Is James Harden a Lock for Most Improved Player in 2012-13?

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Is James Harden a Lock for Most Improved Player in 2012-13?
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Is James Harden guaranteed the Most Improved Player award?

Before we discuss whether James Harden is a lock to win the Most Improved Player award, we really ought to discuss what a lock is.

A lock, to me, is an absolutely ironclad, set-in-stone, no-doubt-about it situation. And there aren't many situations like that in life.

In 2008, the New England Patriots were coming off a perfect regular season and going into the Super Bowl. They appeared in every way to be the team of destiny. Their opponents, the New York Giants, had lost six games and were 12-point underdogs.

That was a lock even Houdini couldn't undo, right?

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The Lakers were a lock in 2004, right? Wrong.

In 2004, my hometown Detroit Pistons, a seemingly ragtag team of castoffs, were squaring off in the NBA Finals against the mighty Los Angeles Lakers, who featured not only Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, but also Karl Malone and Gary Payton. It was a tall order finding a prognosticator who predicted anything less than a Lakers sweep, much less a Pistons victory.

Bolt cutters, a safecracker and a skeleton key couldn't break that lock, right?

You get my point. Nothing is guaranteed in this world. Heck, in Omer Asik, Harden even has another worthy candidate as a teammate.

Having said all that, let's take a moment to look at Harden's accomplishments.

I will stand up and readily admit I was wrong. When the Harden trade went through for the Rockets, I thought they had given up too much. Bear in mind, I was a Harden fan. But Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and two first-rounders? I saw regrets and heartbreak in my crystal ball.

Then came Harden's 37-point debut, followed by his 45-point outburst. Thus auspiciously began a season where James Harden has absolutely been The Man. And that's a phrase I reserve only for the very finest players in the NBA.

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T-Mac only averaged 25 PPG once as a Rocket.

Few understand how difficult it is to average 25 points in a season. The great Tracy McGrady did it only once in his Houston career. Most seasons, not more than 10 players manage the feat—often not more than five.

Few further understand how rare it is to average that prodigious point-per-game total in one's first year as a starter.

Frequent readers know how much I value consistency. Outside of his last game in Memphis, where Harden clearly wasn't himself, the Beard has failed to cross the 20-point threshold only nine times in over 70 games. That's simply incredible.

Averaging 25 not only means you are your team's go-to guy. It also means the world is expected of you. In other words, it's taken for granted that you are going to get your points on any given night.

Let me tell you something about life, in case you aren't aware of it. No one—but I mean no one—has it on every given night.

There are the nights your girlfriend broke up with you, or your mother is diagnosed with a long-term illness, or you got a stomach flu from that sushi you left sitting out.

Then there are those nights where nothing so dramatic happens. Maybe you just couldn't sleep, or your mind is wandering, or you just want to pull the covers up over your head and stay in bed all day.

That is the human condition. NBA players are no different than the rest of us.

So when someone can bring it every night, they stand out.

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Letterman, as funny as he is, struggles to bring it every night—unlike Harden.

Take talk show hosts. Johnny Carson was his amiable, droll, elegant Everyman self night after night, no matter what divorce he was on, what problems with alcohol he was having. Even when his son died tragically, Carson was Carson.

Jay Leno is similarly consistent. Regardless of what you think of him, so is Howard Stern.

I think David Letterman is funnier and more innovative than anyone else I listed. But if you watch him closely, you know that Letterman has bad days, where he's short with guests, rushes through his monologue and looks for all the world like he just wants to get the heck out of that studio.

I daresay that's why he's beaten in the ratings consistently by Leno. We as humans aren't consistent. So we're comforted by people we know will be.

That's James Harden. You pay your money or you set your DVR, and you can bet dollars to doughnuts Harden will light it up for 20 or more a night, virtually every night. And that's at 23 years old, in his first year as a starter.

Fine, you say. But that's not improvement. That's simply reliability.

True. So let's talk improvement.

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Harden with the Thunder: really good. Harden with the Rockets: one of the top 10 players in the league—if not top five.

Harden was a terrific talent off the bench in Oklahoma City, so it's not like he came out of nowhere. But the Thunder were Durant's team, with Westbrook as Robin to Durant's Batman.

Harden came to Houston as nothing more than a third option with upside. Yet, when the Rockets handed Harden the ball and the team, he rewarded their faith with a single-season improvement for the ages.

In just seven more minutes per game as a starter in Houston, Harden is scoring nearly 10 more points, notching two more assists and getting to the line 4.3 more times. His turnovers have only increased by about 50 percent, while his steals have almost doubled. His player efficiency rating has climbed from 30th place at 21.13 to eighth in the league at 23.5.

Last year, Harden was a colorful and impressive role player. This year, he's mentioned in the same breath as the one-name guys like Kobe and LeBron.

Let's look at how his differential stacks up against some of my other candidates:

 

Omer Asik

In his first year as a starter, Harden's teammate is playing 15 more minutes per game this year. The Rockets center is scoring seven more points than last season, while grabbing six more rebounds and blocking about the same number of shots. His turnover rate has more than doubled while his steals have remained constant.

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Asik has been a stalwart for the Rockets.

His total rebounding rate is 22.2, good for fourth in the league, compared to 20.1 last year. His PER has gone from 13.44 to 15.06—good for 37th place among centers both years.

Love the guy. Absolutely love him. And without his surprisingly hardy defense, the Rockets would be sunk.

But he hasn't improved as significantly as Harden.

 

Nikola Vucevic

 I like this kid a lot—a whole lot. And I know Philadelphia 76ers fans probably get a sick feeling when they see his name on this list. Like the other two candidates, Vucevic is a full-time starter for the first time this year. He's averaging 17 more minutes, contributing seven more points, five more rebounds and one more assist. He's also notching a turnover more, while just .3 more steals and .3 more blocks.

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His total rebounding rate has improved from 16.8 to 19.9, but his defense is just average. And in PER, he's gone from a 14.33 rating, 32nd among centers in 2011-2012, to 17, which puts him in 29th place.

In terms of coming out of nowhere, this guy wins the award. In terms of overall improvement, the nod still goes to Harden.

 

J.J. Hickson

 If we're going on most improved from his former team to his current one, there is no way anyone wins but this guy.

Hickson was waived last season by the Sacramento Kings. That's like being told you can't act by Keanu Reeves. And yet here he sits, one season later, seventh in the league in field-goal percentage and third in the league in rebounds per 48 minutes.

No player's improvement can compare with his story of redemption.

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I'll compare his stats from the Kings to this year with the Portland Trail Blazers: In 11 more minutes per game, Hickson is scoring 8.3 more points and grabbing 5.6 more rebounds. His turnovers climbed .7 while his steals and blocks remained virtually consistent.

But there's a problem: Hickson was waived on March 19. So last season, he played in 19 games for the Blazers, starting 10 of them. His improvement started immediately.

Given his circumstances, Hickson really can't be considered. But were one to discount his short stint last year with the Blazers, he'd be a shoo-in.

This is a guy I have mentioned multiple times as a fallback free agent should the Rockets fail to land Dwight Howard. I think Houston would embrace his work ethic, personality and production.

 

Jrue Holiday

 Here's another instance where I was wrong. I always loved Holiday's stout defense, but I didn't think he had it in him to improve as markedly as he has this year. In just 4.4 more minutes per game, Holiday is scoring five more points, racking up four more assists and grabbing one more rebound. Turnovers are up just .2, while steals have remained consistent.

He's also getting almost 1.5 more free-throw attempts.

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This is a differential that can only be described as leaps and bounds. Holiday is now a top-tier point guard, and I couldn't be happier for Philadelphia, who got jobbed on the Andrew Bynum trade.

I just didn't foresee Holiday elevating his game as he did, and I'm sorry I underestimated him. To me, this differential merits second place to Harden, with Asik third and Vucevic fourth. Given the nature of his improvement, Hickson can receive nothing more than a very honorable mention.

 

Conclusion

Just put it into this context: In October, Harden was the guy Oklahoma City could afford to give up. In April, he's got a good shot at making the All-NBA First Team, and if not for a guy named LeBron, he might well be in the running for MVP.

Because of Harden, the Houston Rockets are now the darlings of ESPN come highlight time, a popular pick for a first-round upset come playoff time, and a seriously considered destination come free-agent signing time.

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I don't believe in locks. A sportswriter calling something a lock is like a player guaranteeing a victory: You get no credit if you're right and plenty of ridicule if you're wrong.

I'll say simply this: Of the candidates, I believe Harden is the most deserving of the honor. And he'll win if there is justice in the world.

But as to whether the world is just, I think I can safely say that's no lock.

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