Why the Houston Rockets’ James Harden is still the real MVP

Houston Rockets James Harden (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
Houston Rockets James Harden (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images) /
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Houston Rockets
Houston Rockets James Harden (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) /

Why James Harden won’t receive the MVP once again

The MVP case for Lebron is simply an exercise in marketing. LeBron is the face of the league and plays for the league’s most popular team. An MVP for LeBron is an MVP for league interest, but his play has not quite been good enough to merit the award.

He trails Harden in win shares (11.5 to 9.5), win shares per 48 minutes (.245 to .218), and value over a replacement player (6.3 to 5.7). LeBron’s most relevant lead is in the standings and, most crucially, in media attention.

LeBron’s season has been amazing, which is why he’s the presumptive runner-up for MVP, but there is a genuine argument that he is the second-best player on his own team. Anthony Davis leads the Lakers in win shares, win shares per 48 and is a favorite for Defensive Player of the Year.

LeBron leading the league in assists, for the first time, at the age of 35 is fantastic, but he simply has not been as good or as crucial to his team as Harden has.

The single greatest separator for Harden over LeBron and Giannis is in how much offense they can generate on their own. Only 13.6 percent of Harden’s two-point field goals and 15.1 percent of his 3-point field goals have been assisted this season.

Related Story. Harden's playing style is validated by Iverson

This means of his 34.4 points per game, only 3.5 points are assisted. Harden, unassisted, would still lead the league in points per game at 30.9. Lebron, meanwhile, is facilitated on 24.7 percent of his two-pointers and 45.9 percent of his threes while Giannis is assisted on 44.3 percent of twos and 59 percent of his threes.

In terms of raw points, Lebron’s teammates set him up with 6.7 points each game, and Giannis, on average, receives 11 points per game from assists. Harden, without any help, would still drop 30 points every night. Lebron and Giannis can’t even get to 30 points a game with over a quarter of their points coming off dimes.

Player                                         PTs/G         Ast PTs/G      Ast PTs%     

James Harden                            34.4               3.5                10.2%

Giannis Antetokounmpo        29.6               11                  37.1%

LeBron James                            25.7               6.8                26.4%

James Harden’s isolation scoring is the bread and butter of the Rockets’ offense. After stripping away all of his assisted field goals and free throws, which he scores more points off of than any other player in the league, Harden averages 20.7 points a game.

That equates to 17.5 percent of the Rockets’ 118.1 points per game. LeBron’s isolation scoring only accounts for 13.1 percent of the Lakers’ per-game point production and Giannis’ comes in even lower at 10.4 percent for the Bucks.

Harden’s otherworldly ability to score with no help from his teammates drives everything the Rockets do on offense. His value to his team is unlike any other player in that by design; he is supposed to carry his team’s offense all alone. LeBron and Giannis have had fantastic seasons in their own right but are not asked to generate elite scoring out of thin air.

The traditional patterns of MVP voting will likely see Harden go home empty-handed this year. It is no fault of his own, and he knows it.

.@JHarden13's message to those who downplay his game: pic.twitter.com/WLTGqERx1a

— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) July 22, 2020

Harden has led the league in win shares five times in his career and only won a single MVP. To put that in context, the only other players in history to lead the league in win shares at least five times are Lebron James, Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, and Neil Johnston.

Excluding Johnston, who played a portion of his career before the MVP award even existed, the fewest number of MVPs won by this group are the four, earned by both Lebron and Wilt.

All-time great teams and record-breaking seasons have continuously overshadowed harden’s individual excellence. He has done everything humanly possible to win the MVP award this season.

Next. Ranking every Rockets team since Harden joined

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Harden is right — one day, people will look back at his career and wonder why he didn’t receive more acclaim. They’ll gawk at his combination of scoring and durability. They’ll be awed by how he almost vanquished the Warriors’ dynasty on multiple occasions. They’ll realize how good your team was matters far more than how good you were. James Harden is the real MVP. It’s too bad people haven’t taken notice.