Predictably, James Harden came in second to Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo in the MVP balloting as announced during the NBA Awards on Monday night. Despite a record-breaking year for Harden, it was widely expected Antetokounmpo would win the award. In fact, he dominated, taking three-quarters of the first place votes. Only he and Harden were awarded first place votes in the race.
It is worth saying that Antetokounmpo was absolutely deserving if for no other reason than his defense, which was otherworldly all season. He is a delightful young man and a remarkable player, so no shame in losing the award to him.
This is, in fact, Harden's fourth time in five years to finish as the runner up, winning the award in 2017. In at least three of the four second place finishes, it was arguable that Harden should have won.
As remarkable an accomplishment as just being that close for that long may be, there is a sometimes subtle, sometimes not, dislike of Harden, particularly among members of the media and certain fans around the league. Some can be traced back to the highly selective video of Harden not playing defense — something that has admittedly improved by a wide margin since. Some is his rather mercurial and quirky nature. But a lot of it is his style of play, which has been widely criticized and mimicked for a variety of reasons.
Nowhere is this more prevalent than on social media and last night, there was an almost giddy enjoyment of Harden's second place finish. Two of the more controversial came from the host, comedian Hasan Minhaj, who poked fun at Harden's absence from the awards ceremony (he was in China for a promotional tour with Adidas) and how it compares to the popular (albeit mostly inaccurate) narrative that the MVP runner up struggles in the playoffs.
Hasan Minhaj ROASTED James Harden ???? pic.twitter.com/kfQ6Q7mkDR— Complex Sports (@ComplexSports) June 25, 2019
Then there was this shot from ESPN.
But perhaps most surprising was the backlash to a tweet from the Rockets themselves who chose to agree to disagree with the selection, citing stats and a highlight video of their guy.
Congrats to the new MVP, but we respectfully disagree.— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) June 25, 2019
???? @JHarden13 ??
?? Finished Top 2 in MVP voting 4 out of the last 5 seasons
? 1st player in NBA history to avg at least 35.0ppg & 7.0apg in a single season
? Scored 40+ pts 28 times this season, 50+ 9 times & 60+ twice pic.twitter.com/UMmHARlNxg
It was panned not only on Twitter but in news reports which took issue with the Rockets being sore losers. Some brought up an report that was leaked showing how the Rockets would have won against the Warriors in 2018 but for the officiating.
Admittedly, the organization probably could have handled it with a tad more class. Maybe hold off on that one until a couple days later instead of springing it immediately after the announcement. Nevertheless, it did feel a bit over the top to pile such sweeping condemnation of the Rockets after the other social media punches that were thrown by the likes of ESPN.
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Honestly, it's difficult to blame the team or fans for being pissed at what seemed like gloating.
There is no question that Harden and the Rockets, to earn the respect they so clearly believe they deserve (and often get despite their protestations to the contrary), they need to win at the highest level. No one (well, some) will fault them for flailing away against one of the best teams ever assembled and falling short. But athletes and franchises are ultimately judged by their ability to win rings. No one talks about the incredible accomplishment it was for the Buffalo Bills to reach four straight Super Bowls, only the fact that they didn't win any of them.
Having said that, perhaps they can turn some of their frustration with the losing and the jokes made at their expense into an oversized chip that pushes them harder and farther than they have gone with this group of players.
There are always going to be those who simply dislike James Harden. Nothing will change that. But, you want to shut up the critics? Win.