As the NBA regular season heads towards its conclusion, the MVP conversation is heating up. LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are in the discussion every year as the NBA’s three foremost talents. Anthony Davis, meanwhile, has put up shocking numbers this season, especially after the loss of DeMarcus Cousins, while leading the New Orleans Pelicans to a 38-27 record and vying for a top-three seed in the stacked Western Conference. But make no mistake, James Harden is this year’s MVP. And it shouldn’t even be close.
Harden has come up short several times in the race for the award, finishing in second place in both the 2014-15 and 2016-17 seasons. He lost to Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook, respectively, undone by historic seasons from the pair. Curry emerged as a superstar in 2014, the best player on a championship, 67-game winning Warriors team. Meanwhile Westbrook, of course, averaged a 30-point triple-double, the first player to achieve the feat since Oscar Robertson in the 1961-62 season. Harden has simply been unlucky.
Nothing stands in the guard’s way this year, however. Harden’s statistics speak for themselves. The 28-year-old guard is averaging 31.1 points, 8.8 assists and 5.1 rebounds per game, with a 30.45 Player Efficiency Rating. To put that final mark into perspective, Harden is on track to have the 18th best season of all-time according to PER. Compared to last season, he has improved his three-point shooting and cut down on his turnovers — the only two (slight) offensive criticisms one could make about Harden.
Defense has been Harden’s signature weakness, but he has made great strides in that part of the game and is no longer a complete zero defender. Harden ranks 47th in the league in defensive win shares, just behind Andre Iguodala, Jimmy Butler and Steven Adams, who all have reputations of defensive greatness. For those who favor the eye test over advanced statistics, it is obvious that Harden is putting forth a superior effort to stick with his man and provide help defense when necessary. Instead of standing still gathering his breath, Harden has proven to be active and feisty.
Meanwhile, as a team, the Houston Rockets have turned into a juggernaut. The team’s record of 51-14 is a half-game better than the Golden State Warriors’ and the pairing of Harden and guard Chris Paul has worked out splendidly. Though there were initial concerns from many basketball analysts that Harden and Paul would have trouble meshing and sharing the ball, the two have done so effectively. Paul is averaging 8.0 assists per game to Harden’s 8.8, as the two have split up control of the offense. The team as a whole has played well together thanks to Harden’s passing. Clint Capela has continued to progress, averaging a double-double, and several role-players have all fit into the offensive structure.
Everything starts with Harden, however, and he has enjoyed the defining moments that an MVP needs. Harden scored 60 points against the Orlando Magic Jan. 30, collecting 10 rebounds and 11 assists as well — an almost incomprehensible stat line in the modern NBA. His Feb. 28 crossover against Wesley Johnson of the Los Angeles Clippers went viral for the move’s incredible disrespect. Harden took a step back, then waited, licking his lips, for Johnson to get back and contest the shot, which went in. This season has belonged to Harden.
That doesn’t mean other players do not belong in the MVP discussion — they just have not had performances equal to Harden’s. Davis probably has the best case for an argument, averaging 28.1 points and 11.1 rebounds per game with a 28.90 PER. Over his last ten games, Davis is averaging 35.6 points and 13.6 rebounds per game, putting the rest of the Pelicans on his back with Cousins out for the season. Unfortunately, Harden’s numbers are slightly better when taken in sum (look to the PER numbers for a good approximation), and when considering New Orleans’ record — a full 13 games worse than Houston’s — it is tough to make a claim for Davis over Harden.
James’ candidacy has similar problems. The forward deserves more MVPs than his four (voters simply grew tired of voting for him) but this season is not one of those times. James did not put forth his best effort when the Cavaliers were struggling during the grand Isaiah Thomas era and has been disappointing defensively. While James will probably be the best performer in the playoffs when he cranks his energy up to 100 percent, he has not been the most valuable player of this regular season.
Curry and Durant cancel each other out. How can one of them be the MVP of the League if we’re not even sure which player is the MVP of the Warriors? Taking into account the added contributions of Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, it is clear that Harden has done more with less: The Houston Rockets are above the Warriors in the standings with three fewer All-Stars. James Harden is on the best team by record in the league with the best stats and best moments. He is the MVP.
George Klein can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.