One, there’s about six guys who would make compelling MVP candidates in virtually any other NBA season. LeBron James is still the best basketball player on earth, even though he basically took a vacation to start the season, and he could bring Cleveland its first major sports title since 1964.
Anthony Davis will dominate the NBA for the next decade. Russell Westbrook turned into some sort of Roman basketball deity for about six weeks during the season. And incredibly, Chris Paul is still underrated, even though he’s the best point guard in the world and of my lifetime.
But two, none of these players are better candidates than Harden or Golden State’s Stephen Curry, who have rightfully emerged as the competing favorites.
Curry and Harden are the best players on their respective teams. They play for the two winningest teams in an absurdly competitive conference, both of which have legitimate title hopes. Both Houston and Golden State run offenses tailored specifically to the skill sets of their respective star. And both have made marked improvement on the defensive end, becoming legitimate two-way players.
So, why Harden? It's incredibly tight. I’ve broken down the debate into three categories: individual statistics, team success and the entirely subjective (but important) “likeability.”
Consider the following charts:
|Harden vs. Curry|
|Harden vs. Curry (Advanced)|
Could that be any closer? To sum up the data above, Curry tops Harden in assists, field goal percentage, three-point shooting, player efficiency rating (PER) and value-over-a-replacement-player (VORP). Harden tops Curry in points, rebounds, win shares (the estimated number of wins a player generated for his team) and usage rate (the estimated percentage of a team’s offensive possessions used by a player). The two just bounce back and forth on the stat sheet.
Curry set the NBA record this year for three-pointers made (286), while posting the third-best 3PT% in the league. That’s impressive in and of itself, but the two players whose 3PT% were higher than Curry’s—Atlanta’s Kyle Korver and New Orleans’ Eric Gordon—attempted almost or more than 200 fewer three-point shots than Curry. Curry shot over 48% from the floor overall and flirted with the revered 50-40-90 club throughout the season.
He is both prolific and efficient, and he’s the best player on the league’s best team.
But Harden has been better:
There are really just two points to make here. First, Harden is clearly not the shooter that Curry is. But he logs more minutes, scores more points, bears a heavier offensive load, is comparably efficient and receives virtually all of opposing teams’ defensive attention. Teams can’t leave Klay Thompson open; they’re more willing to gamble with Patrick Beverley. Plus, Harden is an absolute genius passer, coaxing key contributions from an unheralded supporting cast:
And second, Harden has not only accounted for more of his team’s wins (both offensively and defensively) than Curry, but he has outperformed Curry in the clutch.
One final note on statistics: Harden shot 824 free throws this year. Eight hundred and twenty-four. That’s preposterous. In NBA history, only three players—Adrian Dantley, Allen Iverson and the incomparably named Lloyd B. Free—have attempted more than 824 free throws while playing a position other than center or power forward.
For some reason, people actually cite Harden’s prolific free throw output as a reason not to vote for him as MVP. That’s just silly. The three most efficient shots for NBA teams are corner three-pointers, dunks and free throws. Harden is a wizard at getting to the free throw line. It’s good for his team when he does, and he knows it.
Curry is the best player on the league’s best team. But as many have pointed out, Harden doesn’t have Curry’s teammates. He doesn’t have Draymond Green, and he certainly doesn’t have Klay Thompson. The only player on Houston's roster who might warrant special attention from opposing defenses is Dwight Howard, who missed half the season and has never quite panned out for the Rockets. Few expected Houston to improve from last season, even with a healthy Howard. But they pulled it off, and it’s almost certainly because of Harden.
Houston sans Harden would be a fringe playoff team, not a title contender. Replace Steph Curry with a league-average point guard, and the Warriors still probably make the playoffs (albeit with 12-15 fewer wins). But replace Harden with a league-average player, and the Rockets would have likely been fighting with New Orleans and Oklahoma City for the No. 8 seed. Frankly, I’d pick both of those teams over a Harden-less Rockets squad.
In terms of how good their teams have been, Curry wins. But there’s a pretty obvious correlation between teams that win games and teams with stacked rosters. Golden State benched David Lee…and got better. Harden took an injury-ridden, already-somewhat-dubious Houston roster and led it to the No. 2 seed in the toughest conference in recent memory. He's simply responsible for more of his team’s success than Curry.
Unfortunately for Harden, this is where Curry shines. I think Harden should be the MVP because he’s contributed more to his team’s achievements while posting an efficient and historically well-rounded stat line. But I can’t deny that I really, really, really love watching Steph Curry play basketball.
He’s humble. He says all the right things. He’s never in headlines for the wrong reasons. He likes his teammates, and his teammates like him. And when Curry is hot—which is most of the time—there’s nobody else like him. I could watch him shoot basketballs forever.
Harden, meanwhile, is similarly absent from the headlines. But his style of play is simply not that fun to watch. Every once in awhile, he does something ridiculous, like this:
But eventually, it just gets old. The ceaseless hesitation moves, the melodramatic arm-waving and head-twisting, the endless barrage of free throws, the maniacal, Billy Beane-esque focus on efficiency over style—it works, and it’s not easy to do, but it’s boring. Plus, Harden flops, and nobody likes a flopper.
If Golden State is on TV, I’m watching, because Curry might do something crazy. Even the most meaningless regular season Warriors games are worth watching. That is far from true for Harden and the Rockets.
Of course, “likeability” is an absurd reason to crown one player the MVP over another. But I have a feeling that’s what this is going to come down to. Curry has been so good, and his mass appeal is so astronomically high, that voters will probably struggle to pick anyone else. That’s unfortunate for Harden.
When NBA teams prepare to play the Rockets, they devote their entire defensive attention to stopping James Harden. He is efficient, well-rounded and creative. Despite a plethora of injuries and a relatively weak supporting cast, Harden has Houston well in contention for a title. Without him, the Rockets probably aren’t even playing right now. He should be the MVP.
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.