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How James Harden Forced His Way Back into MVP Conversation

Maurice Bobb@@ReeseReportFeatured ColumnistJanuary 3, 2019

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - DECEMBER 29:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets stands on the court during a NBA game against the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center on December 29, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

HOUSTON—James Harden normally doesn't have a propensity to pontificate about himself or his exploits on the court. Whenever he's questioned about basketball, he's succinct, reserved, contemplative. He lets his game do the talking.

And for the month of December, it was record-breaking.

The NBA's reigning MVP scored 408 points, dished out 89 assists and pulled down 68 rebounds over his last 10 games. It was the most points, assists and rebounds logged over a 10-game span by any player in NBA history. But as impressive as those stats were, they weren't loud enough.

Perhaps annoyed by the viral memes attacking his step-back jumper and various trolling comments proliferating the internet, Harden erupted with an impassioned statement about securing back-to-back MVPs that sent a jolt through the league like a crack of thunder.

"Of course I should be in that conversation. I mean, I receive a lot of hate, but it won't stop me from going out there and killing every single night, being that dog that I am," Harden said with a hint of bluster last week. "You can name a few other people that should be in the conversation. But realistically? It's coming back."

That was quite the quote from a player whose sartorial whims speak louder than he does. But as the Houston Rockets (21-15) begin their new year with a nationally televised game against the Golden State Warriors in Oracle Arena on Thursday, he opted for the exclamation point.

"I need it. I need it for sure," Harden told Bleacher Report's Will Gottlieb when asked if he's hungry for winning another MVP. "And I'm going to get it."

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There it is. One of Harden's resolutions for 2019 is earning another Maurice Podoloff Trophy.

But does he deserve it?

The judging guidelines for MVP are subjective and esoteric, but if the judges focus solely on numbers, Harden has an airtight case.

"He's by far the MVP," head coach Mike D'Antoni said. "Nobody does what he does on a nightly basis."

The Western Conference Player of the Week recorded his fourth triple-double of the season Monday night with 43 points, 10 rebounds and 13 assists in the Rockets' 113-101 win over the Memphis Grizzlies and his eighth straight game with at least 35 points and five assists, passing Oscar Robertson for the record. He also joined Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant as the third player over the last 30 years to drop at least 400 points over 10 games.

With The Beard's dominant finish to 2018, Houston moved from 14th to fourth in the Western Conference.

"I don't know how you get any better than what he's playing," D'Antoni added. "Defensively, too. He comes up with steals, triple-doubles like it's nothing. So, yeah, he's playing at a different level."

Harden hit another gear during the Rockets' recent 10-1 run, averaging an eye-popping 39.7 points, 8.5 assists, 6.3 rebounds, 2.1 steals and 5.5 made three-pointers per game, but critics won't easily forget how the team started the season.

At the beginning of last month, only the Phoenix Suns had a worse record in the West. Houston started at 11-14, and that grated at Harden, so he went to work.

"He comes in and does extra work," D'Antoni said. "He knew he had to take his body to one more level up. He had to get into a better rhythm. He's been playing a lot of one-on-one. He's been doing a lot of extra work in the weight room. He's been putting his time in. Obviously, it's paying dividends."

Harden is averaging a league-leading 33.3 points per contest, the highest scoring average since Bryant's 35.4 points per game in 2005-06. He's also stepped forward as a leader, making sure his teammates are as locked in as he is.

"He's making sure guys get extra work in after practice," Gerald Green said. "Making sure guys are focused on pregame. He does a lot of little things you probably don't see on camera."

Harden's array of three-pointers, Eurosteps in the lane, tomahawk dunks and crafty passes may come off as entertaining on camera, but there's something else that comes through just as clearly as the highlights: his high usage rate.

At 37.4, he has the ball in his hands a lot, and that level of play can be exhausting and unsustainable. Will Harden get burned out from being a one-man show?

With Chris Paul sidelined long term with a hamstring injury and Eric Gordon out with a right knee contusion, it's not surprising that the bat signal went up in Space City and Harden had to answer the call with a December to remember.

But as the season unfolds, his numbers will eventually come back to earth, and that's when the Rockets' record will come into play. Houston's climb back into the playoff picture gives Harden the hot hand in the MVP race, but like last year, it will come down to the team's final record.

Through all of the discretionary fog, the MVP ideally goes to the best player on the best team. By those standards, Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks (26-10) is the top candidate, followed by Kawhi Leonard of the Toronto Raptors (28-11).

Harden was an easy choice last season because Houston finished with the best record in the league at 65-17, and his numbers were off the charts. If he can lead his team to the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the West by the time the voters have to make their selection, he'll have a legitimate chance at repeating.

Luckily for Harden, there appears to be great parity in the league this year. There is no real dominant team when considering records.

The defending champion Warriors have the fifth-best record in the league, and the Boston Celtics have the eighth-best. Both teams were earmarked as the favorites to make the NBA Finals. The Denver Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder are playing surprisingly well, so for now, everything is up for grabs.

Another plus for the Rockets is they seem to have found the right mix of players.

Danuel House is found money, and Austin Rivers looks like a perfect fit for D'Antoni's system. Houston is averaging 7.9 more made three-pointers than its opponents since the 126-111 win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Dec. 13 and has out-rebounded opponents in seven of the last 10 games.

The Rockets have also won close games and have taken a huge step defensively. They are 24th in defensive efficiency for the year at 111 but are 10th over the last 10 games at 107.8.

If CP3 gets healthy and Gordon recaptures his ability to knock down open threes, Houston could be poised to mirror the team that everyone saw last season. That can only improve Harden's chances at making good on his prediction.

"There's a lot of games left, but if he continues to play at this level, of course there is no debate on who is the MVP," Clint Capela said. "I mean, we all see what he's doing. Everybody sees it. All he has to do is keep playing at this level every single night, and he's the MVP."

       

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

Maurice Bobb covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Maurice on Twitter, @ReeseReport.

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