James Harden’s Evolution into an MVP Candidate

The NBA MVP race has been incredibly entertaining this season. Out West, Russell Westbrook is putting up triple-doubles practically every other game, James Harden is leading the Houston Rockets’ resurgence (with 20 triple-doubles of his own), and Kawhi Leonard is dominating on both ends of the court for the powerhouse San Antonio Spurs. In the East, LeBron James is, well, still being LeBron James in his 14th season. “The King” has already logged more minutes than Michael Jordan (we are all thinking the same thing: LeBron’s definitely a cyborg).

This NBA MVP race has also been frustrating. In recent memory, it has never been this challenging to pick an MVP. Voting results from the past decade reflect this. (The closest MVP race of the decade was in the 2006-07 season, between Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash). So many candidates all worthy of the award, but only one can win. With that being said, my pick has to be Harden, the league’s best shooting guard.

Let’s digress though and take a look at Harden’s career arc to this point. Watching him evolve game by game throughout his eight-year career has been a joy to behold.

James Harden‘s Evolution into an MVP Candidate

Sixth Man

In his first three seasons Harden averaged just 13 points per game, albeit he was in a sixth man role with the Oklahoma City Thunder. “The Beard” did show glimpses of star-potential in his final season with the Thunder. In 31 minutes per game, he averaged 16.8 points on 49% shooting, all while just 22 years old. Those numbers were all the more impressive, considering Harden was the third option behind Kevin Durant and Westbrook, the three-headed monster that was the Thunder’s offence. (Imagine if they stayed together…Oklahoma City would have been the dynasty of the decade. Move over, Golden State.)

A boost in production was expected after Harden joined the Rockets in the 2012 off-season, given he would become the team’s primary scoring option.

A spike in production is one thing; becoming a superstar in just one season with a new team is another.

Harden’s Arrival

As Harden’s beard grew, so too have his skills.

Since lifting off in Houston, Harden has made a name for himself on the offensive end. He slashes to the basket at will and knocks down threes with ease, averaging 27.4 points per game in his five seasons as a Rocket. He’s had his best scoring season this year, averaging 29.3 a night. While his drives and outside shot are his bread and butter, Harden’s vastly improved his passing skills over the years.

His assists per game numbers have improved each of his five seasons in Houston. Harden’s biggest improvement in that statistic has come this season. In 2015-16 he averaged an impressive 7.5 assists per game; that number has jumped to 11.3 this season, which leads the league. That jump is partially because of Head Coach Mike D’Antoni‘s decision to make Harden initiate the majority of the team’s offensive sets. While he is listed as a shooting guard, Harden acts more like the team’s floor general. His improved assist totals have validated his MVP case, and vaulted Houston into a true title contender. Vegas oddsmakers projected Houston’s over/under win total this season to be 41.5. They’re on pace to shatter that mark. They’ve already won 51 games with eight remaining on the regular season schedule.

Harden’s MVP Case

To start, Harden leads the NBA in win shares with 14.4, meaning it’s estimated his individual production has contributed to approximately 28 percent of the Rockets wins this season.

Harden is also the first player in NBA history to score and assist on 2,000 points each in a single season. That shows how despite being the best scorer on his team, Harden is more than willing to share the wealth. That’s where he gets the edge over Westbrook on my voting ballot (if I had one).

Another area Harden edges the other leading MVP candidates (James, Westbrook, Leonard) in is true shooting percentage. Harden has the highest true shooting percentage of the four at 61.8%. This indicates that when Harden does fire away or drive, they tend to be smart shots. While James and Leonard’s percentages aren’t far off from Harden, Westbrook doesn’t even rank among the NBA’s top 100 in the statistic.

While all the hype centers around Westbrook averaging a triple-double for an entire season, people tend to overlook Harden’s incredible statistical season. 29.3 points, 11.3 assists, and 8 rebounds per game. Not too shabby for the centerpiece of a true title contender.

If any team is going to knock off the Warriors, it’s the Rockets. Sorry Spurs fans, but it’s not happening this year, even with arguably the best two-way player in Leonard at the start of his prime. The Rockets have the best chance among the West’s elite of hanging with the Warriors in an in-game three-point shooting competition.

Side note: This MVP Race is an Anomaly

As mentioned earlier, this MVP race will likely go down as the most competitive one in the past ten seasons. Four candidates remain, each with their own unique case for MVP. Westbrook and Harden have made us reevaluate the significance of the triple-double; after this season, the statistical feat isn’t so rare anymore. Meanwhile, Leonard has made us question whether a player of his caliber is a product of the Spurs system, or the main reason for the Spurs success altogether. James is showing NBA fans how valuable he is to his team, given the Cleveland Cavaliers 4-19 record in games without him since his return to Cleveland. That statistic is perplexing, considering how stacked Cleveland’s roster is.

Whoever wins the 2016-17 MVP award is more than deserving. This year’s race is practically a toss-up.

Stats accurate as of March 29th.

Next week: The NBA has a competitive balance issue. Is there an end in sight?


Main Photo:

James Harden Houston Rockets (Photo by Mark Downey Lucid Images/Corbis via Getty Images)