James Harden was at peak form in the Rockets' overtime victory over the Cavaliers on Sunday. He scored from inside and out, and got to the free throw line 18 times on his way to 33 points on 18 shots. He also logged eight rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocks in his 42 minutes on the court to round out a performance worthy of an MVP candidate. The Rockets have now won five straight and are firmly entrenched in the third spot in the Western Conference standings despite Dwight Howard being out with injury.
Harden has been amazing this season, leading the league in scoring with 27.1 points. Yet that's far from his most impressive stat.
Harden has suited up for every Rockets game this season. He leads the league in total minutes played and is second in minutes per game, averaging 36.6. In a year in which most of the league brightest stars have struggled staying on the court, Harden has been arguably the most durable elite player in the NBA. It has been huge for the Rockets to be able to rely on him so much with Howard missing 27 games already. When it comes to the ability to stay on the court for his team, Harden edges out every other MVP candidate.
"Take James Harden off our team and we are nowhere," said Rockets general manager Daryl Morey this weekend, and he's right. Harden leads the Rockets in minutes, points, assists and steals. He's one of six players in the entire league who uses over 30 percent of the team's possessions when he's on the court and boasts the league's second-highest real plus minus. The Rockets turn almost solely to Harden for star-level production, and he not only delivers it with stellar individual numbers, but also makes the team better when he's playing. Only Russell Westbrook has had to carry a heavier load this season, but he's done it for fewer games and minutes.
The never-ending debate surrounding the MVP award is whether it should go to the player who is most valuable to a great team or the best player in the league. If we are going with the latter definition, Harden has a great case as an elite offensive talent, but not as an all-around performer. He's playing better defense this season, but still isn't above average on that end. LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis are more well-rounded players at this point.
Yet there's no doubt Harden has been more valuable to the surprising Rockets than anyone else has been for their squad. Consider the amount of minutes he's played and the fact that he's carrying his team without the help of another star thanks to Howard's injuries.
Of course, narratives drive the voting and Harden has inadvertently become one of the most polarizing player in the league, sharing the spotlight that used to belong to Kobe Bryant with Russell Westbrook. He makes drawing fouls a key component of his game and plays with a style that could be described as "analytically inclined" in a time when the backlash against advanced statistics is back with a vengeance. He took 18 free throws against the Cavaliers and leads the league with 568 total attempts from the line, a whopping 160 more than his immediate pursuer, LeBron James. This is his shot chart from Sunday's game:
Lots of free throws, three-pointers and layups: the Moreyball way. To many, that's boring and will continue to be, even if the Rockets win a championship. That'll cost Harden some MVP votes in the process.
Yet for all the criticism about how the Rockets play, their season is one of the most intriguing storylines in the league right now. They are winning games despite having regressed on offense from last season thanks to Harden and a much improved defense that has been able to hold the fort even without Howard. Their bench is a collection of cast-offs that somehow has turned the mercurial Josh Smith and Corey Brewer into dependable contributors.
In the middle of it all, making it work, is Harden, going all out every night for extended minutes without his play suffering for it. Love him or hate him, that should count for something.
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