MVP or Not, James Harden Has Upped His Game in Every Direction

It was October 27, 2012, and the Houston Rockets were days away from beginning another season in basketball purgatory. Coming off three straight seasons of being the best lottery team in basketball, the NBA equivalent of winning a dunk contest made up entirely of middle-aged white guys, the team had just finished its preseason schedule with a win over the Orlando Magic.

On that fateful day, Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey reportedly sat in his car at his son's soccer game waiting on the Oklahoma City Thunder. Little did anybody outside of the Rockets and the Thunder know that both teams were deep in trade talks that would alter their respective courses for the next decade.

Morey waited, eventually the call came and the Thunder agreed to send guard James Harden to the Houston Rockets for a package centered around guard Kevin Martin (and his expiring contract), rookie guard Jeremy Lamb and a first-round draft choice that would eventually become center Steven Adams.

On that day, Morey was rightfully thrilled with the trade and cautiously optimistic that the Rockets had secured the elusive "foundation player" they hadn't had since Yao Ming's feet and Tracy McGrady's body had all declared physiological bankruptcy three years prior.

"James is the foundational, franchise-type player we have been seeking the past few seasons," Morey said on the day of the trade. "He makes us better from day one and will play a big part in helping get us back to a championship level."

While James Harden has indeed fulfilled Morey's expectations from that day, he's evolved into so much more. He's progressed from prodigious scorer into a nuclear catalyst, a sort of basketball analytics cyborg, peppering the league with a lethal combination of three-point shots, layups, free throws and room-service assists for his teammates.

If Tim Duncan is the Big Fundamental, Harden is the Big Efficiency, the exact player Morey would create if the NBA season were a game of NBA 2K15 being played on an Xbox. "James has been everything we expected and more," Morey said. "You can forecast All-Star ability, but you can't forecast a guy becoming a potential Most Valuable Player. That's the hardest leap to make, All-Star to MVP candidate. James has done that."

Webster's defines the word "valuable" as "extremely useful or important." Under that definition, Harden's value in helping the Rockets become an NBA title contender goes back to the summer of 2013, when center Dwight Howard chose to come to Houston, in large part to play with another young, potentially transcendent player in Harden. With the signing of Howard, Morey finally had his new, younger and far healthier version of Yao and McGrady in Howard and Harden.

However, if the summer of 2013 was the Rockets' rebirth, the summer of 2014 was the "terrible twos," a sophomore slump both on and off the court. A disappointing playoff loss to Portland in the first round of the 2014 playoffs begat an offseason which saw the Rockets strike out on a third big free agent (Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony) and saw popular forward Chandler Parsons leave for Dallas for a max level contract.

Morey stayed patient, opting for the flexibility of salary cap space and assets instead of overpaying Parsons, despite lots of very loud hand wringing from the Rockets' faithful. He saw that as a more likely path to a championship, which for the Rockets is the only relevant goal. However, one 2014-15 asset that perhaps even the most optimistic Rockets fan didn't count on was Harden actually raising his game from first team All-NBA to something even more remarkable.

"The biggest difference we saw in James this (2014-15) season, coming back from the disappointment of losing in the playoffs the way we did last year, was in his leadership," Morey said. "There were parts of his game as well, like his defense, his attacking ability, use of his right hand, but we put a lot of faith in James becoming that leader for us."

With the dollars at stake rising exponentially, NBA players' spending their summers and risking their futures playing for the United States national team for free has become a more and more controversial topic. (Just ask the Pacers' Paul George, who shattered his leg in a USA exhibition game last summer.) Is basketball patriotism worth the risk? For James Harden, not only was his summer of 2014 as a captain of the U.S. team worth the risk, but it arguably was a necessary trial in his taking that final elusive leap from All-Star to untouchable.

With no LeBron James or Kevin Durant on that team, U.S. head coach Mike Krzyzewski handed the keys to Harden, and he became the heartbeat of the team, adapting his leadership style and becoming more vocal. "His experience on the national team was definitely a factor in his growth as a leader," Morey said. "That and the disappointment of losing in the playoffs. He grew as a leader, and he became a better defender."

The growth in Harden's offensive game from mere two-guard to absolute catalyst is about his brain. However, the growth in (or the mere existence of, some would argue) Harden's defensive game is about his heart. Long the object of derision by opponents and YouTube video editors, Harden's defense could best be described as lackadaisical in 2013-14. In 2014-15, he was among the league leaders in defensive win shares on a team that was a top ten defense all season long. Quite simply, Harden decided to start playing defense in 2014-15, and did so at a high level.

With LeBron James still adapting to his new teammates in Cleveland and with reigning MVP Kevin Durant sidelined with a foot injury, the 2014-15 NBA regular season was a two-horse MVP race between Harden and Golden State's Steph Curry, who took turns redefining the position definitions in the NBA.

"The current-day NBA guard, the modern NBA guard, cannot be one-dimensional," points out Morey. "James and Steph are guys that do everything offensively for their teams -- shoot, handle, set up others. The old definition of 'point guard' or 'shooting guard' doesn't really apply anymore."

With Harden and Curry, traditional definitions of "point guard" and "shooting guard," or even somehow combining the two definitions, don't do either player justice. Each is the central nervous system of his team.

However, when the MVP award is being doled out and true value is being assessed, it's impossible to ignore the degree of difficulty that the basketball gods imposed on Harden this season. Whereas Curry played the entire regular season with his other four regular fellow starters missing a combined 23 games because of injury, Harden's other four regular starters missed a combined 116 games owing to injury.

Additionally, the flexibility Morey valued so highly last July led to a Houston roster that was evolving in season, as opposed to in training camp, with top reserves Josh Smith and Corey Brewer joining the team a couple of months into the regular season. Through it all, Harden managed to lead an oftentimes patchwork squad to a 56-26 record and a two seed in the West.

For his part, Morey defines value quite simply. "I think the most valuable player is the player who produces the most wins for his team," the Rockets' GM says casually. "James has produced the most wins of anybody in the league this season. That's a huge part of it." (Harden led the league in the advanced stat of "Overall Win Shares" with 16.4.)

Curry was not far behind Harden, with 15.7 win shares, and Curry has the benefit of a buzz that has followed a Golden State team that was chasing a historical 70-win pace for most of the season. Harden, despite the overwhelming evidence in favor of his candidacy, is the decided underdog to win the MVP award right now.

"Steph will probably win the award, but there's no question to me Harden has been more valuable," said Brian Geltzeiler, who covers the NBA for Sirius XM and 120 Sports. "With what Harden's had to overcome around him, there's no question who it should be. It should be Harden."

Harden finished up his 82-game body of work on April 15, the regular-season finale against the Utah Jazz, a 117-91 blowout that helped clinch the aforementioned two seed in the West. Harden got off work early that night, leaving the game with a minute to go in the third quarter and the Rockets leading 91-54.

Aside from the mere 27 minutes played (Did I mention Harden led the league in minutes played this season?), the box score was the perfect microcosm of the evolution of Harden in 2014-15. He had only 16 points on 3 of 8 shooting, yet still managed a triple double with 11 rebounds and 10 assists. In years past, James Harden's scoring 16 points meant it was a bad night; in 2014-15, Harden's scoring 16 points meant he found other ways to rip out his opponents' hearts. In years past, Harden was a knife; in 2014-15, Harden became a Swiss Army knife.

Asked about his MVP chances after the season finale that night, Harden said, "I'm just happy we won. I'm just happy we put ourselves in a good (seed) for the playoffs. Obviously, it would be a great honor, but it's bigger than that. It's bigger than an individual award, and I'm so proud of my guys." In short, the correct answer for a team leader.

If the Rockets meet the Warriors in the playoffs, it would be in the Western Conference Finals. Perhaps the best Rockets fans can hope for is a repeat of 1995, when the Spurs' David Robinson was presented the MVP trophy right in front of the Rockets' Hakeem Olajuwon, who saw that MVP trophy as his and proceeded to disembowel and torture Robinson for six games in the Western Conference Finals en route to an NBA title.

In the words of Olajuwon that night, Rockets fans would rather have "the big trophy" anyway.

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanCablinasian or email him at sean.pendergast@cbsradio.com.


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