James Harden's NBA MVP case is already strong. So strong, in fact, it's difficult—nigh impossible—for him to have a sturdier one.
Dwight Howard's latest injury gives him the opportunity to make the inconceivable a reality.
If there's a comforting prospect to the road ahead, it's this, because it's impossible to find other breaks in the clouds. Howard is expected to miss at least a month while nursing his right knee, according to ESPN.com's Marc Stein, leaving the Houston Rockets down one superstar at the worst possible time.
The Western Conference's postseason race isn't just heating up; it's on fire. Four games separate the No. 2 seed from the No. 6 seed. The Rockets themselves are clinging to third place, three games behind the second-place Memphis Grizzlies and a half-game in front of the Los Angeles Clippers.
One game-long misstep could cost the Rockets home-court advantage, thrusting them into an unideal first-round matchup, insofar as an ideal opponent actually exists in the ultracompetitive Western Conference. If they're to hold firm or even bridge the current gap between them and the Grizzlies in Howard's absence, it's going to take a lot more of Harden.
And if a lot more of Harden produces that return, well, the All-Star shooting guard's MVP candidacy goes from strong to Teflon.
Task at Hand
Losing Howard cuts deep. It stings. It burns. The 29-year-old center is not the nightly 20-point, 14-rebound, two-block force he was five years ago, but he's still incredibly important to how the Rockets play.
These are not the Rockets of last season. That team was dependent on the offense. Personnel has since changed, and so too has the Rockets' identity.
As Zach Harper pointed out for CBS Sports:
In a season and a half with Dwight Howard lacing up his sneakers alongside James Harden, the Houston Rockets have been an evolving team. They went from being an offensive juggernaut that chucked a seemingly countless 3-pointers and struggled defensively to a middle-of-the-road offensive team that chucks a lot of 3s and is one of the NBA's best defensive teams. ...
The reason they've gone from the 12th-best defense (which was fine) to third-best defense is Howard's presence. When he's been healthy, he's looked a lot like the center who won three straight Defensive Player of the Year awards with the Orlando Magic. He's anchored a defense that switched out Chandler Parsons for Trevor Ariza and has received a much better effort from Harden.
That offensive regression has played a pivotal part in gassing up Harden's MVP chase. The Rockets are pumping in just 103.3 points per 100 possessions (14th), down from 108.6 last season (fourth). Devoid of another primary playmaker, Harden's usage and assist rates have skyrocketed during this offensive downswing. The NBA's leading scorer isn't just the Rockets' most dangerous weapon. He is their lifeline.
Hence the reason Howard's absence is so troubling. The offense isn't going to improve without him, and the defense only stands to get worse:
|The Dwight Howard Problem|
|Rockets...||MP||Off. Rtg.||Rank Equivalent||Def. Rtg.||Rank||Net. Rtg.||Rank|
Accounting for Howard's stay on the sidelines isn't solely up to Harden. His injury most directly affects Donatas Motiejunas, Joey Dorsey, Josh Smith and Terrence Jones, who will all shoulder more responsibilities up front.
"All those guys are going to have to step up for us,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said, per the Houston Chronicle's Jenny Dial Creech. “They all have to defend. They all have to rebound. They all have to play well. Dwight is just a strong, big-bodied, physical guy. Those guys are going to have to play bigger guys.”
Howard's most vital on-court commodity is his rim protection. Of the 75 NBA players who contest five or more shots at the iron every night, he ranks eighth in opponent field-goal percentage. Some combination of the aforesaid players, only one of which is known for his paint-policing (Smith), will need to replace Howard's shot-blocking and rebounding.
Still, it's Harden who was charged with picking up the superstar slack the first time around.
Counting Howard's eight-minute stint against the Phoenix Suns on Jan. 23 as an absence, the Rockets are 12-4 without him. Eleven of those first absences were lumped together early in the season, during which time the Rockets went 8-3 and Harden averaged 29.1 points, six rebounds, 6.1 assists, 2.4 steals and 1.2 blocks on 46.3 percent shooting.
Similar success would further cement Harden's all-everything status. In part because, you know, wow; mostly, though, the schedule isn't as forgiving.
Including that Jan. 23 victory over Phoenix, five of the Rockets' Howard-less wins have come against Western Conference playoff teams. If Howard misses one month, the Rockets will face seven Western Conference playoff squads, against which they're a combined 8-7 on the season.
Eleven of their next 13 games also come against above-.500 contingents, including their next seven. The Rockets are an unimpressive 12-12 when facing opponents .500 or better thus far.
This upcoming stretch was going to test their championship mettle no matter what. The stakes are just that much higher now that Howard is gone.
For Harden, the burden he must ferry is that much heavier. But if he's able to cart it, if the Rockets have not dropped outside the top four by the time Howard returns, the aftermath will be that much sweeter.
There's no discrediting Harden's MVP case if it's left alone. His 27 points, 5.6 rebounds, 6.8 assists and two steals per game are ridiculous. Only three other players have ever maintained those benchmarks for an entire season: LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Dwyane Wade. Some company.
Harden leads the league in win shares as well. Five of the last six MVP winners have done the same. Of course, four of those five honors were handed to James alone. But still...
Supernatural numbers and mystic performances in mind, Harden is not the clear-cut favorite to win. James is sneaking back into the conversation after spearheading the Cleveland Cavaliers' run of terror. DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis are making us rethink the importance of an MVP candidate headlining a playoff team.
Stephen Curry is the opponent most often pitted against Harden, though. MVP ladders have vacillated back and forth, seemingly changing by the week. And as Rahil Mathur notes for Blue Man Hoop, Curry may have a historical advantage over Harden at the moment:
So what sets them apart?
The narrative. The MVP Award unfortunately is not the MVP of the League Award, but in reality the award is the MVP of one of the top seeded teams. And right now, the Warriors are sitting pretty as the first seed in the West. Since 1985, no MVP has been awarded to a player on a team with a seed lower than the third. As a result, Curry inherently has the advantage over Harden in this regard by playing for the best team in the West. So yes, Curry is most likely currently leading the MVP race.
No arguments here. Curry is the most important player on the Golden State Warriors. The team goes from outscoring opponents by 18.4 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor to being a minus-1.1—the net-rating equivalent of a Western Conference lottery team.
Golden State has had to navigate its fair share of injuries, too. Andrew Bogut is guaranteed to sit for at least 15 games every season, and David Lee has missed more contests than he's played in.
But for all Bogut's defensive value—the Warriors' point-prevention is historically good with him in the game—he is not Howard. Golden State sports depth Houston can only dream about. The Warriors have another star in Klay Thompson and a rising luminary in Draymond Green. They're equipped to handle key absences.
The Rockets are not.
Carrying Houston without Howard, in a Western Conference where multiple stars are the standard, is a harrowing task. The Rockets do not have a cushion to sit on. Their playoff seeding can change by the day.
Stumble through 10 or 15 games without Howard, and they could find themselves sitting in seventh place. That's no joke. Just three games separate them from a bottom-two seed.
Staving off that kind of free fall isn't a given. It would be a huge victory and, most importantly, attest to Harden's astounding one-man act.
An Opportunity to Seize
Like the NBA regular season in general, the MVP chase is a marathon, not a sprint.
Top candidates will change by the month and the week. The award is not won in February or March. It's won over time, over the course of an entire season.
To that end, failing to keep the Rockets' heads above water in Howard's absence will not ruin Harden's MVP credentials entirely. He's already done so much and continues to do so much. He cannot be harshly judged against yet another set of circumstances that are beyond his control.
Keep the Rockets afloat, though, and Harden will have once again done something his peers have not—thrive under extreme conditions, in an extreme conference, not conducive to survival, let alone success. And that alone would be enough for him to hijack an MVP race for which there isn't yet an indisputable winner.