Examining James Harden’s Place in The MVP Race

Written by: Noah

It’s a tough question. “Who has been the most valuable player so far?” Its complexity lies in the number of ways it could be answered. One would be correct in saying that there might not be any good way to quantify who is the most valuable player in the league using one rigid set of guidelines. From season to season, you’ll find that the most common defining MVP question is, “Who was the best player on the best team?” It has rung true for several winners before this year- Curry, James, Duncan- and it will continue to influence the results in future seasons. It’s a very simple and solid way to discern the most valuable from the not-as-valuable, sure, but it’s hardly the end-all be-all of criterion. After all, MVP voting is the ultimate exercise in determining the balance of individual stats & impact vs. supporting cast, and while best-player-on-best-team often strikes the best balance of this argument, it (once again) is not the best reason, as it so swiftly dismisses a number of considerable factors.

 Since there is no one all-encompassing standard or metric that fairly and accurately assesses all factors, it would be best to consider more than one angle. How much of an effect does a coach have on a team and the player leading that team? Does the #1 guy enable the rest of his teammates more than his teammates enable his style of play? Does he play both sides of the floor? All are valid questions, and become even more-so valid when you consider that the answer to the big question (who the best player in the league is) has more than one plausible answer.        Most voters exclude one top player from the argument altogether for one reason or another (mediocre team records and hollow stats chief among them). This year may be the toughest year to do that in recent memory for many, because it’s no longer the obvious two/three-person race it used to be. You can look at the very top teams (Golden State, Cleveland, San Antonio, Houston) and pick out the obvious front-runners. This season is special in itself in that there are three (and possibly four or five) serious candidates. Take a look further down the standings, and you’ll find that some of the other top-tier candidates belong to less-than-elite teams. Same as always, right? I’d venture to say that this season is even more special when you consider that those guys, despite not having top-five teams, still have a shot at garnering votes, and are still finding their way into top-five player discussions.

 I believe there are six (possibly seven) legitimate MVP candidates halfway through this season, which is a remarkably high number of players to consider for the top spot when looking through previous ballots. One or two are certain to trail behind as the season progresses as teams surge and flounder, making the race more exclusive. Focusing near the top, we’ll be taking a look at one particular MVP case- one which may be the most complete among all candidates.

One new coach, some new key players, and countless virtuoso performances later, and James Harden is back near the very top after a much-critiqued 2015-16. The re-energized Rockets are rolling (as of Wednesday night, 20-3 from the start of December), and much of that can be attributed to an offense centered around Harden (and a surprisingly good defense, but more on that later). Houston is at or near the top in virtually every offensive category, and it starts with the Harden-Capela, Harden-Harrell, Harden-whoever pick-and-roll. D’Antoni’s offensive sets appear simple: normally, Harden, along with one of Clint Capela, Montrezl Harrell, Ryan Anderson, or even Nene, will initiate a high PnR. That’s where the simplicity in MDA’s offense stops. Each of the three other players not involved in the initial action (usually all great shooters) are strategically set up in different areas along the three-point line, waiting for their men to collapse to help. It looks sort of like a pentagon formation I say strategically because they really are; many of Eric Gordon’s, Trevor Ariza’s, Ryan Anderson’s, and Patrick Beverley’s three-point shots are in places that put defenders in the most peril (the left and right wings and corners). These four guys have accounted for 418 threes this season (good for sixth in the entire league by themselves), and what’s more, they’ve hit them at an even 40%. The implications of those numbers are devastating for defenses: stick to those shooters, and there is a good chance the play will either end in a dunk (Capela, Harrell, and Nene are all great lob targets, and Harden is one of the very best in the league at timing his passes off a screen) or a pair of free throws (and lord knows Harden can get to the line). Attempt to close off the lane, and Harden will find the open man. The aforementioned, carefully-picked spots along the three-point line- the left and right wings and corners- are chosen primarily because they either:

Leave a help defender too far away to try and rotate to the basket. It may take longer for the defender to come to the basket than it takes Harden to get downhill.

Leave a defender too far away to contest the three on a drive-and-kick. Once the big man and the ball-handler draw the attention of other defenders, those snipers get just enough room. Check out this bit of chess grand wizardry:

        All it took was that head turn, a slight shuffle backwards by Ariza, and bang.

In another interesting wrinkle, those particular spots also take away all of the defender’s options if they react to the play slowly (it happens, though Houston’s high pick-and-roll is not overly reliant on this kind of mistake). Being in no man’s land (the mid-range area, roughly 8-10 feet from the nearest Rockets player) as a defender gives the ball-handler all the freedom to decide what the next move will be. And a player such as Harden, who takes whatever the defense gives, will kill teams when given another easy possibility. And that’s just if he’s looking to pass first. When Houston sets up in that pentagonal formation (usually in quick halfcourt sets such as this), the other shooters position themselves at the wings and corners, and Harden is free to take pretty much whatever shot he feels good about. The ball-handler in D’Antoni’s system often becomes accustomed to taking top-of-the-key threes and quick shots off of the initial screen, and Harden shoots 36% on top of they key three-pointers (a good mark, considering how many of those shots come off the bounce). He’s a streaky (but overall above-average) shooter that has the gift of creating just enough space on the perimeter to get a good look (he is also adept at drawing fouls on 3PA, adding just another reason for defenders to back off). When he drives (and he drives often- top five in drives per game), it becomes almost impossible to keep Harden from what he wants to do. In an interview with Kevin O’Connor of TheRinger.com, Harden described his game as being “All naturalistics. I don’t predetermine anything.” He is constantly looking to attack, and it shows in every movement, every dribble he takes. It’s truly something else to watch; he puts a defender at his mercy like no other player has this season. Hell, the other four opponents on the floor are practically at his mercy. The three-man combo of Harden / Ariza / Anderson are a whopping +270 on the season (the sixth-best three-man group in the entire league, and second-best among non-Warrior lineups. In Those damned Warriors), with Harden / Gordon / Anderson being their second-best at +163. This is the best core Harden has ever had as a Rocket, and he and the Rockets are playing their best ball as a result.

This is where the individual stats & impact vs. supporting cast conflict comes into play. The simple answer is that Harden would not be playing at this level without this team and this coach, and this coach and this team would not be as well-regarded as they are without Harden as the driving force. D’Antoni’s system has been known to be one of the more player dependent ones out of all of the top-tier head coaches; with the right personnel, it’s almost a guarantee that you will have a top-3 offense, as we’re seeing right now. If it’s not such a clean fit, well, we’ve seen how his L.A. and New York stints ended. What keeps D’Antoni a rung below the likes of Gregg Popovich and Rick Carlisle is his lack of adaptability in comparison. In Los Angeles and New York before that, D’Antoni was criticized for misusing certain players in his offense, which became much more of a weight-holding complaint when his system couldn’t work with stars such as Pau Gasol and Carmelo Anthony. (To be fair, Melo’s style didn’t mesh with D’Antoni’s ideals on a fundamental level. Who’s to blame?) Pop and Carlisle are masters at working with what they have, and their fluid mindset ensures success, even in times of immediate turmoil. There has always been an issue with any MDA-coached defense, as well. Normally middling-at-best or in the 15-20 range in terms of rankings, the apparent lack of focus on defense is a glaring detriment to his title aspirations. “Defense wins championships” is not one of the oldest and most well-known sports cliches around for nothing, after all. This year just might be different, however. While the numbers haven’t impacted their season-long defensive stats as a whole, they’ve held up as a top-10 defensive unit since December. Keep that up, and D’Antoni is sure to remain a favorite in Coach of The Year discussions as well as put up a legitimate fight against the league’s juggernauts. Considering all that he’s done to help mold the modern NBA, and considering the tremendous job he is doing this year, is Mike D’Antoni really the biggest reason for Harden’s success, though in a more indirect fashion?

Be wary of dissecting this sort of conflict. While it’s true that a number of players before Harden (Nash, Felton, Lin, Kobe) were able to put up career-best or near-peak numbers under D’Antoni (thus establishing the half-correct narrative that “any decent point guard/ball-handler can thrive with MDA”), consider that the numbers Harden puts up are superior to what anyone has ever done under the Pringles logo, and that it takes a special type of player to do so. There have been many good-to-great fits in D’Antoni’s offense, though nothing quite like this. We’ve known about Harden’s unique style, his strengths, his flaws, and his perceived ceiling. Are his numbers inflated? It’s possible. Again, a handful of players (some already good/great, some just okay) had career-best seasons under MDA, and didn’t see that kind of success before or after (though in fairness to Bryant, his best basketball was behind him, and we know what happened after 2013). Personally, I don’t know that Harden could do any better than what he’s doing (and likely will continue to do) under MDA. Between his true nature as a player and D’Antoni’s system, his output is being maximized to the fullest extent. He’ll still bottom out from time to time; he’s hardly immune to bad nights from three, and is certainly not immune to high-turnover games (an eye-opening 23 games with six-plus turnovers, the most in the NBA by a significant margin). He’s stepped up on the other side of the floor (in comparison to last year, anyway); his effort off the ball is not yet consistent enough to be called, well, consistent, and his on-ball defense in terms of contesting shots is average. In his defense (ha), he’s been more active in general on that end, and has taken little issue with stepping up to a challenge, such as DeMar DeRozan. While the offense is explosive, as expected, it’s Harden’s willingness to lead and chip in on defense that could put him over the top in an incredibly tight MVP race.  

All in all, it appears that the perfect storm of events have taken place in Houston so far, for all parties involved. Provided everyone stays healthy and Harden and co. maintain the level of play they’ve been at, it could possibly end (surprisingly, for many) very well. It’s asking a lot from Harden and co., with Golden State likely to work out their biggest flaws (fourth quarter issues, Durant/Curry balance on offense), Durant and Curry are bound to receive more MVP attention as the season goes on (and on a larger scale, Golden State is going to be even more of a problem than they are now if/when those kinks are worked out). LeBron James still teases us with just enough to put his name in the discussion, and will likely finish top-5 in voting for the tenth consecutive year. Regardless of how everything shakes out this coming June, I wouldn’t be shocked if he reminded everyone (again) that he’s still the best, taking everything into consideration. I suppose Russell Westbrook, he of the ridiculous triple-doubles and displays of insanity, should get some mention here. He is chasing a 55-year old record that would cement him in statistical immortality, after all. His season may be more like Big O’s than most people realize; statistical immortality, no matter how amazing, doesn’t always translate to being the most valuable. Above all, though, The Beard’s case remains a tough one to dispute. With just about half the regular season to go, the current status of the MVP race is bound to lead to an incredible finish. It should be a joy to watch, regardless of one’s MVP predictions.

Author: FTESWL

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