Tag Archives: LeBron James

LeBron James and Michael Jordan

Is LeBron James a better player than Michael Jordan?

LeBron versus Michael. King James vs Air Jordan. Current great vs the greatest ever?

It’s a question that basketball fans will never tire of debating, but as LeBron James edges closer to rounding off his 15th season in the NBA, which matches Michael Jordan’s career total, it has has never been more relevant. So is LeBron the better overall player?

Let’s say you had first pick in a fantasy game against your boss for a big promotion; who are you picking Jordan or LeBron? I’m picking LeBron every single time, and I’m about to give my reasons why.

Firstly, one of the reasons this debate is so hard to settle is that Jordan played a different position to James, so we’re going to look at some stats on the fundamentals but seeing as we’re talking about positions, it’s only right that this is thrown out there first.

Although LeBron is a forward, he plays every position in the game more than proficiently, Jordan on the other hand and as versatile as he was, was more of an outfield player and would have never been able to hold his own beyond the small forward role. I know that’s not a proven fact – so sue me…

With the help of Basketball-Reference.com, let’s look at some of their regular season stats:

Field Goal percentage: Of course, Jordan was more than an efficient shooter, but James’ record has the slight edge with James hitting 50.4% of his career shots while Jordan retired at 49.7%.

Assists: This is another vital part of the game where LeBron has the edge. James is well-known for his passing ability, as we mentioned earlier he plays every position of the game more than proficiently, and despite being a small forward he averages 7.2 assistants per game, the highest for a small forward in NBA history and higher than Jordan’s 5.3 average.

Rebounding: Thanks majorly to his height and size advantage, James has a significant edge over Jordan when it comes to defensive rebounds, sitting on 7.3 to Jordan’s 6.2. It is worth noting, though, that Jordan has a slight edge over James when it came to offensive rebounding.

Three-point percentage: Despite not being the strongest part of James’ game and something he is often critiqued for, he is a deadlier three-point shooter than Jordan ever was. James is currently sitting on a 34.3% average while Jordan retired at 32.7%.

Triple Doubles: Although this isn’t really a stat that should decide who a better player is, it definitely helps illustrate the dominance on a court a player possesses to be able to post double figures across a combination of three key stats – points, rebounds, assists, blocks or steals. James sits on 71 so far in his career while Jordan retired on 28.

Now let’s look at some post-season stats:

Play-off win shares: This stat is one of the stats that illustrate how detailed stats get in the NBA today. It’s an estimate of how many play-off wins a player is individually accountable for with a combination of points, assists blocks, steals etc.…considered.

LeBron has a significant edge over Jordan on this one, with him currently on 45.8 while Jordan retired at 39.8. James and Jordan hold the top two spots for this stat in NBA history which makes James the only player to ever reach and breach 40.

Finals reached: Not only has LeBron reached two more finals than Jordan already with eight to Jordan’s six, it is also worth noting that LeBron has been to six finals consecutively while Jordan only managed three in a row. LeBron is also more than likely to reach a few more finals before he retires which – at the age of 33 – is looking like a long way off.

Play-off assists: Despite how often in the playoffs LeBron has had to carry his team on his back and produce most of the points, he maintains his regular season ability to elevate his team means and produce good scoring opportunities for them averaging 6.9 assists per game in the playoffs to Jordan’s retired average of 5.7.

Play-off rebounding: Like in the regular season, James’ rebound average takes the cake over Jordan’s in the play-offs with 8.8 to Jordan’s 6.4. The fact it is more significant in the post-season also shows how LeBron levels up when more is on the line.

Play-off triple doubles: Again, not a stat that says James is a better player but one that highlights how much more versatile his game is to post double numbers across 3 key stats in the game. LeBron’s playoff triple double total of 19 again goes beyond eclipsing that of Jordan who retired with 2 playoff triple doubles.

Play-off blocks: I will never forget when the Miami Heat faced the San Antonio in game two of the 2013 NBA Finals, and 6ft 10in Spurs big guy, Tiago Splitter took flight for an open windmill dunk finish in the paint only for LeBron to pop up out of nowhere to stop the ball mid-air with such power it nearly floored his opponent.

Besides saving them conceding the points, the show of sheer dominance boosted Miami’s morale, and they went on to win the game 103–100. Such is the importance of this defensive part of the game which again LeBron takes the edge over Jordan with 209 to 158.

Strong argument

With all these stats in mind, and LeBron’s clear dominance in terms of versatility all-round, it should be clear why I choose LeBron every time as my all-time best basketball player.

Most individuals on the Jordan side of this debate base their argument on finals record which yes Jordan is six for six while LeBron is currently on three of eight.

‘Of course, all the stats in the world can’t prove that LeBron is a better player than Jordan as it’s impossible to know how they would have faired up against each other’

It’s a fairly strong argument, but don’t get lost in the sauce and fail to notice that LeBron has reached two more finals than Jordan did in his career. And this needs to be put into the context of the much harder competition he faces in today’s game, with majority of teams looking like contenders.

LeBron has also never played with a team as strong the ones Jordan played on.

I know the Jordan torch-bearers will read this and still say ‘Yes, but he still has more rings than LeBron’.

But if it was down to the number of rings, then LeBron’s and Jordan’s combined total don’t even add up to Bill Russell’s, who won 11 championships in his 13 years with the Boston Celtics.

Of course, all the stats in the world can’t prove that LeBron is a better player than Jordan as it’s impossible to know how they would have faired up against each other.

But they definitely show that LeBron, in many aspects of the game beats Jordan and is the better all-round player and for me, the guy who will win me that promotion my tight boss is making me play for!

Drafts and trades v transfers

When Neymar joined Paris St-Germain from Barcelona in the summer for just less than £200m, it was reported his annual salary would be approximately £28m.

PSG paid out plenty to secure an established world-class talent, but in America, pro sports franchises pay top dollar to sign rookie players straight out of college.

Markelle Fultz of the Washington Huskies university team was the number one pick in this year’s NBA Draft.

He will earn a maximum of $33,727,701 over the course his first contract with the Philadelphia 76ers, including $15,366,120 guaranteed during his first two years.

All that cash for a promising talent who only played one season for the Huskies and may not have what it takes to become a consistent elite-level performer in the NBA.

Welcome to the world of US sport, where money is spent on wages, not transfer fees.

Drafting talent

It’s a strangely egalitarian world, too, given the rampant capitalism which characterises most other walks of American life.

In the NBA and NFL draft system, for example, the previous season’s bottom team get first pick of the potential superstars produced by the US college system.

In reality, teams often trade early picks for more in later rounds of the draft. But in theory, the very best player could join the very worst franchise (according to last season’s standings).

It’s all about balance and trying to avoid one team dominating for years on end, but the other key thing to note is money – as in player transfers – is simply not a factor.

The draft system, in which (technically) amateur athletes join professional teams, sees most of those millions of dollars invested in player contracts and salaries.

The same goes for trades between clubs for established players. Cash rarely changes hands; it’s all about swapping one talent for another (or in some cases several others).

 Level playing field

The biggest trade of the NBA off-season saw Isaiah Thomas signed by Cleveland from Boston, with Kyrie Irving going in the opposite direction (much to his displeasure).

Boston reportedly agreed to give Cleveland a second-round pick in the 2020 draft to seal the deal. Thomas remained on a $30m-a-year deal, with Irving keeping his $20m annual salary.

In football, such exchanges are extremely rare, and even when they do happen usually involve player+cash (or more likely cash+makeweight player).

And any highly-prized footballer in the prime of his career would be looking for a salary upgrade when agreeing to be transferred – and possibly a bonus for signing in the first place.

Supporters of the American system argue it does its job by keeping the playing field relatively level in terms of team strength – although there will still be ‘dynasty’ franchises that rule the roost for several seasons.

The Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers have both dominated in the NBA in recent decades, while the NFL’s New England Patriots have won five Super Bowls since 2001.

Education

Proponents of the draft system also claim it encourages young players to get a college education as they seek a career in professional sports. For every player who ‘makes it’, dozens fall by the wayside, and others who join the pro ranks find their careers are short-lived.

‘When they are released – as the vast majority are – they are ill-equipped to cope with life outside of football’

So gaining a degree, the argument goes, gives those individuals an alternative career to pursue if their dream of playing professionally fails to become a reality.

In truth, the pressure is on young players to turn pro as soon as possible – and maximise their earning potential.

In recognition of this, the NBA now stipulates that they only have to wait a year before becoming eligible for the draft – and don’t even have to attend college in that period.

LeBron James, arguably the game’s biggest star, joined his hometown team Cleveland in the 2003 draft without spending anytime at university.

Released

Footballers are often part of the youth set-up at a professional club from a very young age and work their way through its age-group teams until – if they are one of the chosen few – they are offered a professional contract. More often, they are devastated to find they are not being offered one.

Although education is a mandatory part of their life as young players, critics claim being involved with clubs from early childhood encourages unrealistic expectations that they are already on the path to success, fame and riches, leading them to effectively switch off from gaining qualifications.

So when they are released – as the vast majority are – they are ill-equipped to cope with life outside of football, and many are at risk of mental health problems or going off the rails.

When it comes to young players being transferred for vast sums of money, the pressure on them to justify their new club’s outlay is immense – and sometimes damaging to their career.

Pros and cons

So which system works best overall?

In theory, football’s transfer system rewards clubs for developing young talent, or getting the best out of players.

‘Since the Premier League was launched in the 1992-93 season, it has been won by just six teams’

For smaller ones, selling players to bigger clubs offers a lifeline that may be the difference between financial stability and going out of business.

The risk – and reality – is that the very best players tend to end up at the biggest, best-supported and wealthiest clubs, and those clubs form a self-perpetuating elite which tend to win all the titles and trophies.

Is it that different in the US? In the NBA, only five teams have won more than three championships since the league began in 1947. On the other hand, those five account for 70% of the titles, with the Boston Celtics leading the way with 17, closely followed by the Lakers on 16.

However, eight different teams have won the NBA since 2000. In the NFL, the title has been secured by 12 different franchises since the turn of the century.

Since the Premier League was launched in the 1992-93 season, it has been won by just six teams.

So maybe there’s something in the thinking behind the US system after all…

Elephant Sport’s NBA Quarterly Report – Pt. 3

As we home in on the final months of the season, it’s clear that this NBA campaign has been one of sheer unpredictability. Perhaps not at the top of either the Western or Eastern conferences, but certainly elsewhere.

The trade deadline saw one of the biggest moves in recent memory, while other teams reinforced smartly ahead of the play-offs.

Without further ado…

Best Team: Boston Celtics

It’s bewildering how far the Celtics have come in such a short period of time.

At the start of the season, they were struggling to find consistency with Isaiah Thomas’ brilliance being tossed away by under-performing team-mates.

At this point, the Celtics are the best team in the NBA, not just a surprise package.

They are the only team that can step to the Cleveland Cavaliers in both the regular season, and the play-offs. They have offered the Eastern Conference, as well as neutrals, the hope of an upset in the road to the Finals.

32511863765_176da0e9e5_b
Little Isaiah floats a shot against 7ft Marcin Gortat

Thomas’ electrifying form is infectious, and has clearly spread to those around him.

Jae Crowder looks a man possessed, while Jaylen Brown is making a case for being one of the standout performers in his age-bracket.

Coach Brad Stevens has yet to manage a play-off game, so it will be interesting to see how his youthfulness and hunger translates to the biggest stage.

As of right now, his progression has been impeccable. Not only has he got the Celtics in 2nd place, two wins behind the Cavs, but he already has an All-Star game under his belt.

GM Danny Ainge’s reluctance to make a trade at the deadline could hurt this team in the play-offs, especially since their interior defence is non-existent.

But the percentages they are currently shooting at could see them blow out any team on any given day.

Worst Team: Brooklyn Nets

One has to wonder if copy and pasting part two of this quarterly report would suffice in this section. But, somehow, the Nets have worsened.

Not only did they make no significant push at the trade deadline, they allowed 3-point shooting maverick Bojan Bogdanovic to move to Washington for next-to-nothing.

Without a shooting presence, and an underperforming Jeremy Lin and Brook Lopez, the Nets look nailed on for one of the worst NBA season records of all-time.

They were 8-33 when the previous report was written. 21 games later, they have only won two more. And only three of their wins have come in their own conference.

The Nets look a dishevelled franchise. Broken, unfixable and unwatchable. New York has become devoid of any team worth shouting over.

Most Improved Team: Washington Wizards

Not only are the Wizards the most improved team, they’re undoubtedly the most entertaining.

A backcourt comprised of John Wall and Bradley Beal has become one of the most talked about partnerships this season. Electrifying and productive in the clutch, these two have a genuine chance at making the conference finals this year.

Thunder at Wizards 2/1/14
John Wall prepares to shoot a free-throw

They’re third in the conference, boasting 17 wins in their last 23 games. In the first quarterly report, we had them down as one of the most disappointing teams.

Right now, they look unstoppable. Whether that be going toe-to-toe with the Warriors and beating them, or taking the Cavs to overtime, the Wizards look like the real deal.

Wall is posting up career highs in points, assists and 3pt percentages. Likewise, Beal. Around them is a team made up of hot shooters and workhorses.

Otto Porter Jr. has the best 3pt shooting percentages in the entire league – yes, higher than Steph Curry and James Harden.

Kelly Oubre Jr. looks to be developing into a future star of this league, meanwhile Markief Morris is doing all the dirty work at both ends.

With the smart acquisition of Bogdanovic at the deadline, the Wizards have become even more of a sharpshooting team. This could be the key to any play-off upset.

Most Improved Player: Nikola Jokic

Nikola Jokic has gone from the typical brutish European centre to a player of immense, unplayable quality. He’s posted up multiple triple-doubles in the last 20 games, driving the Denver Nuggets from mediocrity to a near-lock for that 8th place play-off position.

He’s one of the league leaders in assists, and one of the most proficient passers around. A playmaking maverick, a rebounding machine and a point-hoarder, Jokic is utterly phenomenal.

Despite his bulk and height, he moves elegantly and to a level that we have never seen in the NBA. If there’s one player who deserves this award at the end of the season, it’s Jokic. From complete unknown to one of the hottest names around.

Best Trade: DeMarcus Cousins to New Orleans Pelicans

I wanted to avoid the blockbuster move as much as I could, since I feel as though Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker to the Toronto Raptors is the move that most improves a team and equips them best for a play-off push.

But it’s DeMarcus Cousins. Moving away from the team where he’s spent his entire career and joining former college team-mate Anthony Davis.

This move was mind-blowing for the NBA. Not only do the Pelicans now have the two best big-men in the league, they undoubtedly have all the potential in the world to bring a ring to New Orleans.

644678762-e1488288135258
DeMarcus and Davis, reunited

Rebounding has long been an issue for Championship winners in the past; with the Warriors for example it’s been their Achilles heel this year.

The Rockets have the same problem; the Cavs sometimes struggle… the list goes on.

The Pelicans not only succeed in that area, they thrive and feed off it. Second-chance points are their best friend. If they can sneak into the play-offs this year, expect this blockbuster trade to upset the biggest of teams.

If not, they’re set to be the most anticipated team to watch for next season.

If they can acquire the right pieces to place around this titanic, unplayable frontcourt, they’re legitimate contenders next season.

Surprise Package: Miami Heat

The Miami Heat traded off Dwayne Wade in the summer, effectively leaving their team devoid of star quality. But the players who were nothing more than good, have now become great.

Heat at Wizards 11/19/16
Hassan Whiteside contests a call

After a shoddy start to the season, where they were rooted to the bottom of the conference for 30 straight games, the Heat are now one win from a play-off spot.

How they achieved such a feat is tough to explain. They registered a 13-game win streak – the longest we’ve seen this season from any team – including victories over the Warriors, Rockets and Cavaliers.

 

With the hustle, rebounding and blocking of Hassan Whiteside, the Heat are always a scrappy team to play against.

They’re physical and rough, with emphasis placed on bullying opposition teams off the court.

But, beyond that physicality, is a gorgeous style of play within their ball movement.

Players like Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters are facilitators of the highest order, creating space on the court, knocking down 3’s from improbable range and finding Whiteside in the paint for easy points.

This trio have brutalised opposition and dragged the Heat from misery to magnificence. It will be interesting to see how this young, untested team can cope in the play-offs, if they make it.

Offensive Play of the 3rd quarter:

Watch as LeBron James forces an entertaining game vs the Wizards into overtime with one of the craziest shots we’ve seen all season:

YouTube Preview Image

Defensive Play of the 3rd quarter: 

LeBron’s so good, he becomes the first player in our reports to be awarded offensive and defensive play in the same quarter. This chasedown block on Courtney Lee is stunning:

YouTube Preview Image

Elephant Sport’s NBA Quarterly Report – Pt 1

With every team in the NBA having reached a minimum 20 games, we have arrived at the second quarter of the regular season.

The first was enthralling, unpredictable and offered up many exciting moments. Elephant Sport breaks it down into some fun categories.

Best Team: Golden State Warriors

ccurry
Curry lets fly from three-point range

It’s hard to look past the Golden State Warriors for this one. Despite losing their opening game to the San Antonio Spurs, and then suffering defeat to the Los Angeles Lakers a few days later, many were quick to attribute issues of chemistry to this Warriors side.

After all, this was the team to beat prior to the season. But how do elite teams bounce back? By winning. Golden State went one step further, though.

They swatted each and every single opponent out of their sight, notching a streak of 12 wins before falling to the Houston Rockets on their 20th match. They are currently nurturing a 17-3 record.

Kevin Durant and Steph Curry, contrary to popular belief prior to the season, have grown a strong on-court bond together.

The former is posting up career-highs in every single department – not least of which, points. Meanwhile Curry has embodied the role of facilitator, aptly putting his ego to the side.

Worst Team: Dallas Mavericks

It’s tough to argue against a side who has only won four of their 21 encounters this season. Unfortunately, there have been two teams that have recorded an identical record.

The difference between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Mavericks? The former have at least looked entertaining and have some young stars that are lighting up the league, eg, Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor.

dirk
Dirk’s injury has crippled Dallas

The 76ers have also taken the biggest of teams to overtime and tend to lose by small margins. The Mavs, on the other hand, are completely devoid of any quality.

Dirk Nowitzki – their only star – has been injured for the majority of the season, which has exposed how frail and disappointing the Dallas side is without the 38-year-old.

The most disappointing thing about the Mavericks is that players like Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut – two former NBA champions – have turned in good performances sporadically at best.

Bogut has been inconsistent when protecting the rim and has fouled out twice already this season. Whereas Barnes is failing to dish out assists, averaging only one per game. By having the highest ball-usage on the team, he should be producing more often.

Most Improved Team: Houston Rockets

482px-james_harden_rockets_cropped
Harden is producing his best numbers to date

The Rockets were lambasted in the off-season when they appointed Mike D’Antoni as head coach. This was seen as a signing that would continue to allow the Rockets to play shoddy defence.

But what most seemed to forget was that defence matters very little in the regular season, especially if you can create All-Star numbers on the other end of the court.

But, even then, many punters had the Rockets failing to reach the play-offs once the season ends. As of right now, the Rockets are sitting in fourth place behind only the Spurs, Warriors and Clippers – inarguably the three best teams in the Western Conference.

D’Antoni has assembled a team of cut-throat three-point shooters, including new boys Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon.

With this maximised potential on offence, the Rockets have broken two records already this season: most three-point shots attempted in NBA history (51) and longest streak of three-points made in NBA history (17).

James Harden is posting MVP numbers and very close to averaging a triple-double for the season. D’Antoni’s influence has allowed ‘The Beard’ to both orchestrate play and run it too.

The Rockets are currently 13-7 and are the only side in the league to have beaten both the Spurs and Warriors already; both on the road.

Who Needs to Trade Immediately: Boston Celtics

The Celtics are struggling more than most expected. Despite being third in their conference, a 12-8 record has been seen as a disappointment from inside the franchise.

Boston are in dire need of a strong rebounder – something they thought Al Horford could be. While Horford has been fairly good this season, his role seems to be more focused on getting points in the paint rather than winning possession off the board.

demarcus
The Celtics could prosper from a move for Cousins

With a consistent rebounder, the Celtics would lose a lot less. In fact, they currently lead the NBA in most second chance points conceded. This is, without a doubt, due to their lack of proficiency in the air when leaping for a rebound.

Who could they trade for? The Celtics aren’t devoid of pieces that they could put up. And they are also not a franchise unrecognisable to most.

With superstar Isaiah Thomas leading the floor, and a consistent army of good players surrounding him, now is the chance to join up with the Celtics.

In an ideal world, the Celtics move for Sacramento’s Demarcus Cousins. The often-aggressive centre is becoming disillusioned with what is shaping up to be another season of disappointment for his team.

He’s averaging over 10 rebounds per game, which should ring shouts of excitement in the ears of Boston. After all, how hard could it be to tempt a disillusioned player away from his suffering franchise while he’s in his peak years?

Sacramento needs picks in the draft to start building for the future. Boston could offer a pick or two, along with outcasts such as Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk. It makes sense.

Surprise Package: Los Angeles Lakers

Lakers at Wizards 12/2/15
Julius Randle, at just 22, is having a fine season

The Lakers post-Kobe Bryant were supposed to be an incoherent mess on the court. Plays on offence were going to diminish, meanwhile defensive presence was to continue being non-existent at best.

Having finished bottom of the West in the previous season with Kobe, one would be forgiven for thinking this season would be worse. Except they are already seven wins away from bettering last season’s measly 17 victories.

They are also one win away from a play-off spot already.

This is the first quarter they have had to play without Kobe’s influence in over 20 years. And they couldn’t look freer from his shackles.

Offensive play has been smooth, with sophomore D’Angelo Russell facilitating play from the point-guard position. His rotation partner, Jordan Clarkson, has also been posting up monster numbers from the bench.

Nick Young, often ridiculed for being a veteran with a kid’s mentality, has won two games for the Lakers with buzzer-beater shots and is leading the team effortlessly.

And then you have Julius Randle – by far the Lakers’ finest player this quarter. The 22-year-old has already registered a triple-double this season and is averaging 13 points and nine rebounds per game.

A supporting cast of Lou Williams and Timofey Mozgov has enabled the Lakers to flourish and, with a 10-12 record, they look like a dark horse for a play-off spot in a season where everyone expected the franchise to hit rock bottom.

MVP at the Quarter: Russell Westbrook

Wizards v/s Thunder 03/14/11
Russ is clinching historic numbers

Many predicted this, but nobody quite predicted the enormity of Russell Westbrook’s play.

Following the departure of Oklahoma team-mate and long-term friend Kevin Durant, it was expected that Westbrook would play out of his skin in every game to compensate for the fact that he is the only remaining superstar on the Thunder.

Fast-forward 20 games and the point-guard is averaging a triple-double per game, including six in a row, which has equalled and bettered greats such as Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson.

With his outstanding play, Westbrook is now averaging a monster 31 points per game, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. He has single-handedly dragged a quality-depleted Thunder side to fifth in the conference with an admirable 13-8 record.

James Harden seems like the closest contender but, if Westbrook does not slow down, elite names such as LeBron James, Curry, Durant and Chris Paul won’t even stand a chance next to the 28-year-old.

Rookie of the Year at the Quarter: Joel Embiid

Can anyone genuinely look past the eccentric 7’0″ Cameroonian centre?

After two long years of injury, nobody expected Embiid’s first NBA season to be one of such pure dominance on both ends.

sixers
Joel Embiid warms up with a dunk

Despite being restricted to just 23 minutes per game, Embiid is averaging 18 points, eight rebounds and two blocks.

Consider the fact that he is only appearing in half of every match, this is a fascinating return for the 22-year-old.

While honourable mentions such as Pascal Siakam and Jaylen Brown look impressive, they are nothing in comparison to the 76ers behemoth.

He moves as though he is several inches shorter on offence, and operates as a man possessed when protecting the rim on the other end. His entertainment factor is sky-high, often lighting up what is a very poor Philly side.

He already looks like an All-Star in the making.

Offensive Play of the Quarter:

A game-winner? Some fancy handles? A three-point shot?

How about all three combined into one smooth play by the Rockets’ James Harden against the Utah Jazz:

YouTube Preview Image

Defensive Play of the Quarter:

Two plays rolled into one, watch as Kristaps Porzingis cements two monster blocks deep in the fourth quarter and OT to deliver the New York Knicks a victory against the Charlotte Hornets:

YouTube Preview Image

Elephant Sport will be continuing this four-part series throughout the NBA season at every quarter. 

Forget Steph and LeBron – Harden will be 2017’s MVP

“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?

History

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.

YouTube Preview Image

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.

Numbers game

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
  • 29ppg
  • 7.5apg
  • 6.1rpg
  • 4.6topg

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.

Seeding

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Mike D’Antoni – the key to Harden’s MVP award?

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.