If the Rockets’ 118-116 win last night over the Oklahoma City Thunder really was a battle for the early MVP lead like we heard in the pregame buildup, then if he hasn’t already in anyone’s mind, last night should have sealed it: James Harden is the clear early leader for league MVP.
And this was despite Russell Westbrook being absolutely fantastic for large chunks of the night. Russ finished with 49 points on 16-34 shooting, and his 8 three-pointers were a new career high. He also grabbed 8 rebounds and 5 dimes, and despite being hounded by Patrick Beverley all night, there were times when he simply couldn’t miss.
But do you know what other stat Westbrook also took home last night? A loss.
James Harden’s line may not have been quite as gaudy — though a near triple-dip of 26 points, 8 rebounds and 12 assists is certainly nothing to scoff at — but with the game on the line, it was Harden making the MVP play, not Westbrook.
Ethan broke down the sequence beautifully in his recap piece last night, but it bears repeating here. With the game tied at 116 with just a shade under 25 seconds left to go, Westbrook devolved into hero ball, shooting a long, contested two that didn’t fall. It was a shot everyone in the arena and everyone watching at home saw coming. Most importantly, the Rockets did too.
Harden, on the other hand, made a basketball play. When everyone in the arena, including the Thunder, were certain Harden would go tit for tat on national TV with Westbrook to close out the game, The Beard did what MVPs do. He found his teammate wide open under the hoop, the Thunder were forced to foul, and Nene cashed the ensuing free throws for the difference in the game.
It’s not as Vine or as Sportscenter-worthy as draining a long, contested jumper in someone’s face, and in fact, didn’t even count as an assist in Harden’s box score. But he made the right play that resulted in a Houston win, and that short sequence to end the game is a microcosm of the entire MVP race.
Don’t let Gary Payton fool you. That award is is about winning. The former star guard made an appearance on the TNT pregame show and touted Westbrook as his MVP favorite because Russ is “doing it with less.” Sorry, Gary. The MVP has never been about that.
In fact, the last time a player won the MVP award who wasn’t on one of the league’s better teams was Moses Malone for the 1981-82 Rockets. Houston finished 46-36 that season, were the last playoff seed in the West, and had an unceremonious first-round exit at the hands of Seattle. For those who aren’t counting, that’s 35 years ago. The MVP award has always been about greatness and winning. It’s the exact reason why Harden lost the vote to Stephen Curry two seasons ago, and it’s the reason Harden should certainly be above Westbrook now.
And even if “more with less” was a legitimate criteria for MVP, can we really make that statement? The Thunder are far from devoid of talent outside of Russ. Victor Oladipo is one of the best young guards in the league. Both Enes Kanter and Steven Adams are averaging more points per game than any big man in Houston, including the injured Clint Capela.
Right now, the Thunder are hovering just a few games above .500 at 21 - 16 and are in the West’s 7th seed. If the playoffs started today, they’d be facing San Antonio in the first round as serious underdogs.
The Rockets, on the other hand, are currently on pace for 62 wins and home court advantage in the first round.
Both Westbrook and Harden are having historic seasons; This isn’t meant to take anything away from what Russ is doing. But the Rockets are currently on pace for the most wins in franchise history with a superstar who seems to have finally got it all figured out.
Westbrook is where Harden was over the previous two seasons. Great player, but just not quite MVP.
A few months ago, the Rockets roster was filled with guys too injury prone (Gordon, Anderson) too old (Nene, Ariza) or too young (Harrell, Capela). The difference is the Beard’s play has made those around him better than just the sum of all the parts, and that’s the extra step Harden has finally taken that’s deserving of the MVP award.
The thing is, westbrook isn't dishing that to nene, he's shooting over that double team, and that's the difference between a W and a L— NBA All Access (@nballaccess) January 6, 2017
A lot can change between now and April, no doubt. But as it stands right now, folks, James Harden is your clear MVP frontrunner.