LOS ANGELES — Every successful campaign needs a good slogan, and here’s one to sum up what should be James Harden‘s winning run for 2016-17 NBA MVP.
Who I Am.
Those are the words Harden used just before the season to explain to Bleacher Report what was coming. Harden felt he was set up to show fully “who I am.”
Four months later, we understand.
Harden has played this sport well for an awfully long time, but never like this. In doing so, he has provided a reminder of what is the intangible yet inescapable element that defines a player’s season as the most valuable.
An MVP season comes to be because a great player plays his particular game in a way no one else possibly can—and leaves us in awe.
Who I Am.
Harden was a gifted and willing passer as far back as high school but never got to unleash the full force of that natural talent in his game as a pro—until now. With that passing has come proof that Harden is capable of giving more life and energy to a team than we ever dreamed could come from this oft-blank face shrouded in beard shrubbery.
That has been the magic of Harden this season: He is comfortable in his own skin, on and off the floor, and it has both inspired and stabilized everyone around him. He is so consistent because it’s actually quite easy to be consistent once you find your true self.
And a superstar’s team becomes better than it otherwise should be because of that consistency—all the other players picking up on that vibe and trusting it for the greater good.
The Rockets were 41-41 last season. They are 43-19 now after routing the Los Angeles Clippers, 122-103, on Wednesday night. It was a night when this true Harden of 2016-17 was on full display in his quirkily cocky way of drawing attention to himself while deflecting it to his teammates, too.
An L.A. native, Harden looked as much at home and at peace with himself as we’ve ever seen him. He has blossomed into someone part street performer from 3rd Street Promenade, part inner-city baller from the Drew League…and wholly comfortable running his own personal show.
While navigating the end of a relationship with Dwight Howard that one NBA source said became worse than Kobe Bryant and Howard’s with the Lakers, Harden shut down early last season before opting to try to do things on his own. Harden and Howard didn’t co-exist at all, good or bad, said the source. They didn’t even deign to acknowledge each other’s orbit.
Now, without a competing center of gravity on the roster, this is Harden’s team to guide.
Like Nash at his peak under Mike D’Antoni in Phoenix, Harden is not a naturally vocal leader. Harden has come to understand he doesn’t have to fake or force anything, but he does have to be accountable and available in order to be a leader.
Sometimes, that can mean allowing Patrick Beverley to be the innate fire for the team. It can also mean showing his team how to respond to challenges with a unique brand of confidence.
On Wednesday night, super fan Darrell Bailey (“Clipper Darrell”) heckled Harden with a “U-G-L-Y, you ain’t got no alibi” song when Harden drew a three-shot foul. After knocking the third of three free throws down, Harden glanced up at Bailey in the stands behind the basket and mouthed back as quick as a cat: “You ugly” with a sly grin.
Next time down, Harden drilled a three-pointer, titled his head toward Bailey again and neatly turned his held follow-through right in the direction of Bailey, the whole sequence quite entertaining teammate Trevor Ariza.
With the Rockets up 68-52 at that point, a frustrated Clippers fan in a dress shirt sitting courtside added the kicker: “Pipe down back there, Darrell.”
No, this isn’t the dignified manner in which Nash would earnestly and positively lead his team, but there’s a consistent comfort in Harden’s own skin that is reminiscent of Nash.
Like the two-time MVP, Harden draws power from having the ball in his hands all the time. And in this way, also like Nash, Harden is more able to be his giving self, with the knowledge that he is being trusted to share by his coach.
The Rockets backed into giving Harden the chance to rule their world after GM Daryl Morey tried so many other methods to get his team over the top.
The logic was sound entering last season: The Rockets had built themselves up and reached the Western Conference Finals with a second star in Howard, so they gambled on point guard Ty Lawson‘s talent to lighten Harden’s load and get him to run more freely on the wing.
That idea only wound up sapping Harden of his special power with the ball—and his spirit.
What people forget is that Harden was only 23 when Howard signed up to join him in 2013. Howard’s great talent and childish self-absorption absolutely got in the way of Harden figuring himself out sooner.
This season, with Howard gone and D’Antoni empowering Harden as the point guard in this spread-floor system, the Rockets have gotten the best of Harden.
He didn’t have to worry about fighting for himself, so he could be more himself.
And most important, he could give more of himself.
That includes on defense, where Harden’s shortcomings were not only the stuff of TV commercials, but a strike against him in comparison to other MVP candidates.
Harden has dramatically improved from 125th in the league in defensive rating last season to 53rd this season, per FoxSports.com. (LeBron James is 65th, for comparison.)
Russell Westbrook is still a more active defender, but it might surprise you to know this: Players are shooting 49.8 percent against Westbrook this season (4.9 percent higher than their normal shooting percentages) compared to 46.9 percent against Harden (only 2.2 percent better than their averages).
Westbrook’s rebounding and much-celebrated triple-double average also are skewed by this truth: He leads the league in uncontested defensive rebounds (7.7 per game), the biggest joke of a stat in the business. Westbrook actually has a lower contested defensive rebound percentage than Harden (12.8 percent to 16.1 percent), which means Harden has been better one at winning rebounding battles.
Westbrook certainly has a case for MVP. He has had to lead his team in a different way this season without Kevin Durant. And the MVP is an individual award that too often goes by default to the best player on a great team.
But team success is a reflection of how impactful an individual’s season has been. It’s inarguable how much better the Rockets have been than the Westbrook’s Oklahoma City Thunder…and that Harden’s team is plus-355 points with him on the court this season to Westbrook’s plus-187. Harden also leads the NBA in win shares; Westbrook is 12th.
Take your pick of the rest of the numbers, and the odds are good that Harden has been more effective. True shooting percentage, effective field-goal percentage, points created via assist…all are in Harden’s favor.
When Harden finished a distant second for 2015 NBA MVP, some felt he’d outperformed Stephen Curry that season, at least statistically. Well, that was the season Curry came into his own skin, owning his unique style and bringing the sport something no one else could.
The purity of Harden’s who-I-am performance this season feels the same way.
He has taken what D’Antoni established with Nash more than a decade ago and updated the programming code to today’s pace-and-space standards—but added a level of scoring, durability and physicality that Nash never could’ve provided.
In an era of accepted superstar rest, Harden actually hasn’t missed a game and leads the league in minutes.
His production has been the constant for this league.
His confidence has infused his winning team.
And his greatness has been cemented with this MVP season.
Source : http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2695783-free-to-be-himself-james-harden-looks-an-awful-lot-like-an-nba-mvp