- James Harden, who is close to impossible to defend, has had an absurd season and is sure to win MVP. But at this stage of his career, Harden's postseason success is the metric that matters.
Barring a handful of 60-point games for Anthony Davis or the Cavs winning an extra 15 games in the next five days, James Harden will be the 2018 NBA MVP.
It makes sense. He checks almost every box for a potential MVP winner. He is the best player on the best team, he's having the best statistical season, and, politically speaking, it's his turn. But the funny thing is, after a second-place finish in 2015 and a months-long internet flame war during last year's race, I'm not sure winning the MVP will really change anything for Harden at this point. He's been so good for so long, it's all about the playoffs now.
Before we get there, we should make some obvious statements about this regular season. Harden has been absurd. He’s leading the league in points per game and he’s third in assists per game. He has the league's best player-efficiency rating and is first in win shares. He has fit seamlessly next to Chris Paul, and as he’s split duties with another All-Star guard, his numbers have gone up, not down.
It’s hard to say which part of Harden’s game is most demoralizing for defenses. He hits these step-back threes where he lulls defenders to sleep with crossovers and then takes this little bunny hop, one baby step behind the line, and he drains a 23-footer in the defender’s face. Those look incredibly frustrating.
Then there are the dives to the rim, where defenders just kind of bounce off him over and over again until the ball is falling through the hoop. Primary defender, help defender, rim protector—every few steps, Harden is re-angling his body just enough to make each of them totally useless. It would make me lose my mind if I were playing defense.
And obviously, the free throws. He is shameless. Drop him in the middle of the ocean without a life preserver, and Harden will find a way to exaggerate contact and get to the line. And as someone who has declared this element of his game a full-on deal-breaker at various points in the past few years, I’ll just say that I’m tired of bickering about it. Harden’s knack for drawing contact is inarguably elite. It may make other elements of his game tougher to enjoy; it definitely makes the entire package close to impossible to defend.
So that’s where we are with Harden. It’s also not much different from where we’ve been for the past few years.
If there’s anything truly new in Houston this season, it’s the addition of Chris Paul. He took a good Rockets team and made them unbeatable. Likewise, Clint Capela has emerged as the platonic ideal of a rim-running big. He finishes everything, he protects the rim, and otherwise, he stays out of the way. Harden is still the foundation of everything—the one who gives them a floor of roughly 50 wins—but it’s the literal and figurative arrival of the others who have raised the ceiling for this particular season.
What’s more remarkable about Harden’s 2018 performance is how routine it all looks for him. Russell Westbrook won the MVP last season by having an out-of-body experience once-a-week for the final two months. Westbrook played those games looking like he was about to explode. Harden looks effortless, like this is all just a reflex.
He spent the year utterly in control of his offense, the opposing defense, and eventually, the Western Conference. Where Westbrook was an interloper to last year’s MVP race with a season that everyone understood was an aberration, this season in Houston has made it clear that 30 and 10 is just what Harden does. He’ll probably be in this conversation every year he’s healthy and in his prime (and not in the middle of a cold war with Dwight Howard).
So rather than unlocking some new, MVP-caliber frontier, I think it's more accurate to say this season in Houston has underscored how incredible Harden has been several years now. How many other players can show up and play 75+ games every year, and guarantee their team 50-wins? Three? Four? How many players could average 30 points per game on any team in the league? How many players are doing this year after year like it’s nothing? The group is incredibly small—let’s say LeBron, KD, Steph—and Harden has spent the past few seasons playing with less help than all of them, producing about as much as any of them.
Going forward now, and getting back to where this began, there are two reasons Harden in the playoffs will be fascinating. First, the obvious reason: Harden's had several underwhelming moments in the playoffs over the past few years. It’s the one part of his basketball resume everyone can still criticize. We don't need to relive every big game disappointment, but the questions are valid, and he'll have to answer them. If he flames out in four or five games against the Warriors or no-shows another elimination game, then yeah, his MVP will look as meaningless as Westbrook's did last year.
But there's also a real chance that he's been slightly underrated the past few years, and he’s destined to go down in history as one of the greatest shooting guards ever, and this season is the beginning of a market correction as everyone learns to think about his place in the NBA a little differently. That's the second reason to watch Harden in the playoffs. He’s entering a category of superstars for whom success in May and June is the only metric that matters.
He’s as efficient and explosive as Durant. He's been as durable and consistent as LeBron. If I were a Rockets fan, I'd spend the fourth quarter of every Houston blowout screaming on a rooftop, demanding that everyone stop comparing Harden to Westbrook and start comparing him to Steph.
I'm not sure if he's actually better than any of them, but the lesson of this regular season is that Harden is good enough to start asking bigger questions. And the playoffs are where he can provide answers.