Moore: It’s Time to Fade James Harden’s MVP Chances

Moore: It’s Time to Fade James Harden’s MVP Chances article feature image
Credit:

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: James Harden

  • The current frontrunners for NBA MVP, according to the betting market: James Harden (-500 odds), Giannis Antetokounmpo (+350), LeBron James (16-1) and Steph Curry (16-1).
  • While James Harden's unbelievable recent play has made him the odds-on favorite, he's unlikely to be able to keep this pace up all season for a multitude of reasons.

All stats as of Jan. 21; betting odds as of Jan. 24.

What James Harden is doing on the floor right now is unprecedented.

Harden had eight 40-point, 10-assist games in 2017 when he was runner-up for MVP. He had three last year, in large part due to the addition of Chris Paul. He has seven this season, mid-way through the year.

He has 15 games with 40 points.

It’s absurd, and we need to have the conversation about where he ranks among the all-time best offensive players.

We can debate him vs. Kobe another time, but that’s honestly what we’re looking at: One of the most dominant high-usage players we’ve ever seen.

So then Harden is a lock to win MVP at -500 odds, right?

Nope.

First, there’s this from 538:

“The problem is that players who log usage rates that high in the regular season generally don’t enjoy much playoff success. In fact, no player who had a regular-season usage rate of 35 percent or higher has ever won an NBA championship in that season. And of the players with the seven highest single-season usage rates, none made it out of the first round of the postseason in those years.”

Even with that about playoff performance, we have a signal that there’s a decline towards the end of the season.

Here’s a look at Harden’s points per game as the season goes on the past two seasons and then his (absurd) pace this year:

OK first off, again, he’s averaging 44 points a game in January. Let’s all just take a moment and laugh at the absurdity of that.

Once you get past that, you see that his points have hit a low point in January and now, with all the Rockets’ injuries, he’s gone supersonic. But look at that tail off in March and April the past two years.

Here’s the same chart with his assists:

So there’s a good signal there that as the season goes on, he scores a little less, and racks up a few more assists. The question is whether Harden can sustain this over time, especially given his insane usage levels.

There’s also the fact that eventually, sometime, at some point, Chris Paul will return from his hamstring injury. Eric Gordon is back, and that will likely tick down Harden’s usage a bit. Then CP3 and Capela will be back, presumably by mid-March, and Harden’s usage will drop even more.

Whether he slows down because his body gives out to the exhaustion of the herculean effort he’s giving, or by surrendering usage to the other Rockets, Harden won’t keep up this effort, which will definitely impact his MVP chances.

Meanwhile, Houston’s win total will likely finish lower than most expected going into the season, and the Bucks’ considerably higher.

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s usage rate has stayed more consistent, between 28-32%. Not only does he likely have more left in the tank, but he hasn’t had a month where the Bucks have just let him off the leash to go nuts.

Giannis has played more than 35 minutes in just 15 games this season. If the Bucks let him stay play a bit more in February or March, with his added rest, he may put up some monster games to get back into the front-runner position just as Harden slows down.

Giannis would have secured the early and late vote, rendering Harden’s mid-season surge amazing … but ultimately ineffectual in the MVP conversation.

And all of this is before we get to Steph Curry or Paul George’s case.

The point here is that if you were putting Harden vs. the field, the field needs to be heavily favored … still. And as Giannis (+350 odds) remains the best bet outside of Harden, that’s where I’d stake a position now, when his ROI is best. (With a little hedge on Curry at 16-1, I’d add.)

It’s not that Harden’s performance isn’t worthy. It is. He’s kept Houston afloat despite a horrendous rash of injuries, and done it with awe-inspiring offensive performances.

But the human body does have its limits, and the season is long.