The real measure of James Harden's MVP growth won't be taken until after the votes are tallied.
The hoops world hasn't seen The Beard dominate the regular season like this before, but, Maurice Podoloff Trophy or not, it has to witness that excellence extend to the playoffs.
For all the strides the 25-year-old has made in his pro career, that section of his resume remains disturbingly light.
It's not for lack of opportunity, as Harden is preparing to make his sixth postseason appearance in as many NBA seasons. But during his previous five trips, he's shot above 44 percent from the field only once—and better than 39.1 percent only twice.
Considering he's a 44.5 percent shooter for his career, it's glaringly apparent that the four-round trek to the title is a different type of beast from the 82-game marathon Harden has run with relative ease.
"Fair or not, James Harden will either: 1) get the monkey off of his back by leading the Rockets out of the first round, or 2) watch the monkey grow into a Godzilla that casts a shadow over the rest of his remarkable season," wrote Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver.
If that sounds a tad dramatic, the numbers say it is anything but. His counting categories have largely carried over to the second season, but he's taken substantial hits in the efficiency department since stepping into the Space City spotlight.
Houston owns a .631 regular-season winning percentage since acquiring Harden from the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012, but that number nosedives to .333 come playoff time.
He didn't have the supporting cast to make noise in the 2013 postseason, but Dwight Howard's arrival the following summer erased that excuse. Superman looked the part of comic book hero during Houston's opening-round matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers last year—26 points, 13.7 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game—but Harden's disappearing act doomed the Rockets.
Dubbed "the biggest playoff disappointment this side of Roy Hibbert" by ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton last May, Harden connected on an abysmal 37.6 percent of his field-goal attempts. And that was hardly the only evidence of his postseason problems.
"Harden is getting shots...but many are contested, off isolation plays, and he's not converting," Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins wrote. "Meanwhile, his assist numbers are also down, and he's presenting little resistance on the other end of the floor."
One star wasn't going to be enough for Houston, with Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge doing his own elite-level damage (29.8 points, 11.2 boards and 2.7 blocks for the series). And before the Rockets could get their second star going, the Blazers relied on theirs (Damian Lillard) to secure a second-round spot.
This time around, the Rockets enter postseason play even more dependent on Harden's production.
Howard is still working his way back into shape after a two-month layoff to correct a knee ailment. Starting point guard Patrick Beverley is done for the year following surgery to repair ligaments in his left wrist.
Harden hasn't been Houston's driver for the 2014-15 campaign; he's been the car itself.
|How Houston Has Fared With and Without Harden|
|Situation||Offensive Rating||Defensive Rating||Net Rating|
That's the reason Harden's MVP stock is one of the league's highest.
The Rockets wouldn't have a playoff team or a competent offense without him. But he's powered this team to the No. 2 seed in a jam-packed Western Conference and helped this attack function as a top-five unit when he plays.
"I have the ball in my hand so much that it's hard to make the right play every single time," Harden said, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle and Bleacher Report. "For the most part I try to make the right play whether it's making a pocket pass or just getting off the ball or being in attack mode. Just reading it and exploring the defense."
Harden leads the team—and the league—in scoring at 27.7 points per game. He has over 300 more assists than Houston's next-best distributor (528 to Trevor Ariza's 202). Harden has been the team's top quantity-plus-quality shooter, pacing it in three-point makes (200) and tying for the team lead in three-point percentage (38.1).
A gifted scorer and a willing setup man, he can single-handedly break down a defense to find his shots or open up looks for his teammates.
"Nine times out of 10, he's going to make a move and get a good shot, if it's one-on-one," Jason Terry said, per The Oklahoman's Berry Tramel. "He's the best we have in the game right now at playing one-on-one."
But Harden has to maintain that level when the lights get brighter, the stage gets bigger and the pace of play slows for the postseason.
Accolades won't make that any easier.
He was first-team All-NBA last season before his unceremonious playoff exit. He was Sixth Man of the Year in 2011-12 before going silent in that season's NBA Finals (12.4 points on 37.5 percent shooting for the series).
For all the MVP campaigning Houston has done on Harden's behalf, that's not where his focus lies.
"It's just about the scoreboard. The first year, I was excited to be averaging a lot of points and taking a team to the playoffs. Now, there's a bigger picture," Harden said, per Feigen. "We have so much talent in this locker room, so great an opportunity to achieve something that I've only done once, and that's to get to the Finals."
But Harden has to exorcise his personal playoff demons to make that happen.
That means not settling for contested jumpers. It means driving for baskets instead of trips to the charity stripe, since he knows firsthand that foul calls can stop coming as frequently during postseason play. (He averaged 6.8 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes in last year's playoffs, down from 8.6 during the regular season.)
It's about punishing overzealous defenses with his passing as opposed to trying to beat them by himself.
It's about not letting his MVP finish—whether he wins or winds up close to the top—serve as an asterisk to yet another playoff disappointment. Everyone knows The Beard can ball, but they have to see him do it when the stakes are at their highest.