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Can James Harden actually win the MVP?

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With improved defense added to his arsenal, James Harden is making a serious case for himself in the MVP discussion.

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Over a quarter of the season is in the past, and there have been quite a few surprises when it comes to the Most Valuable Player award race.

New names like Marc Gasol, Stephen Curry, James Harden, and Anthony Davis have emerged and replaced LeBron James and Kevin Durant as MVP candidates. Although Gasol, Curry, and Davis are all worthy of the award, James Harden arguably deserves it more than all of them.

Not only leading the league in scoring, Harden has also led the Houston Rockets to an impressive 18-5 record despite being injury-plagued. Considering the major candidates' performances compared to their team's records, it seems obvious that James Harden has done more with less than anyone else in the league, making him the most valuable player in the NBA.

Harden is third in the league in minutes played and despite shooting rather poorly from the field, he is fourth in the league in Offensive Win Shares. Out of nowhere, James Harden is STILL LEADING THE LEAGUE in Defensive Win Shares with 1.7. He truly has upped the ante on defense and it has shown.

The All Star ballots became available to the public this week, and Stephen Curry and James Harden are almost locks to start in the backcourt for the West. Although Curry is having his personal best season and is leading the league's best team, his statistics pale in comparison to "The Beard."

Harden vs Curry Basic
Both great foul shooters, Curry has the edge in percentage, but Harden makes almost two times more per game. "The Beard" lives at the line and plays more minutes per game than Curry. Plus, Harden is much better defensively, even though Curry has improved on that side of the ball as well.

Harden vs Curry Advanced

The guards are neck-and-neck when it comes to the advanced statistics

The biggest disparity between the two stars comes in the Effective Field Goal percentage stat. Harden hasn't generally shot the ball well this year, and his EFG% and Offensive Rating take the hit for that. However, it's important to note Harden's advantages in PIE (NBA.com's trademark stat; basically PER), Usage Percentage, and Defensive Rating.

Ignoring the statistics, Curry has had more to work with this season. The Warriors have a more talented supporting cast than the Houston Rockets' JV team that has played most of their games this season. Defensively, Golden State can afford to hide Curry on non-shooters or poor offensive players to save him for offense. With Klay Thompson's improved offensive game, not only does Curry catch a break defensively, but he also has less responsibility on offense.

Another staggering difference between the two MVP frontrunners is their clutch stats. In close games with 5 minutes or less, Harden is third in the league in scoring with 4.1 points (behind only Kobe Bryant and Monta Ellis). In that situation, Harden is shooting an outrageous 54.5 percent from three. Curry is eighth in that specific situation, scoring just 3.4 points with 25 percent three-point shooting.

Because of the defensive edge, Harden's ability to take over games down the stretch, and his superior impact on his team, Harden is a more valuable than Stephen Curry.

Marc Gasol, the standout center for the Memphis Grizzlies, has a very similar resumé to Steph Curry. Like Curry, Gasol leads one of the league's best teams (the Grizz have the second-best record), but has plenty of help alongside him. Mike Conley Jr. has had an excellent year and Zach Randolph is still producing "16 and 7s."

Gasol anchors their defense and although Harden has more Defensive Win Shares, Gasol is clearly a much better defensive player than "The Beard." However, the Rockets have a better defense according to the Team Defensive Rating stat, an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions.

It's difficult to compare the two players because they play completely different positions, but like Curry, Marc Gasol has much more to work with than James Harden. "The Beard" is undoubtedly better offensively, but the same goes for Gasol defensively. Both players deserve the award, but Harden has done more for his team because he singlehandedly wins more games for the Rockets, whereas it's more of a team effort for the Grizzlies.

Another aspect that Harden gets the advantage is in the commercial game. While Marc Gasol doesn't star in any major American advertisements, Harden has appeared in several ads including this foot locker masterpiece with (guess who!) Stephen Curry.

In all seriousness, this situation is a lot like how in Friday Night Lights, Vince Howard (Michael B. Jordan), the East Dillon quarterback, is more valuable to his team than Matt Saracen was earlier in the series. In the first three seasons of the show, Saracen plays quarterback for the Dillon Panthers, a high school football powerhouse. In the fourth and fifth seasons of the show, the perspective is shifted to East Dillon High, where Vince Howard leads a East Dillon team full of kids who have never played football before to a state championship in the final season.

In this case, Marc Gasol is like Matt Saracen (which makes Z-Bo Jason Street, but let's not go there) in the sense that his team has more talent than the East Dillon Lions (Houston Rockets), but Vince Howard (James Harden) therefore means more to his team.

Anthony Davis, the league-leader in Player Efficiency Rating, is another qualified MVP candidate. Averaging 24 points, 10 rebounds, and a league-leading 2.7 blocks, "The Brow" is one of the most dominant big men in the game at just 21 years old. His resumé is very impressive, but his team is underwhelming to say the least.

To be the NBA's most valuable player, you must lead a team that at least makes the playoffs. The New Orleans Pelicans are struggling to stay afloat in the über competitive, overcrowded Western Conference. They currently hold the 8 seed with an 11-11 record, but the Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings, and OKC Thunder are right on their tail.

Western Conference Playoff Picture
Although Anthony Davis is an amazing player, his team's lack of success compared to the Houston Rockets will kill his case for the MVP trophy. At his young age, the promising Davis will likely be in contention for the MVP award for many years to come. But this year, 2015, is the Year of The Beard.

All statistics are accurate as of Saturday, December 13, 2014.