James Harden has done everything a human can possibly do. He put up numbers no one — not Jordan, not Bird, not Magic, not Olajuwon, not Chamberlin or Kobe or LeBron — has ever managed in a season of professional basketball. And his team is winning well beyond expectations.
But we are here to tell you he will not be the NBA MVP this year. Period.
This is not to say we agree. Anyone who has closely followed the growth of the Rockets guard over the past few seasons or the performance of his team this year knows he is a stellar talent, slightly behind only Hakeem Olajuwon and Moses Malone in franchise history. This season's numbers have been historic: the triple doubles, the double doubles, the threes, the free throws, the offensive efficiency, the total points accounted for. He was and continues to be one of the most efficient offensive weapons in the history of the game. It's been nothing short of remarkable.
And yet he will not win the MVP. That will go to Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook and there are legitimate (and not so legitimate) reasons why.
The Rockets are the better team.
You might consider this an advantage. You would not be alone. There is a debate that has raged for years in the NBA when it comes to the MVP race: Is it the best player on the best team or the player on the team that will suffer the most without him? Most years, the scoreboard wins out. Two seasons ago, Harden was edged in the same race by Golden State guard Steph Curry. It was argued he was more deserving because his team was substantially better. This year, the case for winning is being upended. The suggestion that Westbrook is his entire team and that without him they might not even win 30 games seems to be persuading voters. Harden, it is argued, is surrounded by better talent than Westbrook and a great system, something that also seems to be weighing down candidates like Kawhi Leonard and even LeBron James. In fact, the success of the Rockets thanks to their superior talent and coaching is making it tougher for Harden to win this season, not easier.
Westbrook has the gaudier game.
Never mind the numbers, Harden's game is more subtle. He's not a high flyer. His game is predicated on efficiency and low-risk moves. He is more of a layup machine than a dunk machine. Westbrook, on the other hand, can quickly turn into a human highlight reel. He plays above the rim and that attracts attention, for better or worse. Fans and media can be mesmerized by the flash of the OKC guard's game, while they are lulled to sleep by what Harden does on the floor. It shouldn't be a factor in determining the MVP award, but don't kid yourselves, it most certainly is.
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Harden, and his game, are not well liked among NBA writers.
There are guys in every sport who don't court the media well despite their athletic prowess. Some are jerks (enter Barry Bonds) or weirdos (see: Terrell Owens). But some are guys who just don't seem to fit the image of the prototypical athlete for that sport, on or off the floor. Harden's game, as mentioned above, is low key, as are his mannerisms. He is uncomfortable in interviews. He is unconventional in both manner of look and style of play. Media members, especially the old-school variety, hate the threes, layups and free throws concept that the Rockets have nearly perfected and they are easily wooed by extroverts with winning smiles. Last year, despite monster numbers, Harden didn't make any of the three All-NBA teams, chiefly because of the continuing circulation of a cherry-picked video purporting to show his lazy defense, and his offseason relationship with a Kardashian. It continues to hamstring him in his efforts to win respect around the league. This is the world we live in.
The Triple Double average is the Holy Grail in basketball.
There are numbers in almost every sport people view as sacred, like batting .400 for the season in baseball. In the NBA, it is averaging a triple double for the season. And no one should discount how incredible this is. It has happened only ONCE in league history and that was more than a half a century ago. Not only did Westbrook accomplish something most people never thought would happen again, he broke the record for number of triple doubles in a season. His accomplishment is nothing short of unbelievable. Harden destroyed some incredible records of his own and, in many ways, had better-balanced numbers than Westbrook, but it is difficult to deny this unreal accomplishment. It has been cited over and over again by commentators as the single most important reason why Westbrook should be MVP. It's also perhaps the biggest factor in why Harden will come up short for the second time in three seasons, whether we agree or not.