Three of the past four seasons, James Harden positioned himself to win the MVP. He won only once. Harden has been the runner-up twice, finishing second to Russell Westbrook and Steph Curry respectively. To be in the MVP race with a consistent body of work would make some people think that James Harden is the second best player in the league. But no one thinks that. Kevin Durant is firmly entrenched in Best Player after LeBron James. A few give Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo and even Steph Curry more credit than they give James Harden in the second best player debate. With the scoring streak Harden is putting up and the slowing down of LeBron James, the number two best player in the league is seemingly wide open. But James Harden need not apply.
Harden has his own lane: the de-facto best scorer no one can stop, addicted to three point step backs and drives to the rim and draining free throws and benefit of the doubt from refs. It ends there.
Which brings us to the MVP debate of 2018-19. It is a two man race. Over here, The Beard. Over there, The Greek Freak.
The Greek Freak is the fan choice. All you have to do is see him play. He handles the ball on the break and otherwise, finishes, rebounds, blocks shots, is the best player but doesn’t dominate the ball with his shot. Antetokounmpo is taking less shots this year than last year and is nowhere close to Harden’s 24 shots a game.
The Bucks team is more complete than the Rockets which bolsters Antetokounmpo MVP case, as if the best record in the league is not enough of an exclamation point. MVP often is skewed to the best player on the best team.
Giannis is tv highlight worthy. He is a joy to watch unlike Harden which has a boring kind of game, even as his step back is dominant and unstoppable. Tracy McGrady admitted that watching Harden dribble-dribble-dribble is boring. Others- fans, pundits and former players- agree.
Giannis doesn’t have that kind of cred. He is the new kid on the block and is versatile enough that watching him feels new as he maneuvers in and out the lane and at the rim.
James Harden hasn’t been lucky in his career. He was relegated to the bench in OKC instead of being a starting 2 guard. He was then traded because Sam Presti and Co. thought it prudent to pay Serge Ibaka instead. Harden thought so much of that piece of wisdom that in his first game as a Rocket he dropped 37 points on 56% shooting with 12 assists in Detroit. Not to be outdone in Atlanta, his follow up game was 47 points, 17 free throws, and 73% shooting. Who says a mad player is a bad player?
It set the stage for James Harden stardom except no one really noticed. It made Harden have to go harder. He has always had a more complicated ride, whether it was his short lived romance with Khloe Kardashian that was ridiculed or coming in to camp a little heavy or Dwight Howard mocking him on the bench. Some players are given the benefit of the doubt by the media and fans and even refs. Harden has had a tougher road, earning everything and then waiting for approval that came a little too late.
As for the refs. Harden is upset at what happened during the Lakers game on Thursday night when ref Scott Foster ref’d Harden the way most refs refuse to do. Calling Harden for charging.
Harden is the biggest recipient of phantom calls, as refs anticipate contact that never comes. Harden is a tricky player to ref with his step back and change of direction but he has appropriately taken advantage at what the eye can see. So when he whines about the refs it really is comical. Every coach complains about Harden’s travels and bad officiating. It happened to Shaq and LeBron too and eventually the refs went the other way. It is a compliment but for Harden who has had more uphill climbs than the average star it feels personal.
James Harden is going to lose the MVP race to Giannis Antetokounmpo. What Harden has done with an injured team is remarkable. Night after night, to score the way he has scored when every team has been geared to stop him, exhibits his toughness and talent. But he’s not playing a team game. He is iso-ing it because he has too and because he wants to.
Giannis has led his team to the best record by doing less and then achieving more. Harden is doing more and more and more and is padding his stats when he should be calling it quits for the night. It’s not a recipe for long term success.
And that has always been the Harden misperception, that he is in it for himself. Game doesn’t lie. James Harden is the best shooting guard in the league. He is the best shooting guard of his generation. But people don’t revere Harden like they revere Ray Allen or Dwyane Wade. Don’t even try to compare Harden to Kobe. Social media will come for you.
Harden understands he needs a title. He needs a title even more than Chris Paul because Paul is beloved despite his playoffs blips. Harden is beloved by the Houston faithful but love doesn’t travel very far in the NBA when you are The Beard.