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Quarter Season Awards: James Harden for MVP

Nov 14, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) reacts after a play during the second quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 14, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) reacts after a play during the second quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
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Nov 14, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) reacts after a play during the second quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

To wrap up the Quarter Season Awards, James Harden can, and arguably should, win MVP.

James Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets shortly before the start of the 2012-2013 NBA season. During the campaign before the famous transaction, Harden averaged about 17 points and 4 assists per game. He had just come off of a trip to the finals, where he struggled mightily as his Oklahoma City Thunder bowed out in six games to the LeBron James-led Miami Heat.

Now in his 5th season as a Rocket, the Beard has transformed from a Sixth Man of the Year winner to one of the most dangerous players in the entire league. He’s having one of the most prolific individual seasons in history and his Houston Rockets are tied for third in the Western Conference. If his gaudy numbers end up being sustainable, he could be the first to bring an MVP to Houston since Hakeem Olajuwon in 1994.

Harden hasn’t had a bad year since he showed up in Houston. In fact, he’s averaged at least 25 points and 5 assists per game for his entire career as a Rocket. What makes this season so much different, though, is his position change from shooting guard to point guard. He’s always been a ball-dominant player, so Mike D’Antoni‘s idea to make him the official floor general makes perfect sense. Harden has relished the new role and in turn is taking his game to new heights this season.

A couple of seasons removed from winning the Player’s Choice MVP, Harden is ready to take the real crown this year.

Next: The stats don't lie

Dec 5, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) shoots the ball during the fourth quarter against the Boston Celtics at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

If stats were the only determining factor, there would be only two candidates for MVP this season.

As I’ve said with the other two articles in this series, stats don’t mean everything. But, players of MVP caliber don’t usually, if ever, have bad stats. This season, James Harden’s numbers are more than just good; they’re legendary. Below are some of the Beard’s MVP-worthy stats:

27.8 points per game – 4th in NBA

11.6 assists per game – leads NBA

279 total assists – leads NBA

7.6 rebounds per game – 2nd among point guards

69 made threes – 7th in NBA

1.54 steals per game – top 25 in NBA

210 free throws made – leads NBA

263 total assists – leads NBA

27.8 player efficiency rating – 5th in NBA

+6.54 real plus/minus – 5th in NBA

17 double-doubles – 2nd in NBA

4 triple-doubles – 2nd in NBA

Clearly, Harden has the stats to back up his case for MVP. The fact that he ranks in the top five in so many different categories proves that he’s one of, if not the, best offensive players in the game of basketball. It’s also worth noting that his defensive stats haven’t been all that bad either. In addition to being in the top 25 in steals per game, he has a better defensive real plus/minus than the likes of Klay Thompson, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, DeMar DeRozan, and Andrew Wiggins.

Stats don’t mean everything, obviously, considering that Stephen Curry beat out Harden for the 2014-2015 MVP despite posting worse numbers in almost every category. The reason Harden was snubbed that season brings us to the next point, team success.

Next: Team success matters

Dec 7, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) celebrates with forward Sam Dekker (7) during Los Angeles Lakers time out in the second half at Toyota Center. The Houston Rockets won 134 to 95. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Before the season started, the Rockets were generally expected to sneak into the playoffs at the 7th or 8th seed. If that were to happen, Harden would have no chance at MVP.

As I’ve said about the Most Improved Player and Sixth Man of the Year, the NBA is biased towards players on good teams. This is most prevalent with the MVP award, considering that the last season where an MVP played for a team lower than the 3rd seed was the 1982-1983 campaign. This could be the year for an exception, with two players threatening to lead the league in both points and assists, but history makes a good argument against it.

Nov 19, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) reacts after making a three point basket against the Utah Jazz late in the fourth quarter at Toyota Center. Rockets won 111-102. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

That being said, it bodes well for Harden that his Rockets have the longest current win streak in the league at six games. They’re also winners of 11 of their last 13 contests, on pace to win 58 games come season end.

Daryl Morey‘s decision to hire Mike D’Antoni was said to be foolish by the general population, but I doubt there are many fans who haven’t eaten those words. The coach who turned the undersized, underathletic Steve Nash into a back-to-back MVP has made Harden the best point guard in the league.

Morey also deserves credit for assembling a supporting cast that has come together like pieces to a puzzle. From letting Chandler Parsons walk in 2014 in favor of Trevor Ariza to signing Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon this past summer, Morey has surrounded the Beard with the exact kind of players he needs to succeed.

Next: Why the other guys won't win it

Jan 29, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) blocks a shot attempt by Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The MVP is the most coveted regular season award. Other contestants won’t lie down and let Harden take it from them.

The MVP race is almost as much fun to watch as the race for the finals. James Harden will have plenty of competition for the award, but he’s got some kind of advantage over each of the other contestants.

Russell Westbrook

Harden’s old teammate will almost certainly get some votes for MVP, especially if he continues to average a triple-double. While Russell Westbrook is dominating his competition, he’s not doing so very efficiently. He’s posting an effective shooting percentage of just 46% while shooting a barbaric 24 shots a game. With his team sitting at the sixth seed, it’s also worth noting that he’d have to break the league’s 34-year-old 3rd seed rule in order to win.

LeBron James

King James has been an MVP candidate nearly every year he’s been in the league, and this season is no exception. He’s playing the most well-rounded basketball of his career and his team looks finals-bound. However, he’s posting fewer points, assists, and steals than Harden and matching his rebounding numbers. He also doesn’t carry his team as much as Harden carries the Rockets, with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love pulling their fair share of weight in Cleveland.

Steph Curry/Kevin Durant

I’m grouping these two together because the notion of either of them winning MVP is ridiculous. When two players as valuable as they are on the same team, neither one can really be viewed as most valuable. Before Kevin Durant came to the Bay Area, the Warriors were the best team in the league. Before James Harden came to Houston, his team wasn’t making the playoffs. Besides, the Beard is averaging more points and assists per game than both of them, and is nearly doubling Curry’s rebounding rate.

Next: Wrapping up

Nov 9, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13) shoots the ball against the San Antonio Spurs during the second half at AT&T Center. The rockets won 101-99. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

After a disappointing 2015-2016 campaign, James Harden is back and leading his Rockets to more success than anybody expected.

The Beard has more weight on his shoulders than just about anybody in the league. Leading his peers in assists while still scoring 27 points per game, he’s also carrying his load better than anyone else. The Rockets were expected by many to fight with several other teams for the 8th seed in the playoffs, but Harden and company had other plans.

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The negative image around Harden is slowly disappearing as he improves his leadership qualities. The argument that he’s selfish with the ball is no longer valid, and his defense isn’t embarrassing anymore.

If the Beard continues to lead his team to its potential, the rest of the league should be worried. Not only would they have to potentially concede the MVP to Harden, but they’d have to game plan on how to handle Houston in the playoffs.

The Beard is arguably the best player in basketball, and the league is starting to take notice. It’s taken years for pundits to give Harden and the Rockets the credit they deserve, but it’s finally happening. This could be the year that the Harden era finds success in Houston.

Next: Eric Gordon's Case for Sixth Man of the Year

Competition for MVP is fierce, but nobody is playing MVP basketball better than Harden right now.

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