Don’t Snub Him Again — James Harden Is the NBA’s MVP

Shanna Lockwood / USA TODAY Sports

James Harden.

Some people don’t like him.

In fact, a lot of people don’t like him.

 

Unfortunately, these people are letting their distaste for James Harden blind them. Instead of enjoying a legendary run that will never be repeated, many fans would rather focus on discrediting it.

Oh well.

Their loss.

The Greatest Scoring Performance Since … Ever

Anybody who has been paying any attention to professional basketball knows about Harden’s current scoring streak. In 31 consecutive games, Harden has scored over 30 points. That’s the second longest streak in NBA history. Before this season, Kobe Bryant had the longest 30-point game streak since 1972 — 16 consecutive games. Harden is one game away from doubling that mark.

The only player with a longer streak is the great Wilt Chamberlain. In the 1961-62 NBA season, Chamberlain scored at least 30 points in a whopping 65 consecutive games. In the 66th game, Chamberlain scored 26 points. This mediocre performance by his standards turned out to be a warm-up. In the next three games, Chamberlain scored 67, 65, and 61 points before “dropping the mic” with his famous 100-point game.

Needless to say, Wilt Chamberlain was pretty good.

However, we do need to add some context to his mind-boggling numbers.

Pace factor represents the number of possessions one team gets per game. We can use this to compare Harden’s scoring streak to Chamberlain’s, relative to the number of possessions each team received. Unfortunately, pace factor was not calculated until 1974.

No problem — we can estimate it.

A quick approximation yields us an estimated pace factor of 131.5 in 1962 (the gritty details of this estimation will be placed in a comment below this article for anybody that’s skeptical).

In Wilt’s 65 game streak, he averaged 50.2 points per game. That’s about 0.38 points per team possession. In Harden’s current 31 game streak, he’s averaging 41.5 points per game. Given the 2018-19 pace factor of exactly 100.0, that’s good for 0.42 points per team possession. To put it another way, 30 points in 1962 are equal to about 23 points in 2019.

In terms of efficiency, there’s no contest. Chamberlain also shot the ball at true shooting percentage of 53.4%. Harden? 62.8%. Harden’s TS% is 6.9% higher than the 2019 league average. Chamberlain’s TS% was 5.5% higher than the 1962 league average. Harden is scoring at a higher rate and he’s doing it more efficiently. We’re not even considering the massive (but unquantifiable) disparity in competition and talent.

In case the comparison with Chamberlain wasn’t enough, though, let’s look at the all-time greatest scoring seasons since statistics per 100 possessions began to be tracked.

These are the only 15 instances since 1974 in which a player scored over 42 points per 100 possessions. Harden is on pace to shatter Michael Jordan’s record for most points per 100 possessions in a single season. The amazing thing is that he hasn’t experienced a drop-off in efficiency.

James Harden is putting together the greatest scoring season we have ever seen.

One-Man Army

Right now, the Houston Rockets hold the 5th seed in a highly competitive Western Conference.

All things considered, that’s incredibly impressive. Eric Gordon, Chris Paul, and Clint Capela have missed a combined 50 games due to injury. That’s 3 of their best players. Most teams would be looking ahead to the offseason if 3 of their best players were out for a prolonged period of time. Then again, most teams don’t have James Harden.

Since starting the season with a win-loss record of 11-14, the Houston Rockets have won 22 of their last 32 games behind Harden’s average stat line of 41.1 points, 7.4 rebounds, 7.3 assists, and 2.2 steals per game.

Harden hasn’t been putting up empty stats, either. He’s giving it everything he’s got because that’s what his team needs in order for them to win games.

Last month against the Brooklyn Nets, the Rockets were without Clint Capela and Chris Paul. Harden was fatigued after scoring 57 points just two nights prior without Paul, Capela, OR Gordon. Nevertheless, he proceeded to drop a whopping 58 points in a four-point loss. It wasn’t the first time Harden played exceptionally just to keep his team in a tight game. In the same week, the Rockets traveled to New York to take on the Knicks. James Harden scored a season-high 61 points and the Rockets won by just 4. In the following three games, Harden scored 35, 40, and 37 points. All of these outings were decided by less than 6 points.

The staple of Harden’s game is undoubtedly his ability in isolation. Harden has made 162 three-pointers this season after possessing the ball for at least 6 seconds. The single-season record was 143 — set last year by James Harden. Harden also takes more shots with the shot clock winding down than any other player in the league. Harden has already hit 42 three-pointers with less than 4 seconds remaining on the shot clock. The record for the most shots of this kind in a single-season belongs to … yeah, you guessed it. James Harden last season (50). Of course, these aren’t records that anybody seriously cares about all that much. The point is that Harden is arguably taking more low-percentage shots than any player in NBA history. For him, though, it’s not a low-percentage shot.

Ray Allen did it. Steph Curry did it after him. And now James Harden is doing it.

These players accomplished things no other player had ever accomplished. As a result, they extended the axes of graphs like this.

In 2006, Ray Allen hit 269 three-pointers, eclipsing a 10-year-old record set Dennis Scott in 1996. 10 years after that, Steph Curry became the first player to hit at least 300 three-pointers in a single-season. As if 300 wasn’t enough, Curry hit a whopping 402 three-pointers that season, 45.3% of which were unassisted. It was arguably the greatest offensive performance of all-time. Unsurprisingly, Curry was the first player to unanimously win Most Valuable Player honors.

Fast forward three years later. Harden is on pace to hit 401 three-pointers with a mind-boggling 13.9% of those shots being unassisted.

Somehow, most people still think Giannis Antetokounmpo should win MVP.

Defensive Misconceptions

One of the arguments for Giannis is that the gap between both players’ offensive performances is not as wide as the gap between their defensive performances. In other words, Giannis is better on defense by a wider margin than Harden is better on offense.

I disagree.

Approximately five years ago, a running joke began about how lazy Harden was on defense. Clips showing him slacking off and letting players blow by him were immensely popular. He was referred to as the worst defender in the NBA by many fans. Unfortunately, this caricature of Harden has stuck to his image today despite his enormous improvement on that side of the ball.

In the 2015-16 season, Harden allowed an effective field goal percentage of 54.95%, which was 3.63% above expectation. That’s very much below-average. It essentially means that a league-average player would have allowed an eFG% of 51.32% if they defended the same shots which Harden defended. Instead, Harden allowed an eFG% of 54.95%.  Last season, the difference between what he allowed and what he was expected to allow was 2.23%. It was an improvement, but not by much. This year, however, Harden has turned into an above-average defender. Opposing players are shooting at an eFG% of 51.13%, 1.17% below expectation.

Giannis is certainly a better defender. However, the narrative that Harden is a liability on defense is completely untrue. He’s an above-average defender, especially among ball-handling guards. Harden’s eFG% allowed above expectation is far better than other elite guards like Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry, Kemba Walker, Russell Westbrook, etc.

Let’s directly refer to the original point, though. “One of the arguments for Giannis is that the gap between both players’ offensive performances is not as wide as the gap between their defensive performances.” We can refute this by analyzing NBA Math’s Total Points Added metric. It calculates Offensive Points Added (OPA) and Defensive Points Saved (DPS) based on adjusting offensive box plus / minus (OBPM) and defensive box plus / minus (DBPM) to account for the number of possessions the player in question is present for. The sum of these two values is finalized as Total Points Added.

It really isn’t close.

Let’s assume that offense and defense are both equal. They aren’t, of course. When has a player won MVP for only their defensive performance? Never. When has a player won MVP for only their offensive performance? Multiple times. Still, for the sake of a legitimate argument, we’ll assume that offense and defense are equal.

Using this metric, James Harden has added 484.92 total points while Giannis has added 399.26 total points. This includes offense and defense. Last season, Harden won MVP with 0.223 TPA per minute. So far this season, Harden has added a whopping 0.240 total points per minute. Even if we account for the fact that Antetokounmpo hasn’t played as many minutes (which should actually be a detriment to his MVP argument), Antetokounmpo has added 0.227 total points per minute this year.

So, no. Antetokounmpo’s lead on the defensive side of the ball is not nearly as great as Harden’s complete dominance offensively.

Conclusion

Last season, Harden deservedly won MVP. He’s improved immensely on both the offensive and defensive ends, yet now people think he shouldn’t repeat as the winner.

Why?

Many fans refuse to support Harden because he draws too many fouls. That isn’t a valid rebuttal against his MVP argument, but let’s go with it.

PlayerSeasonFree Throw RateWon MVP?
Magic Johnson1989-90.560Yes
Giannis Antetokounmpo2018-19.533
LeBron James2009-10.506Yes
James Harden2017-18.502Yes
Magic Johnson1988-89.495Yes
Magic Johnson1986-87.482Yes
Kevin Durant2013-14.477Yes
LeBron James2008-09.472Yes
James Harden2018-19.471

James Harden attempts to draw fouls because he is playing for his team to win. If anything, if he didn’t attempt to draw fouls it should hurt his MVP argument. He’s a human being who has to single-handedly carry his team, which undoubtedly takes a toll on him — it’s foolish to expect him to play a particular way which satisfies your personal expectations.

Another argument that’s often used is simply the fact that the Rockets haven’t won enough games. Let’s not make this award about the best player on the best team. That would be silly. It should signify the best player in the league in the league in a given season. This year, that’s James Harden. The argument would have more merit if the Rockets were on track to miss the playoffs. Instead, Harden has somehow dragged the depleted squad to the fifth seed in the West.

Back in 2016, James Harden averaged 29 points, 7 assists, and 6 rebounds over the course of the season. He joined LeBron James, Oscar Robertson, and Michael Jordan as the only players to ever accomplish this feat.

He didn’t make the All-NBA First Team. Or the Second Team. Or the Third Team.

The national media somehow felt that Klay Thompson (averaged 22 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists) was more deserving than Harden. Because of what? Wins?

Do we want to create an atmosphere which motivates the formation of superteams because wins are the only thing we use to judge players? I would hope not. There is no player in the NBA who could have led the Houston Rockets to more wins than James Harden has. He shouldn’t be punished for his teammates being injured.

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Anthony J Zarate

I think your argument has some merit…for the regular season, but Harden is an average defensive player at best. He used to be a liability and now that he gives a little more effort, he is realistically below average at best. On offense, he is a scoring machine and his FT’s + how often he has the ball in his hands are what contribute to his high scoring average. Giannis is an ELITE defender and unstoppable on offense in the paint. His supporting cast is not nearly as good as Hardens. Eric Gordan is a great shooter and Chris Paul is a hall of fame PG and one of the best in NBA. The Bucks have Middleton who is a really good shooter and a borderline All Star. The MVP award is solely based on the regular season but in the post season we are able to see who the “real” MVP’s are. Last year, Harden deserved the MVP but based on last years post season, he’s obviously not the most valuable to his team in the NBA. Just off the top of my head there are 5 players who are more valuable than Harden:
Giannis
Kawhi
Steph
PG13
Lebron

I would put Harden in the Lillard, Kyrie, Westbrook category. The are franchise players who put fans in the seats but dont have the defensive games and/or size to be as valuable as most of the players in my top 5. Curry makes the list because he is such a great 3pt shooter and offensive weapon that he makes his teammates better just being on the floor. That is the why Giannis is so valuable. He draws double and triple teams which opens up the floor for his teammates. Curry is slightly better on defense the Harden but Harden size, strength, and athletic ability are superior to Curry. Steph plays harder on the defensive end though and plays better team defense.

The media doesnt really take defense into consideration and that’s a tragedy in the NBA. If defense and true value to a team were the criteria Tim Duncan would’ve won 5 MVP’s in a row. Kawhi Leonard and Giannis are the most valuable players to their respective teams in the NBA right now and it’s not even close. During the regular season I would’ve said Giannis, but through game 3 of the ECF and the sweep of Portland by GS it’s clear to me that KD isn’t nearly as valuable as most fans thought. While Curry is very valuable you argue than Draymond is just as if not more valuable. He’s not only the teams heart and soul, but he instills confidence in every player on that team. He is by far their best defender and facilitator. They lost KD , Cousins, and Iguodala and still swept Portland. The Blazers were never a serious threat, Watching how GS wins should make it very clear why isolation, one player scoring a ton of points, and drawing tons a fouls isn’t a recipe for success. It takes your teammates out of the game and makes it hard to go on runs and gain momentum. Look how fast GS erases 17 and 18 point deficits without going to the line and only one player scoring all the points. It’s so important for a valuable player to get his teammates involved offensively so the are more engaged in the game on both ends of the floor. NBA teams are at their best when everyone is involved at both ends of the floor and its up to the best player on the team to make that happen. Harden is NOT that type of player. He is a great regular season offensive player, arguably the best since MJ. But he is FAR from the MOST VALUABLE PLAYER in the NBA. That trophy will go to Giannis and deservedly so. Numbers and metrics are a good way to determine what happened in a given game but games are won with intangibles and heart that can’t be measured with statistics.