NBA Sunday: James Harden as Most Valuable Player

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Daryl Morey, ever the gambler, seemingly went from hitting the jackpot to rolling a set of snake-eyes in the NBA’s modern talent arms race.

With LeBron James having announced his intentions to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers to attempt to lead the franchise to their first NBA championship, free agent Chris Bosh, it was believed, was available for the taking.

Not believing they had a serious chance of landing Carmelo Anthony, the Houston Rockets general manager swooped in and, for the second time in four years, attempted to sign Bosh. The addition of Bosh on would have been the necessary precursor to the Rockets matching the three-year, $45 million offer that the Dallas Mavericks extended to restricted free agent Chandler Parsons, so when the Miami HEAT stepped up their offer to Bosh and he re-signed, Morey seemingly went from being on the precipice to finishing building out the core of his championship roster to seemingly having less pieces than he began the summer with.

Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin were traded for cap space and Parsons was lost mainly due to a want to retain the flexibility needed to eventually add the third star that Bosh would have been.

Most people believed that the Rockets lost some major pieces and that a step back was inevitable.

Instead, James Harden has stepped up, and it is he who has emerged as my Most Valuable Player.

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In the immediate aftermath of Parsons’ departure, Dwight Howard declared he and James Harden as “the best center and the best two guard in the game” and famously said that the departure of Parsons  “won’t affect [the Rockets] at all.”

Bold words, to say the least.

What Howard did, in a way, was admirable. His remarks were a fairly transparent attempt to alleviate some of the scrutiny and pressure that Morey had come under after having seemingly struck out on both Anthony and Bosh and having sacrificed Asik, Lin and Parsons in the process.

Harden, Howard’s ally, took his remarks one step further, echoing his center’s sentiments by declaring that he and Howard were “the cornerstones of the Rockets” and that every other player on the team aside from those two were merely “role players” and “pieces.”

As true as that may be, those are not words that are typically spoken. And for the most part, any player with any sort of humility or respect for his teammates would not make such a statement that simultaneously exalts himself while diminishing the status or contributions of his teammates.

Players with less fortitude would shy away from making such comments because they would understand that they themselves would come under immense pressure to not only perform at a high-level, individually, but also to lead the team to wins while doing so.

JamesHarden_Inside1By literally saying that everyone else is a “role player” or a “piece,” Harden told everyone that was listening that he and Howard were enough for the Rockets to remain a competent and credible threat in the Western Conference.

Harden was half-correct. Entering play on March 15, the Rockets are the fourth seed in the Western Conference and trail the second seed by just 2.5 games. What he was correct about is that the Rockets are a competent and credible threat.

What he was incorrect about, was that it would require he and Howard.

It is behind Harden alone that the Rockets have risen.

* * *

If there is one trait that Morey’s teams have somewhat consistently shown since he took over in Houston back in 2007, it was the ability to overachieve. Whether it was Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming’s 2008 team winning 22 straight games, his teams turning in winning records with Kevin Martin, Luis Scola and Kyle Lowry leading the way or his decision to give Harden a maximum contract that the Oklahoma City Thunder were not willing to pay, it seems that Morey has had a pretty consistent track record of assembling pieces that reciprocally enhance one another.

In theory, the partnership between Howard and Harden should be no exception. Howard is a center who, defensively, had superhuman agility and explosive athleticism. His timing and hands are the best the league has seen from any center that has entered the league since, perhaps, Shaquille O’Neal.

But the most amazing thing has been Harden’s ascension and his ability to not only score points, but to galvanize. That he has done this without mostly without Howard, who has missed more than half of the Rockets’ games this season, is unbelievable.

Aside from Howard, several other Rockets have missed considerable time due to injury while many others were incorporated into the team on-the-fly or during the course of the season. It is often understated how difficult it is for a coach to incorporate players who are added late and the burden that can sometimes put on a ball-dominant player to learn the tendencies of newly initiated teammates and how to best play alongside them.

Harden and only five other Rockets have appeared in at least 75 percent of games this season: Trevor Ariza, Donatas Motiejunas, Jason Terry, Joey Dorsey and Patrick Beverley.

Along the way, the team has gotten key contributions from Corey Brewer, Josh Smith and Terrence Jones, but without having been available for the gross majority of the season, the lion’s share of credit for the team’s success belongs to Harden.

On an individual level, his 26.8 points, 7.1 assists, 5.8 rebounds, two steals and 2.5 three-pointers per game all represent career-highs.

He leads the league not only in scoring, but in total minutes played, offensive win shares (9.4) and overall win shares (12.9).

Harden has accomplished this without his team’s second best player and, unlike Stephen Curry, has not shared the court this season with any other player that has appeared in a single All-Star game.

Whether he is the “Most Valuable” player in the NBA in a literal sense is debatable. He is, certainly though, the most improbable.

Harden was never expected to become this dominant of a player and he surely wasn’t perceived as being one capable of elevating a franchise. In the increasingly competitive Western Conference, even with Howard, his Rockets were expected to falter.

Yet, even without Howard, the team is currently on pace to surpass the 54-28 record it turned in last season.

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What is value?

What does it mean to be valuable?

In the plainest meaning of the word, something that is valuable is something that has considerable worth and qualities that make it worthy of being revered or respected.

Over the course of the past 15 years, somewhere between when Allen Iverson was named the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2001 and Steve Nash won the award for the second consecutive year in 2006, we were sold a farce by the basketball media.

Somewhere during that time, we bought into the notion that the success of a team and their win-loss record was directly attributable to the virtues of the team’s best player.

Before 2004, when Kevin Garnett was paired with Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell, his greatness was brought into question because he was unable to lead a set of underwhelming casts to higher heights. Had he never gotten Cassell and Sprewell on his team, it is fair to question whether or not Garnett would have been named the Most Valuable Player in 2004, despite his 24.2 points, 13.9 rebounds, five assists, 2.2 blocks and 1.5 steals per game on 49 percent shooting from the field.

If, instead of finishing with the top record in the Western Conference that season, Garnett accomplished those same numbers but somehow only led the Timberwolves to 52 wins, the notion that he would somehow have been less valuable is ridiculous.

Winning is important, but the tying of winning to the question of how valuable a player is to his team or around the league is a product of the subjectivity that has become a part of the NBA’s annual end of season awards.

Perhaps intentionally so, the league has never attempted to establish guidelines or criteria for what it means to be valuable, so the result is that the panel of 124 voters that make this decision have attempted to apply some objectivity to a subjective standard. While it makes perfect sense from a logistical standpoint, the danger with such an approach is that the player who truly is the most valuable or most deserving of the anointment is overlooked for reasons beyond his control.

The question that must often be answered is when and to what extent an amazing individual performance should trump team success, or lack thereof.

On one hand, Stephen Curry has emerged as the best player on the best team, while on the other, it is Russell Westbrook who is accomplishing triple-double feats that the league has not seen in nearly 30 years.

Harden, in a way, is the best of both worlds. On both an individual level and in terms of team success, the improbability with which he has led the Rockets merits special respect.

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There is something admirable about a player who is willing to talk the talk and put himself in the line of fire. There is even more to be said of one lives up to his words.

Almost eighth months ago, when Harden was echoing the sentiments originally stated by Howard, he surely imagined being flanked by the dominant center.

Even without him, Harden has admirably led the Rockets toward the top of the conference and is on pace to become the first player in NBA history to average 26 points, five rebounds, seven assists and 2.5 made three-pointers per game.

There are many words one can use to describe him this season: amazing, excellent, motivated and awe-inspiring come to mind.

But having accomplished all of this without Howard and with a less-than-stellar supporting cast, to me, “most valuable” seems most appropriate.