MVP Ladder: Harden makes more headway in claim for first MVP

NBA.com Global on Feb 03, 2018 08:00 AM
MVP Ladder: Harden makes more headway in claim for first MVP
HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 16: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets celebrates a score during the game against the Milwaukee Bucks on December 16, 2017 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com

You don’t win a Kia MVP award before the NBA trade deadline has come and gone.

History tells us that wrapping up that race before the NFL crowns its Super Bowl champion doesn't add up.

But if James Harden continues on his current path, leading the Houston Rockets on an impressive ride this season while doing things (a 60-point triple-double earlier this week) we’ve never seen before, it’ll be tough to deny him in the coveted pot of gold that comes at the end of the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder rainbow.

That hardware has eluded him twice in the past three seasons. He was the runner-up to Stephen Curry in 2015 and again to Russell Westbrook last season, coming up short both times with seasons that were certainly worthy of a Kia MVP.

There is no one having one of those kinds of transcendent seasons this time around, well ... no one other than Harden. He leads the league in scoring (31.5 points per game) and ranks third in assists (9.1 apg).

He’s putting on virtuoso performances night after night, making Hall of Famers swoon watching him work Mike D’Antoni’s system to perfection.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">“When you watch him play, it’s like he’s playing in slow motion.”<br><br>The <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/PlayersOnly?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#PlayersOnly</a> crew react and break down <a href="https://twitter.com/JHarden13?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@JHarden13</a>&#39;s historic performance. <a href="https://t.co/fswlnaUdEA">pic.twitter.com/fswlnaUdEA</a></p>&mdash; NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) <a href="https://twitter.com/NBAonTNT/status/958562589503451136?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 31, 2018</a></blockquote>
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“An incredible game from an incredible scorer,” Isiah Thomas said on The Players Only broadcast after Harden’s 60-point triple-double. “He really understands this Rockets offense, where everyone is at, where everybody is supposed to be, where he’s going to get his shot, how he can create shots for everyone else. He makes plays. He’s in such a relaxed rhythm out there. You don’t see him playing fast, he’s not rushing out there … Really, when you watch him play, it’s like he’s playing in slow motion out there.”

TNT’s Inside the NBA crew have already proclaimed this season’s Kia MVP Harden’s to lose with 32 games remaining in the regular season.

“James Harden right now is the clear-cut MVP,” Shaquille O’Neal said, a sentiment Charles Barkley immediately agreed with on Thursday night (Friday, PHL time).

Harden’s work this week alone, could serve as the ideal snapshot of what makes his MVP case this season.

He finished two assists shy of a triple-double after scoring 27 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in Sunday’s (Monday, PHL time) home win over the Phoenix Suns.

He shredded the Orlando Magic Tuesday (Wednesday, PHL time) at Toyota Center with a historic 60-point, 11-assist, 10-rebound triple-double, snapping Calvin Murphy’s 40-year-old, single-game scoring mark in the process.

He delivered a brilliant encore performance with 28 points, 11 assists and two blocks in Thursday’s (Friday, PHL time) win over the Spurs in San Antonio. The Rockets, at 37-13, are tied with the 1993-94 championship team for the best 50-game start in franchise history.

And Harden has a date with four-time Kia MVP winner LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers Saturday night at Quicken Loans Arena (Sunday, PHL time). It is a prime-time opportunity for Harden to stamp his MVP case ... and do so months ahead of the actual finish line.

“This is probably the biggest part of our season right here,” Harden told TNT’s David Aldridge after the win over the Spurs, when asked how crucial this stretch before All-Star weekend is for the Rockets. “We’ve had a lot of injuries, guys in and out of the lineup, so we’ve got put these wins together. I think we’ve got six or seven more games to go into All-Star with some confidence and our swagger and then carry it over after the break as well.”

Do that and it will be difficult for someone to keep Harden from carrying that Kia MVP hardware away with him at the end of this season.

* * *

The top five in the Week 16 edition of the 2017-18 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

1. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week's ranking: No. 1

Season stats: 31.5 points, 9.1 assists, 5.0 rebounds

Harden’s 60-point triple-double, the first in NBA history, in Tuesday’s (Wednesday, PHL time) win against the Orlando Magic was a statement game that will be hard to top this season. And that goes for Harden, too. He broke Calvin Murphy’s franchise single-game scoring record that stood for 40 years. Harden has nine games of 50 or more points in his Rockets tenure, one more than every other player in franchise history has combined for. His four 50-point games this season is as many as the rest of the league has combined. The Rockets needed every point, rebound and assist of Harden’s historic performance to slip by the Magic without Chris Paul available. Not only does Harden lead the league in scoring this season, he’s also top three in assists and has the Rockets firmly entrenched in the fight for the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference playoff chase. And, he has already led the Rockets to a 2-1 season-series win against the top-seeded Warriors.

2. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week's ranking: No. 4

Season stats: 27.7 points, 6.5 assists, 5.1 rebounds

Curry, not Harden, earned the league’s Western Conference Player of the Month award for January. He finished the month with an decidedly un-Steph-like performance (14 points on 4-for-13 shooting in a blowout loss to the Utah Jazz), proof that even a two-time former Kia MVP can have off nights. That one game doesn’t erase the monster work he did during the Warriors’ 11-3 run through the first month of 2018. Curry averaged 29.5 points (on 51.4 percent shooting and 46.3 percent 3-point shooting), 6.7 assists and 5.1 rebounds per game. He scored 30 or more points six times and drained a league-best 62 three-pointers and had eight games with five or more three-pointers. He was a two-time Western Conference Player of the Week and cranked up the debate, internally and beyond, as to whether he’s the real MVP of the Warriors -- and perhaps the NBA.

3. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Last week's ranking: No. 5

Season stats: 26.6 points, 8.7 assists, 7.9 rebounds

Losing Kevin Love, in the midst of all the drama the Cavaliers have going on as next week’s trade deadline nears, plays right into the script for this tumultuous season for LeBron and his crew. But the buzz surrounding the reports that LeBron would entertain overtures from the Golden State Warriors during free agency is over the top -- and a dreadful thought for the rest of the league. All of this serves as the ideal camouflage for the turnaround you know LeBron is plotting right now. A modest stretch that saw the Cavaliers win two of their past three games heading into Saturday night’s (Sunday, PHL time) home showdown against James Harden and the Houston Rockets won’t instill the sort of hope Cavaliers fans are looking for. But as the pressure to maintain a top-four position in the Eastern Conference playoff chase increases, so does the workload for and production from LeBron (24.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 1.2 steals in his past five games).

4. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

Last week's ranking: No. 2

Season stats: 25.6 points, 6.9 rebounds, 5.6 assists

Stephen Curry wasn’t the only player from the Warriors worthy of Western Conference Player of the Month candidacy. Durant was impactful in his own ways, rolling on both ends of the floor for a team the claims four All-Stars in consecutive seasons for the first time in NBA history. His January numbers (24.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 1.8 blocks per game) more than stand out. Like the rest of the Warriors not named Klay Thompson, Durant had a rough night in a 129-99 loss to the Utah Jazz, scoring 17 points on 5-for-13 shooting. Warriors coach Steve Kerr didn’t hold back in his verbal smack down of his team, which means Durant and the Warriors will be on alert tonight in Sacramento (Saturday, PHL time) when they take on the Kings. After back-to-back tough outings (by Durant's standards) against two of the league's better defensive teams (Boston and Utah), the Kings might be just what he needs.

5. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors

Last week's ranking: No. 7

Season stats: 24.4 points, 5.2 assists, 4.1 rebounds

DeRozan’s stellar work last month (25.3 points, 5.9 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game) earned him Eastern Conference Player of the Month honors and a nice bump here. The Raptors went 10-5 and clawed to within a game and a half of the Boston Celtics for the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings. Included in DeRozan’s monster month was that franchise-record 52 points he dropped on the Milwaukee Bucks in that overtime win on New Year’s Day that set the tone for DeRozan’s 2018 stretch of the season. Now comes the real grind. Toronto has a prime opportunity at hand with three-time East champion Cleveland looking vulnerable and Boston having a one-game cushion on Toronto in the standings. But DeRozan and the Raptors must find ways to win games like the one they dropped Thursday against the Washington Wizards, a team playing without All-Star John Wall.

The next five:

6. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

7. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

8. Jimmy Butler, Minnesota Timberwolves

9. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

10. LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs

And five more ...

Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards; Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans; Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers; Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets; Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

Next up?

An inside look at Nikola Mirotic from a Western Conference advance scout:

“This is a great pick up for the Pelicans. With DeMarcus Cousins done for the season, the Pelicans are in desperate need of a big to play off of Anthony Davis. He’s by no means in the same class as Boogie, not even close. But for what [Pelicans coach] Alvin [Gentry] likes to do, the way he likes to play, he’s the ideal fit. He’s a big who can stretch floor and keep defenses from sagging on AD. He’s not physically built to operate the way Boogie did, but he’s a more natural deep shooter and he’s a better athlete than you think. He’ll have some work to do in terms of being more active and physical on the defensive end and making sure he pays attention to the added duties he’ll have to help rebound with a smaller lineup on the floor.

"The skill set is there, always has been. The mystery with him has been the mental side. He didn’t make a smooth transition to the league and then there came the questions about whether or not his heart was really in it, being in our league. Give him credit, he put in the work during this past offseason and was ready to come back and go at it, and then the incident with he and Bobby Portis happens and he gets buried in the avalanche of foolishness that came with it. He needed this move, the fresh start that comes with it and the opportunity to play off of a great player like AD. If he does it right, he’ll be a more dangerous version of what Ryan Anderson was when he played with AD.

"Mirotic is more than just a shooter. He’s more dynamic than that and we didn’t really get a chance to see that until this season. If he can produce the same way for the Pelicans as he did for the Bulls, he could potentially be a season-saving pick up for those guys. He really could. Because the loss of Boogie, without a move like this to try to do something about it, would have buried those guys eventually. Now if they can find a way to get Greg Monroe as well, then you can plug him in as your starting center and really do some different things with your lineup and with Mirotic. He becomes a much more dangerous piece to use if you don’t have to worry about him playing out of his comfort zone.”

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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