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How James Harden Can Become Dark-Horse NBA MVP Candidate

Kelly Scaletta@@KellyScalettaFeatured ColumnistNovember 11, 2014

AP Images

James Harden is leading the Houston Rockets to a surprisingly good start. In fact, if things continue on their present trajectory, he might even win the 2015 Most Valuable Player award.

The MVP is one of the more misunderstood and controversial awards because "valuable" is not clearly defined. “Value” is about as abstract a thing as there is. However, if we change the context of the word, we can shed light on the subject.

In real estate, value depends largely on three factors: quality, location and history. Each of these things has a parallel in the MVP award.

Just as factors like size and building materials affect the value of a house, so too do skills and abilities impact the measure of a player. And the MVP also has his own version of “location” based on where his team is in the standings.

Finally, a house can have its value impacted by narrative. For example, if a celebrity is born there, it can add tens of thousands to the price. If a murder occurred in it, that can lower the cost.

Similarly, there are other factors which can raise or lower the value of a player, such as his personal story or how he’s impacted his team. For example, if a player carries his team through injuries, it can add perceived “value” to him in the eyes of voters.

Thus, there are three factors which go into determining the MVP award: individual success (determined largely by stats), team success and narrative. Based on each of these criteria, let’s look at Harden to see what his MVP chances are and how he can improve them.  

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Individual Success

How much does individual success matter in winning the MVP? Some people have equated it with a kind of “best player” award. While that’s certainly an aspect, it’s never been the whole argument.

Looking at where the MVP winners have ranked in win shares helps to get a gauge on how much it matters. Here is where they finished since the ABA and NBA merged in the 1976-77 season:

MVPs Win Share Rank
RankMVP
122
26
33
42
51
10+4
Basketball-Reference.com

Overall, 34 of the 38 winners (89.4 percent) have been in the top five in win shares, and 22 (57.9 percent) have led the league. The four players who didn’t finish in the top five didn’t even finish in the top 10.

In three of those four cases—Steve Nash’s two awards in 2005 and 2006 and Allen Iverson’s 2001—it’s because win shares didn’t adequately measure the value of the player in question. In the fourth—Bill Walton in 1978—it was because he missed 24 games.

So unless there are extreme circumstances, the litmus is: The MVP must be a top-five player in terms of win shares.  

Last season, per Basketball-Reference.com, Harden was fifth in the league with 12.8 win shares. Through the early part of this season, he’s first. That comes with a caveat, though: Anthony Davis is averaging more win shares per game (.25 to Harden’s .23).

That said, Harden is looking like he’s going to meet that qualification of top-five player.

Offensively, Harden has been special. He’s averaging 25.4 points and 7.1 assists and posting a true shooting percentage of .584. In the history of the league, those numbers have only been matched seven other times. The other players who have accomplished it are Oscar Robertson (twice), Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and LeBron James (thrice).

Based on the first criteria, Harden is having an MVP-caliber season, but not to such a degree that he’s running away with it. There’s a chance that his points go up. If he wins the scoring title, he would certainly be an MVP front-runner.

Team Success

One of the more controversial criteria of the award is team success. No matter whether it should be included in voting, historically, it has been a factor.

Since the merger, this is where the MVP’s team has ranked league-wide in winning percentage:

MVP's Team Place in League-Wide Standings
StandingsMVP
123
29
31
42
61
82
Basketball-Reference.com

The MVP has come from the team with one of the two best records 32 of 38 times (84.2 percent). That indicates team success matters even more than individual success to voters.

The last time a winner came from a team that didn’t finish with one of the four best records was 1988. Jordan won when he averaged 35.0 points, 5.5 boards, 5.9 assists, 3.2 steals and 1.6 blocks. It was one of the greatest individual seasons in NBA history.

Barring a historically dominant individual season (Davis, anyone?), the MVP is likely to be a player from an elite team.

Meeting both of these criteria really helps, as the winner has done so 30 of 38 times. If you want to distill the qualifying standard down to an easy phrase, it’s a top-five player on a top-three team.

Which clubs have an authentic chance of being in the top three? The Rockets are surprisingly establishing they do. They are 10th in offensive rating and first in defensive rating, making them one of only three teams ranked among the top 10 in both (along with the Toronto Raptors and Portland Trail Blazers).

Even adjusting for schedule, they have the best net rating (the difference in scoring per 100 possessions) in the NBA. 

Other teams that could vie for best record include the Raptors and Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference. Some would include the Cleveland Cavaliers, but their defense (ranked 29th) is likely going to cost them too many games.

In the West, the Memphis Grizzlies are looking strong now, but their offense (ranked 19th) could hold them back from a top-three record. The San Antonio Spurs look like they’re planning on pacing themselves. The Los Angeles Clippers are struggling on defense. The Oklahoma City Thunder are dealing with a plethora of injuries.

The best record will probably come from the East because the schedule will be easier, but the MVP could just as easily come from the top seed in the West, which will probably come down to Houston and Golden State.

Narrative

Wally Santana/Associated Press

By combining the previous two factors, we can trim down the field considerably. LeBron James, Kevin Love, Davis, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and even DeMarcus Cousins may all vie for the top-five-player conversation, but their respective teams aren’t going to be contending for best-record status.

There are also teams who might contend for the regular-season championship who don’t have likely MVP candidates. The Bulls have Derrick Rose, but he’s likely to miss too many games. The Trail Blazers have LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, who are very good players but aren’t in that top-five discussion. The Raptors have Kyle Lowry, who is underrated but not that underrated.  

Kevin Durant is going to miss too many games, and by the time he comes back, the Thunder will be too far out in terms of their win-loss record.

Based on the first two outlined criteria, two players rise to the top: Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry and Harden. And from there, it comes down to narrative. Curry has the slight edge in both of them and has the last by a sizable gap.

Curry is a media favorite. He’s a great kid and incredibly fun to watch. When his shot is dropping, it’s pure high-def entertainment. He’s the all-American boy.

Even when Curry does something wrong, the media has a way of making it right. After a 10-turnover game, he posted a picture of an apple turnover on his Instagram and the media ate it up (the response, not the pastry).

Harden, on the other hand, is viewed as a “ref-baiter” who doesn’t play a lick of defense. But that’s where he can actually flip the narrative. What the media loves more than anything else is righting a wrong. It plays so well into the American maxim that hard work pays off.

And Harden has been putting work into the defensive end, even if it hasn’t caught up to the average fan yet. Let’s do a little blind player test to demonstrate how much.

Player A is Harden. Player B is the Indiana Pacers’ Roy Hibbert. Player C is the 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year, Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol.

Blind Player Defensive Comparsion
PlayerDefensive Rebounds/GameSteals/GameBlocks/GameDefensive Win Shares
A5.91.41.10.6
B5.80.13.40.5
C5.61.31.50.6
Basketball-Reference.com

Granted, distilling defense down to a few numbers is impossible. However, the Rockets are giving up 4.8 fewer points per 100 possessions while Harden is on the court, per NBA.com. That’s not enough to justify him for All-Defensive team, but it certainly suggests a big improvement.

That said, Curry also manages to beat Harden on the less-sexy end of the court with 6.0 defensive boards, 3.1 steals and 0.6 defensive win shares in the same number of games. And the Warriors' defensive rating is 6.8 points per 100 possessions better while Curry plays, according to NBA.com.

Curry has to be the MVP favorite right now, with Harden in hot pursuit. The Warriors’ superstar is currying all the favor with the voters, but if they don’t harden their hearts, the Rockets’ guard has a real chance.

Stats for this article were obtained from Basketball-Reference.com.