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Fool me twice, shame on me: James Harden leaving no doubt for MVP voters

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If James Harden doesn’t have your full attention by now, that might be a “you” problem.

Gilang Bogy

HOUSTON — You’ve seen the clip at least a hundred times already.

Hezonja and Harden Harden steps back, fires

FOOOOOOOULLLLL!!!

The shot. The four-point play. The funny rowboat celebration he did as he sat on the ground, among the deafening roars.

His teammates Luc Mbah a Moute and PJ Tucker surrounding him, ready to lift him up, just as he’s done for them time and time again.

The 20,000 Houston faithful as they stood to their feet, among them Calvin Murphy, whose single-game scoring record of 57 had stood for 40 years.

It was his Oscar moment. All of it felt right. His time was right here, right now.

Erik Williams/USA Today

You’d be hard-pressed to find an NBA player whose shortcomings are talked about more than his accomplishments like James Harden. When we hear his name, we hear his two MVP runner-up finishes, Game 6, the infamous defense videos. Instead of applauding someone who’s been on as crazy and consistent of a four-year run as we’ve seen, the innate tendency is to criticize him.

But Houston has fully embraced the Beard. Clutch City has adopted him as one of their own, and they spend more time focusing on the important things — appreciating what he’s done during his time here, night in and night out.

“He’s been doing this for years!”, Lula, one of the longest-serving elevator attendants at Toyota Center, will tell you.

Lula is right. He has been doing this for a long time. Long enough that his regular-season efforts should have been crowned by now. Twice before, award voters convinced themselves that he wasn’t worthy enough to win the MVP — Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook were more deserving.

The beauty of time, however, is that it heals. It’s OK to go back and say, “We might have messed that one up. Our bad.”

The year is 2015. Consider the following names: Donatas Montejunas. Jason Terry. Josh Smith. Terrence Jones. Joey Dorsey. Kostas Papinikoloau. Pablo Prigioni. Corey Brewer. No, this isn’t a G-League roster. This was 75% of Houston’s rotation. Half of the roster isn’t on an NBA team in 2018. Prigioni is a coach now, for Christ’s sake. Jason Terry is 40 years old.

James Harden, armed with Trevor Ariza as his most reliable teammate, dragged that team to 56 wins, the second seed in the West, and a division championship—something that hadn’t been achieved in 20 years. Dwight Howard, who was supposed to be his nightly All-Star running mate, missed half the season exactly. 41 games!

In spite of it all, James put his head down and went to work, averaging 27-7-6 along the way, leading the league in minutes played. That year, the narrative was “best player on best team.” The Warriors were by far the league’s best team (67–15? Ridiculous), and Steph Curry (24-8-4) was their best player. Steph won in a landslide, the media seeing Curry as a fitting recipient for the award, and he had a damn good case for it. But that year, it wasn’t so much as who won the award, it was about who lost it. It just didn’t sit right with James, and his peers for that matter.

“Like I said, I’m not taking anything away from Steph,” James Harden told Fran Blinebury. “But I felt I deserved the Most Valuable Player. That stays with me.”

In a sense, it made you wonder what most valuable actually meant. He would eventually wind up being voted as league MVP in the first edition of the NBA Players’ Awards. Harden famously said he was the “best player in the league” which wasn’t taken too kindly around the league and in the media. When you hear players say stuff like that, sometimes it comes off as arrogant. Delusional. Egotistical.

This was different. When James said, he truly, in the depths of his heart, believed it to be true. He really saw himself as the best. And he didn’t care if you agreed with him or not—he was going to show you why.

Getty Images for BET

Along came the 2016-17 season, and with that came a position change. A leaner, toned Harden would be the full-time point guard for the new-look Rockets, led by Mike D’Antoni and his renowned 7 Seconds or Less offensive system.

The shift drew mixed reactions around the league, some feeling like this was a long time coming, others saying Harden was too selfish to ever actually run an offense.

Remember when James said he could do more? Well, quite frankly, he did, to the tune of 29-11-8. He ended up becoming the first player in NBA history to record at least 2,000 points, 900 assists, and 600 rebounds in a season. Forget the term “system player” moniker, HE WAS THE SYSTEM. He finished .6 combined points away from the second highest total points output ever, behind only Nate Archibald’s 56.8 points in 1973.

He was the conductor of a 48-minute wrecking crew, and man was it something to watch. Way too many moments to fit in here, but there are hundreds of YouTube videos out there of his sexiest assists, step-back jumpers and crossovers, if you’re into that kind of stuff.

There’s a certain irony to naysayers how they’re the loudest in the beginning, before they slowly fade away. It’s ind of hard to call him selfish, especially in a year in which he led the league in assists. Yes, Harden isolates a TON. But it’s not because he’s all about getting his, or doesn’t trust his teammates. He’s just that damn good at producing offense out of it, at an efficient rate.

A little farther north, there was another historic season in the works. Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double over 82 games, a feat that had never been reached. Immediately following KD’s departure to the behemoth that is Golden State, the idea was thrown out into the world that Russ would be so locked in, so angry and determined, that he would post ridiculous numbers.

But a triple-double?

A lot of people, including myself, were naysayers. In the process, the Thunder finished the year 6th in the Western Conference, going 47–35. Look to Harden supporters, and they probably felt as if James had done enough, but it would be a nail-biting MVP finish. But even before the end of the regular season, it was clear as night and day who the general public wanted to carry the trophy.

SportsCenter started a “Russ Watch” in the final games of the season, with everyone waiting to see when history would be broken. The narrative in 2015 was best team, and now in 2017 the narrative was best player.

In reality, Russ and Harden’s numbers were pretty comparable across the board, even though James actually finished the season with 200 fewer rebounds. The league couldn’t care less.

“The Beard had more help! Russ was damn near doing it by himself every night!” was a common theme which picked up steam around April/May. But that was based in fallacy ;  Harden didn’t have more help, it was just different. A better natural fit.

Where OKC opted to surround Russ with lengthy defenders, skilled bigs and slashers, Daryl Morey gave James shooters, spacing and freedom.

The Thunder would flame out in the first round at the hands of Houston, ironically, but that’s not how an regular-season MVP should be judged. It’s an 82-game grind.

Which brings us into 2018 , when Houston is leading the way at 49-13, and in the midst of a 15-game winning streak.

Sounds a bit strange, given how long the Warriors have reigned supreme from October to April, year after year. But make no mistake, the Rockets have fought for this and deserve every bit of respect for leading the pack.

You can give your own opinions on Game 6, and I’m sure people have their conspiracy theories out there, but this much is clear: Harden couldn’t do it alone, he needed someone to take some of the load off of his shoulders.

Ty Lawson wasn’t the man for the job. Neither was Dwight Howard. The thought of Harden leaving Houston wasn’t urgent, but it’s not crazy to think they could only take so many playoff failures before he would reach a breaking point.

So GM Daryl Morey swung for the fences and landed Chris Paul. As the story goes, CP3 — a 10-time All-Star and future Hall of Famer — had been talking with James for weeks prior to his free agency, determined to team up in the near future.

Experts and fans alike wondered how such a pairing would work. After all, ball-dominant guards need the right pieces around them to unlock full potential; Paul and Harden have been labelled as ballhogs in the past, would they be able to share the floor?

NBA: Miami Heat at Houston Rockets Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

The short answer is yes.

The long answer is hell yes.

Players hear a good amount what goes on in social media, and James had heard all the talk of why it wouldn’t work, even before they got a chance to hit the court.

“You got two guys that love the game of basketball, that love playing, and that have a high IQ? Easy transition,” he told Complex.

Houston currently owns the highest offensive rating in NBA history (116.5). Like of all time. That’s higher than last year’s Warriors, the ‘97 Bulls, and the 86 Celitcs.

Basically, the Rockets could wake up from a deep sleep and still drop 110+ on any given night, and James Harden is the main reason why.

Forget his career high in points (31.2) and PER (30.4). Forget the fact that he is taking nearly 11 threes a night(!), and shooting 38 percent on those attempts. Forget the fact that he’s still top three in the league in assists at 8.9. Chris Paul’s calming effect has seen James’ efficiency increase even more than before, posting the lowest turnover percentage (14.6) in six seasons in Houston.

The NBA changed a rule to try and slow him down. All we’ve heard over the years is “Harden relies on free throws,” and refs have seemed to stop giving him those continuation calls — and it still doesn’t matter.

But to him, it’s all about Chris. And to Chris it’s all about James. That’s what makes this 1-2 punch so special and lethal. Two competitors who care about winning above all, and who’ve tweaked certain aspects for the greater good.

He’s seen how much Paul obsesses about the game of basketball, how meticulous he is, how passionate he is about defense and making things right. The Rockets have won season series against the Cavaliers and the Warriors, which some teams might see as major accomplishments. But to them, they’re just scratching the surface.

They constantly acknowledge the fact that they’re still learning on the fly, what works and what doesn’t work. This form of Houston isn’t their best version, and that’s scary as hell.

Yes, Chris Paul’s decision to take his talents to Houston was about winning. And yes, the ultimate goal for the pair is postseason success and bringing a championship to Clutch City. But there’s beauty in the journey as well.

For a player who was once thought to be a great sixth man but nothing more, a player who was deemed to be “more of a system guy and lacking an explosive first step,” (which ironically became his strongest asset), to finally being named Most Valuable by his peers would be movie-esque. These are different times from 2015 and 2017. The Rockets are for real and have aspirations for playing deep in May and June, searching for their Hollywood ending.

James Harden heard all of the reasons why he didn’t deserve to win MVP in the past. He isn’t listening anymore.