“MVP and he’ll lead us to the finals…”
Those were the words of Houston Rockets guard Patrick Beverley in pre-season regarding James Harden’s upcoming year.
Are those expectations high? Perhaps. After all, Steph Curry and LeBron James are chasing records. The former could be only the third player to win three MVP awards in a row, meanwhile LeBron could equal Michael Jordan with five – one shy of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s six (a NBA high).
So where does Harden fit in? What’s his motivation and why will voters opt for him over the aforementioned?
Harden was infamously snubbed for the 2015 MVP award after dragging the Rockets to a Conference final in a season where their squad was, arguably, at its very weakest. His single-handed quality, dropping 28ppg/8apg/5rpg, attracted voters.
But what attracted them more was the fairytale story of the Golden State Warriors and, in particular, the league’s new three-point-shooting sensation Steph Curry. A travesty, sure, but it proved that narrative plays an important part in the voting process for the MVP.
If narrative is, as proven in the past, a serious facet of the voting process, then this may very well be the year of ‘The Beard’. It has been three years of consecutive play-offs with Harden as the franchise player at the Rockets – prior to his arrival, they had undergone two barren years of no basketball post the regular season.
He has this tradition of genuinely carrying a below-par side; this year, the voters asleep will awaken.
Because the argument against Harden has always been this: he cannot play defence – he commits too many turnovers. But these turnovers are born from having all of the team’s play channelled through his hands for a minimum of 80 games per season.
What difference is three or four turnovers per game when the majority of his time on the ball culminates in a clutch three-pointer or an alley-oop assist?
Make no mistake, Harden should be defending at a higher level. But so should his team-mates. The Beard cannot afford to focus on defense if there is no other teammate willing to put up some numbers on offence while he is contributing on the other side of the court.
But this season, the argument of defence may no longer exist. And with no argument toward his candidacy for MVP, Harden could take the award from the hands of Curry and James.
Improvements via D’Antoni
The summer of 2016. Enter Mike D’Antoni – surely the best coach on offence in the league. A man known for improving the way teams space the floor, which is exactly what the Rockets guard needs.
It’s important to emphasise “guard”, too, since D’Antoni’s first action was to move Harden, permanently, to point guard. What this does is it forces Harden to defend against opposition stars such as Curry, Russell Westbrook, Mike Conley etc.
“He’s got a lot more responsibilities as a point guard. A playcaller, a good basketball mind, he’s already telling guys we can do this, we can do that” – Mike D’Antoni
His previous position of shooting guard allowed him to slack on defence and often sit on the wings, awaiting the opposition to score before he begins to move up the court.
Harden will be forced to play defence now – that’s perfect for him. Why? Think of the aforementioned narrative. There will be no more argument to his name; he’ll be a bonafide superstar who showed that, regardless of status and ego, he’s willing to sacrifice some points on offence to mark a dent in the opposition’s field goal percentage.
The NBA is all about numbers. And it’s those numbers that, unequivocally, make up the bulk of the voting decisions in the run-up for MVP. So let’s take a look at Harden’s numbers last season:
- 82 games played
The Beard may have broken the record for most turnovers in an NBA season, but this is something that moving to point guard will correct. Because there is a stronger reliance upon defending, Harden will shift the ball and dribble with more intelligence.
That should, in theory, reduce his turnovers per game – the one true hindrance of his candidacy for MVP.
7.5 assists per game is a monster number for a shooting guard whose job is to hoard points for his team rather than dish the ball. Houston’s number 13 is now a point guard; this means more passes which equals more assists. 6.1 rebounds per game without playing defence? That too will improve.
It’s simply inconceivable that Harden’s numbers will not increase.
He could very well average a triple-double by the end of the season because, let’s face it, he will always record a superstar level of points. Only one player has ever recorded a season-long average of a triple-double. That man was Larry Bird. And that man went on to win MVP by a landslide.
If narrative and numbers make up two of the three pillars of voting, then seeding is the third. Essentially, no player bar Michael Jordan has ever won the MVP award without finishing as a top four seed in their conference.
This is the one true worry for Harden: are the Rockets good enough to take top four in their conference? Last season they put up a miserable 41 wins and 41 losses which saw them scrape into the play-offs via the eighth seed. If Harden is to tick the ‘seeding’ box, then he has to improve the Rockets by 13 wins. Is that do-able? Most certainly.
There was a lot of unhappiness in the Rockets’ backroom after the sacking of Kevin McHale and appointment of interim coach JB Bickerstaff.
The players had no tactical instructions – play was largely concocted out of nothing rather than through intelligent coaching. Add to that the brewing rivalry between Harden and team-mate Dwight Howard – a period which saw Harden refuse to pass to the big man while the latter refused to play the pick-and-roll.
This affected the Rockets’ record. With bad apple Howard ousted – subsequently shifted to the Atlanta Hawks – and D’Antoni arriving as a coach with ideas and a solid foundation to build upon, there will be no negative or average record.
D’Antoni’s main concern this year was to improve the shooters around Harden, essentially making it easier for him to grab assists.
With Eric Gordon and Ryan Andersen joining as potent three-point shooters, and Clint Capela proving to be an improved post-scorer, the Rockets will score more points than ever before. And this is a side that, for three years running, has registered more points than any other side in the league.
In the regular season, defence matters not if you can blow out opposition on offence. But the Rockets have shown in pre-season that defence is something they have most definitely improved upon.
From an offence standpoint, ‘Clutch Nation’ have also proven themselves as reliable scorers even when Harden is not on the court. Against a strong Memphis side in pre-season, Houston’s bench registered 90 points. None of which were scored or assisted by Harden.
The key to winning MVP is not solely down to self-improvement; the team around you also has to perform. So is 13 extra wins achievable, all things considered? Yes. In fact, it would not be a surprise if they registered even more.
Wrapping things up…
This is the best side surrounding Harden in a long while. It may very well be first time that the beloved “Fear The Beard” quote comes to life and dominates the NBA.
Harden is a sleeper hit for the award, but one that unequivocally ticks all the boxes. Forget Curry and LeBron, this is 2017’s MVP.