Harden took the NBA by storm last season, proving himself to be the best shooting guard in the game, but he was not mentioned in the MVP discussion because Durant’s Thunder and James’ HEAT were among the best teams in the NBA. Of course, both Durant and James had All-Star teammates to aid their cause, which was not true of Harden.

Over the summer, Rockets GM Daryl Morey pulled out all the stops in an effort to get Harden the elite help he needed, and he was successful in landing Dwight Howard, the top free agent on the market. With Howard in place to help shoulder some of the load, Harden has flourished. A foot injury slowed him somewhat over the first half of the season, though he played through it, but since the All-Star break Harden has been as good as any other player in the NBA, including James and Durant.

Prior to the All-Star break, Harden averaged 23.9 points, 5.3 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game while shooting 45 percent from the line and 33 percent from behind the three-point arc. Since the break, he has been even better, pouring in 26.8 points to go with 6.5 assists and 4.3 rebounds and shooting 49 percent overall and 44 percent from three.

More importantly, after barely squeaking into the playoffs last season, Harden’s Rockets are now a top-four team in the West and must be seen as possible contenders.

The MVP in the NBA is most likely to be a former teammate of Harden’s. Durant is having a season for the ages, and has kept the Thunder at or near the top of the league even when playing without All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook. James will also be a strong candidate, and his dominance on both ends of the court is one of the primary reasons the HEAT are expected to repeat as NBA champions. Still, Harden has pushed the Rockets back into contention, and his nightly contributions should at least get him into the discussion when the time comes to vote for MVP.

Here are some facts that show just how impressive Harden has been this season:

Harden leads all NBA shooting guards in points per game, player efficiency rating, win shares and clutch scoring.

Along with James, Harden is the only other player in the NBA on pace to finish the 2013-14 season with averages of at least 24.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.50 steals.

Harden is the only player in Rockets history to win Player of the Week honors in consecutive weeks within a single season.

Harden became just the fourth player since the NBA started tracking steals in 1973-74 to have at least 40 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and six steals in a game, joining NBA legends Julius Erving, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.

Harden is the only other Rockets player besides Hall-of-Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler to record at least 40 points, eight assists and three steals in a game since 1985-86.

Harden is so efficient at getting to the free throw line that he made NBA history by becoming the first player ever to register 27 points on two or fewer field goals made.

Harden became just the third player to score at least 3,000 points in his first 120 games played with the Rockets, joining Hall-of-Famer Elvin Hayes and two-time NBA scoring champion Tracy McGrady.

Harden became the first Houston player to score at least 37 points in three consecutive games since Rockets legend Hakeem Olajuwon did it back in 1994-95.

Harden tied for the most first-quarter points in Rockets history with 22 at Sacramento (2/25/14).

Harden finished a career-best 22-of-25 from the stripe, tying the Rockets single-game record for free throws made set by Sleepy Floyd, who went 22-of-27 vs. Golden State (2/3/91).

Should Harden be in the MVP conversation? Leave your thoughts in the comment section.

Is the East in Play?

For most of the 2013-14 NBA season, the Eastern Conference has been a two-team race. The Indiana Pacers and Miami HEAT have been cutting through their peers like a hot knife through butter, making a re-match of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals seem inevitable. More recently, however, the East has gotten more interesting, and there might be cause for the Pacers and HEAT to re-think their quick trip through the first two rounds of the playoffs.

As dominant as Miami has been for much of the season, over the last few weeks they have looked very beatable. They have won just five of their 11 games in March, and while some of those losses were to very good teams in San Antonio and Houston, they have also coughed up some against non-playoff teams like Denver and Boston. Granted, LeBron James didn’t play in the loss to Boston, but the HEAT should be able to clean up the lottery-bound Celtics even without James. Miami is 18th in the NBA in scoring during March, averaging just 102.2 points per game; they have also slipped to 11th in the league in opponent’s point per game, yielding 103.9 per contest.

Is the trend we’re seeing from Miami an indication that they are not prepared to defend their second consecutive championship? That might be premature to say. The HEAT have shown an ability to simply turn it on when they need to and take care of most opposing teams easily. Still, they are not peaking at the right time, as we see the San Antonio Spurs doing in the West. It’s possible that Miami could be vulnerable come playoff time.

The Pacers aren’t faring much better, and if it weren’t for Miami’s struggles they would likely be out of the East’s top spot. Indiana has lost nearly one-third of their losses for the entire season in the last 10 games, and they have really been struggling since they made a bold move at the trade deadline.

Danny Granger was little more than a highly-paid cheerleader for Indiana as they made their run to the Eastern Conference Finals last season. When he finally returned to the court this season, he was a shadow of the player who lead Indiana back to prominence in the East. When the Pacers had a chance to land a young talent with potential in Evan Turner, it made sense to add another weapon to their second unit. Lavoy Allen also came over in the deal, and the Pacers also added Andrew Bynum after he was dismissed by the Chicago Bulls.

Unfortunately, Turner has struggled to transition his game from the lottery-bound 76ers to the championship-hopeful Pacers. The move to Indiana changed his role from at-will shooter and starter to reserve who has to pick his spots. As a result, he’s averaging just 8.5 points per game and struggling to fit into the winning culture. The addition of Bynum initially yielded positive results in terms of the box score, but the overall play of the team is not better when Bynum is on the court. He has never been a player who put the team first or impressed anyone with his work ethic, and on top of that his arrival sends a mixed message to starter Roy Hibbert, who is known to be somewhat fragile emotionally. Also, Bynum is now out indefinitely as he deals with swelling and pain in his knee. It’s not hard to see how a very controlled, culture-based team like Indiana is struggling to integrate these new pieces and regain their form.

Is there really reason for concern for the two teams that have been the East’s elite from the opening tip of the 2013-14 season? Certainly not in the first round, but if the Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls or perhaps the Brooklyn Nets get hot the second round, things could get very interesting.

NBA Chat with Bill Ingram

In case you missed my last NBA chat, find it by clicking here! You can also go ahead and submit a question for this week’s chat, which you can find here! I make an effort to answer every non-repeat question, and early questions are virtually guaranteed to be answered, so drop yours in now!

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Bill Ingram is a Senior NBA Analyst for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA since 1998.

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