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The case for James Harden as NBA MVP

But don’t forget about Paul George and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The Most Valuable Player award is an argument between a hundred people who love to argue. Many of the arguments have merit, the occasional one does not, but I take it at face value that everyone argues in good faith when they cast their ballot.

When I was young and foolish, and before I had a vote, I used to think that choosing the MVP would be an easy choice. Just pick the best player regardless of exterior circumstances. Simple. As the game has evolved, and my understanding of it grown, I now realize that winning is a lot harder than it looks, and in some years it’s not a simple choice at all.

Rarely is there one unified argument about that year’s MVP and those races tend to be over by March. It’s now March and the MVP race is still simmering. There are three main contenders: Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, and Paul George. There are many, many other players worthy of consideration, but that’s the top three by general consensus.

When choosing an MVP in a crowded field like this, context matters more than ever and even that can be a subjective exercise. Narrative is a loaded word, but we all construct stories of what we’re watching, whether it’s with numbers, observation, emotion, or elements of all three.

The stories we tell inform our choices and in some cases confirm our biases. That’s neither good nor bad, it’s just the nature of the award. It’s also what makes this an interesting exercise.

In the broadest terms, my criteria includes weighing individual achievement along with team success. When all else fails I fall back on the player who defined the season, an admittedly sketchy position. That led me to choose Russell Westbrook over James Harden two years ago. I have no regrets.

When I voted for Harden last season, it was a far easier case to make. He was the best player in the league by most objective measures leading the best team. To choose Harden again this season would require using the same subjective reasoning that elevated Russ over him two years ago. Life is funny.

Harden is having an even better campaign this his MVP season and he’s taken over the league with his combination of skill and intelligence producing overwhelming numbers. By perfecting the art of shooting 3’s off the dribble with a series of step-backs and side-steps that are virtually unguardable, Harden has become the most unstoppable offensive force in the game.

“It just gives me more opportunity and more space to get my shot off,” Harden said of his shotmaking repertoire following a 42-point performance in Boston. “As defenders if you try to close the gap I’m able to get by you, so you’ve got to pick and choose.”

The problem, of course, is there is no right choice. Play up on him and he’ll drive to the basket where he can finish or find teammates for dunks and open shots. Lay back and he’ll take the three right in your face. Get caught in the middle and Harden is a magnet for foul calls.

Harden’s stat lines offer a study in beautiful symmetry, none better than his 58-point outburst against the Heat in late February when he went 8-for-16 from two, 8-for-18 from three, and 18-for-18 from the free throw line. Harden has a 61-point game, five in the 50s, and 18 more in the 40’s. He’s not just an offense unto himself, he’s the whole freaking universe.

What’s remarkable is that he hasn’t slowed down. Pick a stretch, any stretch, and you can find examples of Harden’s dominance. He was named Western Conference Player of the Month by the NBA in both December and January. He’s been just as productive in February and March, all the while carrying an absurdly heavy load.

“It’s special,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “I don’t know if there’s enough words. He is born to play, he loves to play. I can’t take him out of practice. You can’t keep him off the floor. That’s special in itself, knowing that 75-80 games a year he’s going to play for you and play at a high level.”

Because he plays so much in isolation, there’s a question of aesthetics with Harden. Those who identify with the struggle of the individual revel in his exploits, while those who prefer an egalitarian style of ball prefer the more balanced approach of Antetokounmpo’s Bucks.

My personal taste runs toward the latter, but both players are doing what’s been asked by their respective systems. Harden’s ball-dominant game isn’t selfish so much as it’s necessary. That’s an important distinction.

“He works with what what we want to do,” D’Antoni said. “That’s shoot 3’s, layups, and fouls. With what I like to do, it’s a perfect match.”

The Rockets have needed every bit of Harden’s determined brilliance this season. After a dreadful start that had many wondering if they would actually miss the playoffs entirely, Harden led a Rockets team that was besieged by injuries out of the wilderness back into contention for top-3 seed in the loaded Western Conference.

While he won’t make any All-Defensive teams, Harden’s work on that end of the floor has also been sturdier than in the past. D’Antoni pointed to Harden’s post defense as a particularly valuable component of Houston’s half-court defense, with its emphasis on switching.

Still, for Harden to overtake Antetokounmpo, as well as George, you’d have to argue that his offensive production is simply too great to ignore. Ultimately, his case comes back the idea that Harden’s play has defined the season, which it has. With its emphasis on offensive firepower fueled by efficient production, no one plays the modern game better than Harden.

Is that enough?

The best player on the best team designation now belongs to Antetokounmpo. His Bucks are in first place, his numbers are historic, and he’s played at a consistent level of excellence all season. Giannis gets bonus points for being an absolute terror on both ends of the floor.

PG’s argument takes a little longer to connect. He’s also having a brilliant offensive season, and he might be better defensively than Giannis. But while his Thunder are having a strong season, they haven’t risen to the same heights at Antetokounmpo’s Bucks. A side-by side comparison is close, but also tends to favor Giannis.

The wild card in the equation is Harden. While we still have a month left to play, and no decision has been made, my feeling is that the MVP is still Antetokounmpo’s to lose more than it’s Harden’s to win. Either way, it makes for a hell of an argument.

Say What?!?

Quotes of note from around the league

“If you don’t know who he is, then you’re probably not very good.”

Blazers guard Seth Curry on Dallas assistant God Shammgod.

Reaction: If you are old like me, you remember Shammgod as the ballhandling wizard of the Providence College Friars who reached the final eight of the 1997 NCAA Tournament as a 10-seed. (Shoutout to Bojan Bogdanovic doppelganger Austin Croshere.) If you are young like Curry, you know Shammgod from his signature move, appropriately referred to as the Shammgod. Take time to read the wonderful piece from Michael Pina on how Shammgod is influencing the next generation of playmakers, and why it’s so important.

“Of all the stuff I’ve done in my career, this ranks right up there at the top with winning a championship. For a kid from Akron, Ohio, that needed inspiration and needed some type of positive influence, MJ was that guy for me. I watched him from afar, wanted to be like MJ, wanted to shoot fadeaways like MJ, wanted to stick my tongue out on dunks like MJ, wanted to wear my sneakers like MJ. I wanted kids to look up to me at some point like MJ and it’s just crazy, to be honest. It’s beyond crazy.”

LeBron James after passing Michael Jordan on the scoring list.

Reaction: This was a genuinely cool quote on what should have been a historic evening that turned into yet another Laker melodrama. LeBron is the ultimate thinkpiece, but something is wrong if we can’t simply appreciate a historic milestone.

“I thought we moved off joy. Now anger? I disagree with that one.”

Golden State forward Kevin Durant after Steve Kerr said his team needed to play with more anger.

Reaction: Is this another sign that the Warrior dynasty is about to break up, or just a frustrated player in March after a humiliating loss? Everyone quickly to the content generation machines before the narrative changes next week.

“When I meet with them, what surprises me is that they’re truly unhappy. A lot of these young men are generally unhappy.’’

NBA commissioner Adam Silver speaking to Bill Simmons on a panel at the Sloan conference.

Reaction: Silver was speaking broadly of player’s feeling of isolation and loneliness. I won’t presume to speak for the players, but I have discussed with many people around the league a heightened feeling of tension this season. It’s not just players but coaches, front office members, and yes, media too. As someone who deals with mental health issues, and had anxiety-related attacks just this week, I don’t pretend to know all the answers. But I know we need to be talking about this, and by we I mean everyone invested in the league, because it’s not just a generational issue.

The List

Consumable NBA thoughts

We’re finally in the stretch run of the season and the days are still long and cold. The snow isn’t going anywhere, and the games blend into one endless series of pick-and-rolls. To break out of this rut, let’s spread some joy. Here are five things I’ve appreciated this season.

The spirit of the Brooklyn Nets

You think you’ve got it tough? Try being a Net the last few years without the talent to win or the organizational incentive to lose. Under Kenny Atkinson, the Nets distinguished themselves with a hard-nosed attitude in the face of all that adversity. That’s paid off this season as players, many of whom were reclamation projects, have grown into their roles. No one embodies that more than D’Angelo Russell who blossomed into an All-Star. The Nets may not stick around the postseason long, but their run to respectability has been inspiring.

The Hawks young core

The Hawks weren’t on my radar screen when the season began. It’s one thing to be young, quite another to be young and bad, and this looked like the very early stages of a long-term rebuilding project. Then I was taken with the legend of John Collins and became enamored with Kevin Huerter. The rookie from Maryland may look like his parents dropped him off at the wrong gym, but the kid can play. Throw in Trae Young’s in-season turnaround and the Hawks provide nightly thrills.

Paul George’s career season

Even for an unabashed PG supporter, this season has been a revelation. The talent was always there, but George has put together a season for the ages. He’s a strong contender for Defensive Player of the Year and a legitimate MVP candidate in a three-player race. In any other year, he’d likely be the frontrunner. What’s made his ascent all the more enjoyable has been a renewed appreciation for Russell Westbrook’s leadership abilities. It will be interesting to see where OKC stands after all the free agents wind settle this summer. If the Warriors do break up, it could open a 2-3 year championship window.

Nate McMillan’s stoicism

It wasn’t so long ago when Nate McMillan was a coaching star. His move from Seattle to Portland held the promise of future championships before injuries and bad luck doomed the Blazers to also-ran status. There were whispers the game had passed him by, but if anyone knows how to handle injury adversity, it’s the guy who coached Greg Oden and Brandon Roy. Watching McMillan’s Pacers remain in the thick of the Eastern Conference race without Victor Oladipo is a testament to the respect the coach has from his players. His team is smart, disciplined, and plays together. That’s what it’s all about, really.

Donovan Mitchell’s comeback

When Mitchell was the breakout star of his rookie class, expectations rose to an enormous degree. When he struggled early in his second season, his game was thoroughly eviscerated. We’re all guilty of judging young players too harshly and much too quickly, but the backlash bordered on ridiculous. Mitchell found his groove around the turn of the new year and is once again performing like a franchise cornerstone for the Jazz. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s a genuinely good dude.

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