In a close vote, the NBA players voted for James Harden as the 2014-15 Most Valuable Player. The choice of Harden was self-confirming. It was also a vocabulary lesson as it defined the word “valuable”. Valuable isn’t the best player on the best team, nor is it the best player in the NBA, rather valuable, when you break it down to the sum of its parts, is a great player surrounded by average talent with an injured co-star and taking his game to another level, guiding his team to 4 wins shy of 60 and the second best record in the conference. And this too: how many NBA players could do what James Harden did in 2014-15?
Steph Curry finished second in the players voting. When the writers voted Curry league MVP in the spring I always found the vote suspect, almost an indictment, as if they didn’t appreciate the mental exertion, toughness and skill Harden applied to his game in helping his team vault into the playoffs in grand style. Harden was the only option the Rockets had, a choice between marginal and keeping the team’s head above water. He had to score. And he also had to deliver the ball. He had to lead. He had to get to the line, sometimes he got there 20 times a game, he had to fight for rebounds. He couldn’t take games off. He couldn’t take plays off.
While Curry had the benefit of Klay Thompson and Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes, Harden had Terrence Jones and Patrick Beverly. Harden was double teamed every night and still had to score 27 points for the Rockets to have any chance in the absence of Dwight Howard. It was reminiscent of Kobe Bryant 2005-06 year, offensively brilliant, relentless and just better at scoring then anyone else was at stopping him.
Last night was a seminal moment for NBA players. They are part of a private club with its own sets of rules and perspectives that restrict access to non-club members like writers. It doesn’t matter what you are writing about, the act of writing is observational, not participatory. No NBA writer knows what it is like to drive into the lane, elevate at the rim only to have DeAndre Jordan there to block your shot. (Jordan won Defensive Player of the Year). Writers depend on sight and on analytics and on mathematical measurements and because they are human and all humans are subjective creatures they are influenced by their own attitudes and beliefs. Writers have implied biases just like the rest of the human world.
NBA writers love Steph Curry and its obvious why. He’s the perfect player for this perfect era. Small, preternaturally happy, a player you want your kids to be like, extraordinary at his particular craft-scoring the ball, lacking moodiness, religious but not evangelizing every five seconds, good looking, kind to others, he is a NBA writer’s dream to cover. It’s easy to see why writers are drawn to Curry’s story, son of a NBA shooter, a papery thin kid out of Davidson who couldn’t get a college scholarship and no one expected him to get this far even though he did one thing particularly well. He could score from anywhere.
James Harden, on the other hand, is the writer’s whipping boy, not Carmelo Anthony like, but still crucified through the lens of his porous, lazy, inattentive defense. But how many 25+ point scorers are defined by their flaws even though all players have weakenesses? James Harden’s name can’t be brought up without talk about how terrible he is at one thing-which is true- but the league has had great offensive players and terrible defenders line their rolls for decades. Harden strikes a chord for some unspecified reason and he isn’t give the benefit of the doubt by the media the way Curry is. There is no vote on earth in which Curry and Harden are the choices and Curry is not going to win.
Except the players vote.
The players know the sacrifice of the game and they know the cruelty. They know how fatiguing it is to take 25 shots night after night after night, to take them because you have to. Add to that going to the free throw line repeatedly as Harden does. Harden is not a perfect player but have them trade places. Put Curry on Houston and Harden on Golden State. Tell Curry to carry a team with his scoring and then go to the free throw line ten times a night and then average 7 assists and 6 rebounds and two steals when the best defender on the other team simply must stop you. Ask Curry to score over 30 points 25 times, and over 40 points 8 times, and 13 times play over 40 minutes, and to take over 15 free throws 18 times, and to take 20 or more free throw four times.
James Harden had a superior year, one he will probably never have to duplicate now that the Rockets acquired a legitimate guard in Ty Lawson to run the offense. But his 2014-15 year was extraordinary. And the NBA rank and file rewarded him for it.
photo via somosnba.com