MVP Ladder: Storylines, standings help pave way for Harden

NBA.com Global on Feb 24, 2018 08:19 AM
MVP Ladder: Storylines, standings help pave way for Harden
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 18: James Harden #13 of Team Stephen goes to the basket against Team LeBron during the NBA All-Star Game as a part of 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend at STAPLES Center on February 18, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com

Best player.

Best team.

Best narrative.

Those are the three components that give James Harden his best shot at ending his personal Kia MVP curse.

An MVP runner-up in two of the past three seasons, Harden has the Houston Rockets in a prime position to potentially dethrone the Golden State Warriors for the top spot in the Western Conference playoff chase.

He’s also in control of his own fate in the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, sitting atop the heap coming out of NBA All-Star 2018 with nothing but time and momentum on his side.

With the Rockets just 25 games away from the end of the regular season, there might not be enough time for LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry or anyone else to catch Harden. And since the Rockets went into the break riding the wave of a 10-game win streak, serving notice that they have no plans of vacating their position at the front of the line of the league’s elite.

Harden averaged 32.5 points, 8.8 assists, 6.4 rebounds and 1.6 steals during that streak, maintaining his edge on the Kia MVP crowd heading into the break.

But as he said in Los Angeles during All-Star weekend, there is no rushing this process, no skipping any steps on the way to what could be the biggest postseason of his career, both individually and for the Rockets.

“No, we're not anxious,” Harden said. “We're going to take one game at a time. We're going to continue to get better on both ends of the floor. Offensively we're number two. Defensively I think we're seven or something. So we can get better that way.

“We're just going to try to build, build every single year, get better every single game, get better, try to incorporate Joe [Johnson] and Brandan [Wright] into what we've been doing. Just prepare ourselves for the postseason.”

First, however, comes the chase for that No. 1 spot the Warriors have owned the past three seasons. Harden and the Rockers already took the season series, 2-1, giving them the tie-breaker over the reigning NBA champs.

Maintaining that No. 1 spot, that’s the first order of business for Harden and the Rockets, the first and most important step for so many reasons.

“It's important,” Harden said. “That's why we're going to take it one game at a time and try to be the best we can be.”

That makes the metric rather rudimentary for Harden and his case for that elusive hardware he’s been hunting.

Best player.

Best team.

Best narrative.

Kia MVP?

* * *

The top five in the Week 19 edition of the 2017-18 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

* * *

1. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week: No. 1

Season stats: 31.3 points, 9.0 assists, 5.1 rebounds

The directive for Harden and the Rockets over the final 25 games of the regular season is clear: hold on to that No. 1 spot in the Western Conference playoff chase ... by any means necessary. It’s easy for Houston to get ahead of itself and start daydreaming about hosting the Western Conference finals and having home-court advantage throughout the postseason. But the Rockets have to get their first. And they’ll do that with Harden at the forefront (and Chris Paul right beside him), leading the way. Harden has been spectacular all season, particularly in during the Rockets’ 10-game win streak. His understanding of when to press the issue himself and when to involve the members of his improved supporting cast has been spot on all season. When Paul was out, he built confidence in the rest of the group and the Rockets have been virtually unstoppable with Harden, Paul and Clint Capela in the lineup together.

2. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Last week: No. 3

Season stats: 26.5 points, 8.9 assists, 8.1 rebounds

Now that the new-look, rejuvenated Cavaliers have finally lost a game (Friday, PHL time at home vs. the Wizards), they can finally get down to the nuts-and-bolts business of figuring each other out. Simply put, they cannot have finishes like they did against Washington, where LeBron scores the final nine points and the rest of the Cavaliers go 0-for-10. That kind of performance won't help Cleveland become the favorite in the Eastern Conference. That said, LeBron has made it clear that he’s going to play at the highest level in what could very well be his final months in a Cavaliers uniform. His energy and effort going into All-Star weekend was cranked up to its highest levels. And he didn’t disappoint in LA, winning his third Kia NBA All-Star MVP award. But now comes the real heavy lifting. The Cavaliers have a limited amount of time to figure it all out before the playoffs hit. And they still have to reintegrate Kevin Love with his new teammates.

3. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

Last week: No. 2

Season stats: 26.0 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.5 assists

Durant teamed up with LeBron James to beat his fellow Warriors-turned-All-Stars on Sunday (Monday, PHL time) in Los Angeles, earning bragging rights over Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green until they choose sides next year in Charlotte. But he was back with his crew Thursday night (Friday, PHL time), joining with his regular crew to kick off the stretch run of this regular season with a critical win over the LA Clippers. (Every win is critical now for Golden State, given the dogfight they're in with Houston for No. 1 in the West.) Durant’s 24 points, eight assists, three rebounds and two blocks against the Clippers didn’t shine like his 50-point effort in the Warriors’ last outing before All-Star weekend, a loss to Portland. But his reduced numbers were much more impactful in a winning effort as the Warriors erased their half-game deficit to the Rockets in the standings -- for a day at least. Durant has been here before, playing on a team jockeying for playoff positioning in the season’s final weeks. He should have no problem shifting into high gear with so much on the line every night.

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week: No. 4

Season stats: 26.6 points, 6.5 assists, 5.2 rebounds

Curry rebounded the way you’d expect a two-time Kia MVP to respond after struggling, by his standard, in the weeks leading up to his 44-point, 10-assists, six-rebound, two-steal showcase Thursday in a win against the LA Clippers. In the eight games before that, Curry didn’t reach his season scoring average for eight straight games. He shot his way out of that funk against the Clippers, though, reminding the  world that he’s capable of stretching the floor in ways no one else in the league can. He drained eight of his 11 shots from beyond the three-point line, including a shot from just inside half court. The Warriors needed everything he provided to hold off the Clippers' late charge. Curry and the Warriors are in unfamiliar territory these days, battling for the No. 1 spot in the West for the first time since ascending to the championship-level stage. This fight for the top spot is on.

5. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors

Last week: No. 7

Season stats: 23.7 points, 5.2 assists, 3.9 rebounds

This is a new role for DeRozan (best player) and a new role for the Raptors (best team in the Eastern Conference standings) as NBA All-Star weekend closed. Now we get to see how DeRozan and the Raptors handle being in the lead position. DeRozan’s game has matured nicely with the changes to the system coach Dwane Casey has implemented. Finding a way to fend off the Boston Celtics, and perhaps the Cavs, though, will require DeRozan and fellow All-Star Kyle Lowry to unleash their leadership skills. They’ve both learned when to defer to one another and when to lean on their supporting cast. But DeRozan will need to assert himself and be prepared to be much more aggressive offensively to keep the Raptors atop the East. He’ll need to play the same way he did in December and January, when he was scoring 25-plus points per game and shooting better than 44 percent, after seeing those figures dip to 19.1 ppg and 40.4 percent this month.

The next five:

6. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

7. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

8. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

9. Jimmy Butler, Minnesota Timberwolves

10. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

And five more ...

Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards; Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans; Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers; Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets; Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers

Next up?

An inside look at Tomas Satoransky from an Eastern Conference executive:

“I know John Wall hates to hear this, but with Satoranksy running the point the way he did [Thursday night] in Cleveland, the Wizards really do move the ball differently. They’re much more liberal with the ball in terms of who gets the shots, where the ball goes and when, and honestly it’s a much more democratic approach than when John is out there. I’m not here to denigrate John. He’s a great player, an absolute great player and obviously one of the best point guards, one of the best players in our league. Satorasnky is not close to that level. But sometimes you get a fresh set of eyes, some new hands on the controls, and he just drives the offense in his own way. He’s clever and still very deliberate at the same time. John’s been around for so long, you know his habits, his tendencies, but you can't stop him. He’s that good. Satorasnky isn’t even really a point guard. But [Wizards coach] Scott Brooks has to love what he’s seeing from him.

"He’s a natural playmaker, that’s clear to everyone who has seen him now that he’s playing bigger minutes and with different rotations. I’m not sure they knew what to do with him otherwise. John’s injury might have allowed them to get another chance to experiment with him and see what he could do. That length and that soft shooting touch are working for him. Scott can keep his jumbo backcourt out there with he and Bradley Beal and then you can go with completely different rotations late with the game on the line. But they’ve stumbled onto a really nice wrinkle with Satoransky and now you know what you can do with him if he’s pressed into service as your starting point guard. He’s got some great instincts and you can work him at any one of three different positions. The Wizards are really playing well, too. They’re averaging 30 assists over their last 10 games, just sharing the ball offensively and playing the way you want your team to play. Like I said, John Wall might not like it, but everybody does eat when the Wizards play this way.”

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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