Last year, while averaging 29/7.5/5, Harden was left out of all three All-NBA teams.
The guards for the third team that year, Klay Thompson and Kyle Lowry, were rewarded for their roles on teams at, or just beneath, the summit of each conference, while Harden’s Rockets were languishing in the eighth seeded spot. The year before, Harden had finished second in MVP voting (with 25 first place votes) after leading the Rockets to 2nd in the West and then the Conference Finals. At the inaugural Players Association awards, he was named MVP over Steph Curry.
As you can see, narrative matters and Harden has felt its effects more than any player not named LeBron James. Kevin Durant is just starting to see the ugly side. Last season, on a dysfunctional team with an unconvincing coach, Harden was roundly condemned for not being able to lead the team like he had the previous season, for his lack of defensive effort, for his on-court relationship with Dwight Howard and his off-court relationship with a Kardashian. While aspects of the criticism were certainly warranted, Harden’s individual performance had not regressed – he had even jumped slightly from his MVP runner-up season the year before. The difference - he had no help, and he had to do more than ever. Dwight had given up, and Corey Brewer and Josh Smith, despite their playoff heroics the previous season, were still Corey Brewer and Josh Smith. James Harden is a pendulum. His level of play hadn’t changed, but the perception of it had swung wildly.
This season, it has swung right back again.
Harden, now surrounded by knock-down shooters Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon and perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate Lou Williams, has more help, and consequently, floor-space to work his voodoo beard magic, than ever. Ariza and Beverley are as reliable as role players come in this league, and under D’Antoni are playing with a renewed hunger, while youngsters Capela, Dekker and Harrell have progressed beyond expectation. D’Antoni, a candidate for Coach of the Year himself, has seen his reputation revived thanks to Harden’s ability to resemble prime Steve Nash, only, you know, bigger, faster, stronger and, with a lot more facial hair. The Rockets, a year removed from a disastrous season and a bad locker-room, are once again Championship contenders – if you consider anyone outside of the Warriors and Cavaliers contenders – and Harden’s case for MVP is reaping the benefits.
Whether Harden does claim MVP honors come the end of the season may well come down to something ridiculously trivial, most likely whether his former teammate Russell Westbrook maintains that hallowed NBA 2K achievement – averaging a triple-double for an entire season. Reaching 9, rather than 10 assists per game, would not diminish Westbrook’s remarkable season at all in the eyes of any logical being, but we are humans, entirely fallible and as such are swept away by the unquantifiable, intangible purity of the number 10; its wholesome, roundness and its double-digit majesty.
Then again, it could come down to something entirely significant, such as Kawhi Leonard morphing into an unholy lovechild of Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan over the past few weeks. Earlier this week, when the Rockets and the Spurs played each other, I could feel Harden’s pendulum twitch slightly, ready to begin its descent back to vilification. Don’t get me wrong - he played well, equalling Leonard’s 39 points and more than doubling his assist total (which, I think, is why Harden does deserve MVP – the amount of points he is responsible for is staggering), but Kawhi stole both the headlines, and the ‘W’, with a timely 3 and a LeBlock. Or a chase-down block, as they used to be called. The point is, the MVP race is as close as Lance Stephenson is to ears, and two single possessions may have secured Leonard some votes, while robbing Harden of his.
The noise surrounding the silent Spurs’ swingman has grown in recent weeks, with the mantra being that the best defensive player in the league is now scoring 30 points a night for the second seed in the West. It’s a sound argument, and I doubt many would be aggrieved if Leonard did snatch the award from either Harden, Westbrook or, you know, LeBron James, because the best basketball player on the planet is still alive and putting the rest of the Eastern conference to bed with a blanket and a warm bottle of milk every night. Leonard’s narrative is that he has none – for the first half of the season nobody mentioned him in the MVP race bar the odd Spurs fan, and that fact has helped propel his case as the regular season draws to a close; “Nobody talks about this guy – and he’s averaging 30, 6 and 4 over his last 20 games!” they have all began to shout, defeating their own point in the process.
Harden’s narrative is that he is arguably the most divisive player in the NBA. Personally, I found it staggering that not one of the Inside the NBA team had him ranked in their top 5 players, until I remembered that this panel included the Shaq, Charles Barkley and an old white man. Regardless, Harden’s magnetic foul-drawing and tranquil, flamboyant persona make for knocks against him, should you be so inclined, and are largely the reason the pendulum of public-opinion will invariably swing back against him. When Leonard’s gargantuan hands swatted Harden’s layup away in the clutch on Monday night, you knew it would be the defining image of the game, and impact their cases for MVP more than it perhaps should due to their respective reputations – the quiet, diligent student turning the tables on the aloof slacker who still manages to cruise to an A.
Harden claiming the MVP trophy would complete one of the most remarkable storylines in recent NBA history – from the OKC bench and ‘other guy’ status to bonafide superstar and arguably the single best player in the NBA over the current 82 games. If you don’t believe that narrative matters, well, I don’t know what to tell you. LeBron James has been the MVP of the league almost since he’s been in the league, so you should probably go ahead and just accept it.
And if you simply don’t believe Harden is worthy of MVP then I won’t waste my time, you’ll be well-placed for an “I told you so” when the inevitable backlash comes. Just know that it’s not Harden that’s changed.