The MVP Race: Harden Has Precedence on His Side
It’s funny how history has a way of repeating itself.
Twelve seasons ago, Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni was plying his trade with the Phoenix Suns. At the time, the league was going through an offensive trend that relied on what is now affectionately known as ‘hero-ball’. Players like Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Allen Iverson were extremely ball-dominant and many of the league’s best teams used isolation basketball as their primary means to score. Although this style of play created a lot of household stars in the post-Jordan NBA, it slowed the pace of the game and made a lot of the regular season hard to watch.
Then in 2004, Steve Nash decided to leave the Dallas Mavericks in free agency and join the Phoenix Suns where D’Antoni had been promoted to head coach the year before. The rest is history.
Nash, along with star talent like Shawn Marion, Amar’e Stoudemire, Joe Johnson, and Leandro Barbosa, lit the entire league on fire with a fast-paced, high-scoring offensive the likes the league hadn’t seen since the Showtime Lakers. The Suns averaged 110.4 PPG (13.2 points more than the league average), won 62 games en route to the league’s best record, and Nash (who led the league in APG) was named league MVP.
The following year, the Suns encored with 54 wins, scored 108.4 PPG, and Nash led the league in assists once again to win a second consecutive MVP.
Fast forward to 2017 and Mike D’Antoni is at it again. The Rockets don’t quite have the star power as those Phoenix Suns teams, but they do have one thing in common – one of the most talented point guards in the game. The Rockets are currently on pace to win 56 games, they’re averaging 114.3 PPG (second only to the Golden State Warriors), and James Harden is leading the league in assists.
With all of that being said, there is one big difference between the MVP campaigns put together by Nash and James Harden’s current MVP quest – the amount of production.
The following chart compares the statistical output of Nash during his MVP-winning seasons and Harden’s production for the 2016/2017 season:
As you can see, even during his MVP years, Nash never gave his team the statistical production that Harden is giving the Rockets.
Harden currently leads the league in assists just as Nash did in 2005 and 2006. However, Harden also leads the league in offensive win shares, minutes played, and he is also third in the league scoring – Nash didn’t accomplish any of that. What’s more is that Harden’s usage rate of 34.2% is 13.7% higher than Nash’s usage in 2005 and 10.9% higher than his usage rate in 2006. This means that Harden is directly responsible for more of his team’s success than Nash ever was.
Harden is giving the Rockets everything that Nash gave the Phoenix Suns, and some. So although circumstances are clearly not the same between teams from different eras, one thing is clear - history would back James Harden’s chances of winning the 2017 MVP award.
1. James Harden (28.8 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 11.5 APG, 27.6 PER) Although the Rockets have struggled recently, they still have a strong hold on the number 3 seed in the West, and with Chris Paul expected to miss significant time for the Clippers, they have to like their chances of holding onto it. Harden has been sensational all year long and after his game-winning performance against the 76ers last week, he became the first player in NBA history to record two 50-point triple doubles in a single season.
2. Russell Westbrook (30.8 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 10.2 APG, 29.1 PER) As this roller-coaster of a season progresses, the Thunder are starting to really adapt to their new system. There have been a lot of low points, but every time they start to slump Westbrook seems to pull another Superman performance out of nowhere and get the team back on track. OKC has won 3 of their last 4, including a big win over the Utah Jazz and if this trend continues, they could end up with home court advantage during the first round of the playoffs. If that happens, Westbrook will likely finish the regular season as league MVP.
3. Kevin Durant (26.3 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 4.7 APG, 27.9 PER) This week was pretty much business as usual for Durant and the Warriors. They have won 3 straight and 9 of their last 10 games. As a team they are on pace to win 70 games, and if successful they will become the first team in NBA history to win 70 games in back to back seasons. Durant kept the Warriors’ winning streak alive despite Curry missing a game against the Trailblazers last week. Durant scored 33 points on 26 shots and the Warriors needed every single one of them as they edged Portland 113-111.
4. LeBron James (25.7 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 8.5 APG, 25.8 PER) It looks as though LeBron James and the Cavaliers are going through their annual January blues. In 2015 LeBron had to take a two week sabbatical in early January, and then in 2016 The Cavs front office fired their head coach despite a 30-11 team record. This year it looks as though frustrations between management and LeBron James are the source of the issues, and the team is suffering because of it. Cleveland has lost 6 of their last 10 games but over that stretch LeBron has averaged 24.1 PTS, 8.4 REB, and 9.0 AST.
5. Kawhi Leonard (25.4 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 3.2 APG, 27.8 PER) Kawhi’s MVP case wasn’t helped by his team winning a game by 26 points with him on the sidelines. Then again the game was against the league’s worst team, the Brooklyn Nets, so perhaps there isn’t much to say about that. Regardless, before resting against the Nets, Leonard had put together a streak of 6 games where he scored 30+ points on 50% shooting or better. He has established himself as the best player in the Spurs’ locker room and has been the perfect candidate to carry the torch now that Tim Duncan has retired.
6. Isaiah Thomas (29.1 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 6.3 APG, 27.3 PER) Isaiah Thomas’ dream season continues to get better and better. The Celtics have now leapfrogged the Raptors to claim the number 2 seed in the East, and Thomas has leapfrogged his way to become the league’s second highest scorer behind Russell Westbrook. Over his last 5 games he has averaged 32.4 PTS and 8.8 AST, and the Celtics are starting to look like the team everyone expected them to be coming into the season.
7. DeMar DeRozan (27.8 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 3.9 APG, 24.8 PER) The Raptors are really limping into the all-star break. They have lost 4 straight games for the first time this season and DeRozan’s play has been one of the reasons for their struggles. Over their 4 game losing streak, DeRozan has averaged just 23 PTS on 43.8% shooting. Luckily, the Raptors have an excuse for their poor play of late as they integrate Jared Sullinger into the starting lineup, so perhaps some small struggles now will reap greater benefits following all-star weekend.
8. John Wall (22.9 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 10.3 APG, 23.5 PER) So much for all of the panic surrounding the Wizards earlier this season. Washington has propelled themselves right into the thick of the playoff picture and John Wall has been in the driver’s seat. After struggling out of the gate, D.C. have won 8 of their last 10 games and 11 of their last 13. Over their last ten, Wall has been a candidate for the top guard in the East with averages of 21.9 PTS, 10.3 AST and 2.0 STL.
9. Gordon Hayward (21.6 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 3.5 APG, 22.0 PER) The Jazz have found themselves sitting in the number 5 seed in the Western conference, despite dealing with injuries to multiple starters all year long. One of the biggest reasons why they’ve been so successful despite the injuries is the play of Gordon Hayward. He has developed into one of the top small forwards in the league and his play this season has earned him the first all-star selection of his career. He still needs to develop into a more consistent threat on a nightly basis, but he is definitely on track to becoming a star in the league.
10. Marc Gasol (20.8 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 4.2 APG, 21.8 PER) Marc Gasol is arguably the league’s biggest all-around threat at the center position. This season he has done everything for the Grizzlies, from playing great post-defense all the way to scoring and setting up team-mates from the post. The season hasn’t gone quite as the Grizzlies had planned and a large part of that has to do with injuries to Mike Conley, Zach Randolph, and Chandler Parsons, but Gasol has managed to keep them competitive. If they can finally get their planned starting five healthy and on the floor together, the Grizzlies will be a very tough opponent come playoff time.