By: Dan Grant
Over the next several weeks, we’ll be laying out the various candidates for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award for the 2016-17 season. It’s one of the most interesting races in years, hearkening back to the 1990 race in which Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan went head-to-head all season long. This year, there are four viable candidates, with others lurking. We’ll dedicate a full piece to each. Today we examine the current favourite: The Houston Rockets James Harden
You can read our Russell Westbrook case here.
The 7 Seconds-Or-Less Phoenix Suns changed basketball forever. Sure, there had been high octane offensive teams in the spotlight before (like the Run TMC Warriors and anyone else coached by Don Nelson or the 80’s Doug Moe-led Nuggets teams) but the Suns were revolutionary. The talent they had in Amar’e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and Joe Johnson (and later Boris Diaw) surrounded by gritty role players like Raja Bell and Kurt Thomas, made for a punishing combination of athleticism and toughness.
At the helm of it all was a point-guard/coach battery that seemed better matched than any since Magic and Riley. Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni. A dedicated, cerebral player and a coach dedicated to his own perfect offensive style.
The Suns never quite made it to the top of the mountain. They came devastatingly close, but couldn’t quite get over the hump. D’Antoni’s firing and subsequent disaster stops in New York and Los Angeles have made some question those Suns teams: were they really that good?
Nash’s back to back MVP awards in 2005 and 2006 are constantly questioned as a result. Did he really deserve them? Or did old sportswriters just want to vote for a white point guard who played an exciting and unselfish style of basketball?
The 2016-17 Houston Rockets have your answer.
The modern version of the Rockets has been a petri-dish for Morey-ball, a ‘three’s and dunks’ style offense that has embraced analytics as deeply as any NBA team ever. Long two pointers are eschewed, and getting to the free throw line adored. It’s first iterations were effective, if terrible to watch. Comparisons to the run-and-gun Suns of ten years earlier (notoriously fun to watch) would have seemed crazy even a year ago.
After stealing Dwight Howard away from the Los Angeles Lakers and pairing him with newly-minted franchise player James Harden, many were curious to see how Morey-ball would play out with the appropriate superstars attached. The Rockets shocked the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round of the playoffs in 2014-15, winning in a dramatic 7 game series. They were spanked in the Conference Finals by the eventual champion Golden State Warriors, but the potential was obvious — the Rockets needed to add a piece here or there, but they were destined for long-term success.
That is until the 2015-16 season rolled around and everything fell apart. There’s no singular story about what caused it, but Howard and Harden stopped getting along, coach Kevin McHale was fired, and the architect of Morey-Ball, general manager Daryl Morey, was on the hottest of seats. ‘Dork Elvis’ as Morey is known, then did what he does best — he took a big swing.
Morey watched Howard leave for the Atlanta Hawks, and rather than trying to replace him with a marquee name, he hired Mike D’Antoni. He then busied himself surrounding his remaining franchise player, Harden, with the tools that make a Mike D’Antoni offense succeed — that is, shooters. To do this, he had to guarantee the perennially injured duo of Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson massive amounts of money, something that had people around the league shaking their heads.
Was this Morey’s last gasp?
Four months later, it’s looking more like his latest masterstroke.
James Harden is currently your NBA leader in assists. He’s averaging 11.6 per game, despite never averaging more than 7.5 per game in a season before this year. He’s your league leader in total minutes played as well, at 1792 as of this writing. It helps that he’s played and started in all of Houston’s 49 games, because his 36.6 minutes per game rank 6th in the league. But the portrait is framed — Harden is D’Antoni’s new Steve Nash, a dominant guard who distributes for his teammates and runs the offense utterly and completely.
Except Harden is better than Nash ever was.
His efficiency might be where he most resembles the Suns legend. In Nash’s MVP years, he led the league in true shooting percentage (TSP) in back to back seasons. Harden rates well in this category too: despite his heavy usage rate (34.0% of Houston possessions when he’s on the floor end with him scoring, getting to the line or turning the ball over) he sits 12th in the NBA in TSP (61.2%). Nash never had a usage rate higher than 23.4% in any season.
Harden currently has a box plus/minus (BPM) of 10.0, which puts him in legendary company. He’s also leading the league in win shares, at 9.5 total, meaning he’s objectively been the most valuable player to his team so far this season. For frame of reference, Nash’s porous defense meant he never had a BPM higher than 3.9 in any NBA season.
In terms of win shares, Nash was worth 10.9 in his first MVP year and 12.4 the next — his career high was actually set the next year, in 2006-07, when he finished as MVP runner-up to Dirk Nowitzki. He played 75, 79 and 76 games in those three seasons. Harden has accumulated more than three quarters of his highest total in only 49 games.
Harden also hugely differs from Nash in the fact that he’s also third in the league in scoring at 28.6 points per game. Nash was a great shooter, but he primarily helped others do the scoring; while Harden does that too, he’s also able to create for himself in a way Nash never could, or at least never chose to.
Harden gets a lot of his points by getting to the line at an unbelievable rate, currently leading the NBA in both free throws made (444) and attempted (519). He’s also third in the NBA in made three pointers (149) and second in attempts (432). That’s only a 34.5% mark from beyond the arc, which isn’t great. But the sheer volume of attempts, and the threat of his outside shot creates other, easier offense for Harden, and opportunities for him to create for his teammates.
If that three point shot starts falling at a more efficient clip? Sweet fancy Moses, watch out.
Lots of people have Harden first on their NBA ballot right now, and I’m one of them. However, many people ding Harden in the argument when they posit his teammates versus Russell Westbrook’s.
‘Westbrook lost Kevin Durant! He doesn’t have nearly as much help as Harden does!’ is a big smelly bit of nonsense I’ve heard over and over again.
Think back to the off-season, if you can. Look at Russell Westbrook’s teammates, and look at Harden’s. Before this season started, who would you have rather had?
Eric Gordon or Victor Oladipo?
Ryan Anderson or Enes Kanter?
Clint Capela or Steven Adams?
Now the Rockets are deeper to be sure — they also have Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley, weapons that Westbrook could surely use. But in all three of those three cases listed, you were undoubtedly taking the Thunder player, and those are the primary teammates that both guys are working with on a nightly basis.
It’s not a coincidence that Gordon, who was disengaged and inconsistent in New Orleans, and Anderson, who has struggled with problems (not of his own doing) both on and off the court, have suddenly found homes in Houston. Hell, Gordon might even win the 6th man of the year award.
It’s not a coincidence that not one, but two late first-round big men with one discernible offensive skill (dunking) in Clint Capela and Montrezl Harrell have become viable rotation players, despite most other teams giving them a pass.
It’s not a coincidence that Patrick Beverley, a second round pick, has become an indispensable defensive player and decent shooter, seemingly out of nowhere.
Great players make the players around them better. The Houston Rockets, to a man, are nearly all enjoying career best seasons. Yes, D’Antoni’s system has something to do with that. But how would you categorize the seasons of the Thunder players, other than Westbrook?
Meh? Fine? Disappointing?
The Rockets success is all possible because of Harden. All of it. Yes, Westbrook lost Durant. But Harden lost Dwight Howard, a surefire Hall of Famer! The impact isn’t the same, but it’s nothing to sneeze at, either. He’s adapted to a new and incredibly difficult style of play, has put up the best offensive AND defensive numbers of his career, and he might lead the league in both scoring and assists. He’s doing it efficiently, he’s doing it with middling talent around him and his team is 34-15!
And that’s the kicker: team success again rears its head. If Harden lands the 3 seed or higher, history says the award is his. That shouldn’t matter as much as it does, but it does.
However, it says here that he’s done well enough to win it no matter what. How could you deny the best possible version of Steve Nash an MVP award?