Photo credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: James Harden
- The 2019 NBA MVP race will likely come down to two leading candidates: Rockets guard James Harden and Bucks wing Giannis Antetokounmpo.
- This week, I will break down the cases for each player, starting today with The Beard.
This week at The Action Network I’m profiling the MVP race, including in-depth breakdowns (and I mean in-depth) of both James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo, as well as a look at who should win the award, who is likely to and where the best value is on their MVP futures bets. We begin with James Harden, who is putting up the best offensive season since Steph Curry in 2016.
James Harden’s MVP case is obvious, like trying to determine what caused a giant crash through a jewelry store when there’s a hole in the building in the shape of a rhino and a rhino grazing outside. Sure, it can be a lot of things, but it was the rhino.
Here’s the one-sentence pitch for James Harden’s MVP candidacy:
James Harden averaged the second-most points per game in the last 50 years of NBA history behind Michael Jordan, doing so on great efficiency relative to usage while averaging 8 assists per game and winning more than 50 games in a loaded Western Conference.
That’s an incredible resume. Harden’s season is astonishingly good when you evaluate its highlights; that’s what makes him such a compelling candidate. If you take the 10,000-foot view of Harden’s season, it makes it very difficult not to say he’s more deserving than any candidate, including Giannis. And the implication of that isn’t that, upon further inspection, it falls apart. It looks differently closer up, as we’ll get to, but that 10,000-foot view matters.
In some ways, Harden’s MVP resume deserves “Best in Show” consideration. But to get a real appreciation for what he’s done this year, we have to go way under the hood. Let’s go inside the reigning MVP’s case for back-to-back awards.
That big broad base of his stats really is the biggest case for Harden. The elements above are layers that supplement his case, but you have to start with the numbers for Harden if you want to get a sense for where the strength of his argument lies.
There will be a conversation about how that middle tier — the “Whatever It Takes” argument is actually his biggest — but I’ll get into why that one has more holes in it than the other two. And the top layer — wins/team success — has strengthened considerably since the middle part of the season during which he built up his statistical case.
As it is with most players, Harden’s season is best described as being divided into multiple segments. Over the course of a six-month season, you’re going to have different mini-seasons. Harden’s had three, and each played a pivotal role in building his MVP case.
SEASON 1 (10/17-12/11): THE SETUP
- Stats: 30.0 pts, 8.0 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 44-37-83 shooting splits, 62% TS%, 36.1% usage
- On-court Net Rating: -0.4
- Rockets record: 12-14
Ironically, one of the biggest keys to Harden’s MVP case is in how badly his team started the season.
The Rockets faceplanted out of the gate, right from the start. New Orleans housed them in their home opener. They beat the Lakers in the infamous fight game where neither team looked good and which resulted in suspensions, starting a four-game slide in which Houston lost to four teams that would all make the West playoffs. They would fail to find any consistency over that next month and a half, going 12-14 and sparking premature questions about whether they would make the playoffs.
Look at that stat line above: 30-8-6 is phenomenal. It’s just stellar. But both the Rockets’ record and Harden’s on-court Net Rating tell just how marginally effective it was. Harden was putting up these astronomical numbers, and yet the Rockets weren’t outscoring their opponents. What’s more, Houston was outscoring their opponents by 1.5 points per 100 possessions with Harden on the bench in that stretch.
The Rockets’ Defensive Rating in this stretch was 113 — gouge-your-eyes-out bad — and 9.4 points worse than when he was on the bench.
This is a key element you need to remember for later: Houston did not struggle early because of injuries. Clint Capela went down in mid-January; Chris Paul on December 20. They had a handful of missed games early in these first 26 games. But they were the same kind of here-and-there injuries every team faces along the way. This early part of the season when they were losing games? They were fully healthy; they just didn’t play to their potential, despite Harden putting up huge numbers.
Here’s the ironic part: These early struggles may have helped as much as anything with the narrative for him this season. When Capela and Chris Paul went down later, and Harden went insane in Season 2, he had to lift his team above a start which he himself at least partially contributed to. He helped dig them their hole, and then he dug them out of it.
SEASON 2 (12/13/18-2/13/19): THE EXPLOSION
- Stats: 38.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, 7.4 assists per game on 44-38-89 splits, 62.9% eFG., 40.9% usage
- On-court Net Rating: +7.3
- Rockets record: 21-10
And then… he went bonkers.
In this stretch, he lost his All-Star, future Hall-of-Fame point guard and his at-rim finisher for a team that was already cobbling together wing rotations after swinging out with Carmelo Anthony and Michael Carter-Williams. Harden scored 40 or more 14 times in this 29-game span, starting that 30-plus-points streak that was covered ad nauseam. He lifted his team time and time again.
He scored 61 in a four-point win over the Knicks:
He just absolutely destroyed teams. And it’s a good thing he did. Half of those wins came in “clutch time” — games within five points or less in the final five minutes. They went 8-4 in games ultimately decided by five points or less, needing Harden to constantly pull 50- and 60-point performances out of himself just to get past weaker competition.
This brings up an interesting note that is something to consider but that ultimately doesn’t detract from his candidacy for me: Harden had to do all this to beat teams like Memphis, New York and Phoenix. Some of these were close games.
Even in 2017, when Harden finished second in MVP voting (I voted him 1st) before Chris Paul showed up, the Rockets did not have to skate by teams like that. This year’s roster is worse, to be sure, but it’s wrong to reward a guy for bad teammates, just as it’s wrong to punish a player for having good ones. You’re supposed to lift up your teammates. Harden more or less simply dragged them with him.
This scoring stretch is among the best in NBA history. Not this season. Not recent history. Ever. He literally scored the most points in the last 50 years in the month of January of any player.
This stretch is where he made his NBA bread, so to speak. He carried the Rockets in this stretch, without question. You can ponder philosophical questions — like if he played differently could the team have been better? — but the results are 21-10 with one of the maybe three-best prolonged scoring stretches we’ve ever seen.
He did this without Chris Paul and Clint Capela, a monumental factor in the narrative of his season. Outside of the bonkers numbers, the story of his season is him carrying the Rockets without two of their best players to wins behind huge individual performances.
This was when he jumped to being the odds-on MVP favorite for a short while.
SEASON 3 (2/14/2019-CURRENT): THE RUN
- Stats: 35.8 pts, 6.1 rebounds, 6.9 asts on 43-33-91 splits, 58.4% TS%, 41.4 usage
- On-court Net Rating: +9.3
- Rockets record: 16-4
Still, Houston seemed headed for a mid-tier seed. That probably wasn’t going to do it. Houston needed to get to 50 wins or more. Luckily, not only did his numbers stay stable, but the team got back healthy. Chris Paul not only returned but looked much improved from a rough early stint. He and Clint Capela got back to ruining team’s lives with the constant lob bombs. The schedule eased up: 10 of those 16 wins came vs. teams under .500.
Houston’s defense has cooked since then. Harden’s on-court Defensive Rating is down to 107 from the 113 mark early in the year. The team with him on the bench, however, is giving up just 95.2 points per 100 possessions. They are +6.3 in Net Rating without Harden, compared to +9.3 with him.
And so the Rockets are poised to finish with over 50 wins. They’ll fall short of their season over/under of 54.5 but still have a good chance at a top-two seed in a brutal Western Conference. This stretch is important because it gets Harden to that top tier of his pyramid. If they finish with fewer than 50, the argument for Harden gets a lot tougher. This stretch guarantees a healthy chunk of first-place votes for Harden.
So what we see is that the first part of his season, which is often overlooked, set up the big run the Rockets needed. If they hadn’t struggled early, they might not have needed him to push as hard as he did in that middle section. That second season is when he built his truest case, even as his numbers have stayed high to close the year.