Finally, there was no excuse.
After years of keeping James Harden off the podium he thoroughly deserved to stand upon, the NBA fully embraced The Beard’s greatness as Harden was awarded his first Most Valuable Player Award and first for the Houston Rockets since 1994.
Ironically, you could argue that the the 2017-18 season was Harden’s weakest in terms of statistics. Look past the scoring average and you’ll see a noticeable dip in assist and rebounding numbers. The lack of dimes can be attributed to Chris Paul’s presence and the rebounding numbers are certainly due to Clint Capela’s emergence. Harden’s shooting improved by a whole percentage point and he even missed ten games this season after missing two combined the previous three seasons.
So what changed? That’s hard to nail down. The moving goalposts and desire to put any player in the MVP race persisted into March, but in the end Harden’s brilliance and Houston’s incredible regular season success became too much to snub. And while it would be satisfying to write about how this season proved that the media made a mistake last season and three seasons ago, or that the national view of Harden has been unfair or at least inaccurate from the jump, that isn’t the point anymore.
The point is that James Harden is the MVP because he earned it. And so did Houston.
To understand the fervor of Rockets fans in their unwavering dedication to Harden, you have to go back to October 2012. Houston had finished above .500 for three straight seasons but had zero playoff berths to show for their trouble. Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady had moved onto retirement and other teams, respectively. General Manager Daryl Morey had made some good moves to make the team competitive during his early years, but now he had been tasked with making the Rockets contenders again without tanking.
It is difficult to overstate the frustration of rooting for an above average team that doesn’t make the postseason. When your team regularly defeats lottery teams but is just as regularly outclassed by playoff teams, you see a trichotomy of talent levels that places your team squarely in the purgatory of the 14 pick in the NBA draft. How can your team get better if can’t get talent in the draft? There are gems at 14, but there are more at 13, and 12, and so on. Morey and the front office made trades and signings and all sorts of transactions. The word “assets” was as ubiquitous in those three years for Rockets fans as “The Process” is today. The Rockets were always on the phone with teams at the trade deadline trying to finally grab that one star player, but they always failed to get their man. Chris Bosh didn’t want to play in Houston. Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony had their representation tell the Rockets not to trade for them.
Further complicating matters was that the Rockets were just good enough to earn appreciation. As opposed to tanking teams where fans can gain satisfaction from seeing youngsters develop in losing games, Houston played young players and veterans alike in Rick Adelman and Kevin McHale’s systems that worked hard and gave everything on the court. Knowing Luis Scola and Kevin Martin weren’t leading you to a championship didn’t stop you from enjoying their well-developed talents. The team was dedicated to winning. They just weren’t good enough to finish in the top 8 in a stacked Western Conference. Houston was never on national television so they didn’t have enough exposure to lure top free agents or even get meetings with them.
If you can imagine that frustration and the conflicting emotions of winning when you should be tanking, you can start to comprehend the bittersweet feeling of rooting for Houston in the early part of this decade. Imagine three years of those feelings, and you can see why the city was developing an ambivalence towards the two-time champions.
So that was the frame of mind of most every Rockets fan heading into the late evening on October 27, 2012. That’s when this happened:
Oklahoma City has traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets, league sources tell Y! Sports.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) October 28, 2012
Ask most Rockets fans and they will remember exactly where they were that night. It’s a seminal moment in Houston sports fandom.
Those three seasons in purgatory has led a run of success only surpassed by the Hakeem Olajuwon years. Six straight playoff seasons have led to two conference finals appearances. Having scorned the Rockets just years earlier, Howard joined in free agency and Anthony requested to be traded to the team. All of that was due to James Harden.
He showed off his skills immediately.
Sometimes too much time is spent on narrative. How important someone’s season was can overshadow the player that deserves an award. In the whirlpool of the zeitgeist, we can lose track of the greater story being told. James Harden didn’t win despite losing a superstar this year. He didn’t average a triple-double. He didn’t set the record for most three pointers made. He didn’t take an expansion franchise to the Finals or any of the other qualifications for the MVP award over the last few years.
But James Harden was the MVP this year. And he earned it by taking a team mired in the muck and rescuing them from mediocrity by being truly exceptional.
Daryl Morey is the Executive of the Year. And he earned it by working and digging and clawing until he had enough assets to get James Harden.
Ask Morey and Harden and they will tell you that the Rockets haven’t accomplished their ultimate goal, which is to win a championship. They’ll say that they have failed and that the journey is far from complete. However, we sometime get caught looking at the trees rather than the forest. Sometimes you look up and you’ve been stuck in mediocrity for three years and can’t understand the direction you’re going. Or sometimes, you’re so focused on escaping your situation that you cannot fully grasp the progress you’ve made.
It may seem that in the span of a trade call and a tweet, the Rockets went from a team fighting to make the playoffs to a team trying to win the whole damn thing. That’s wrong, because it undervalues the journey that it took to get from zero superstars to enough assets to obtain one. That’s a time period no Rockets fans look upon with nostalgia. Frankly, it was an awful time to be a supporter of the squad. But look at them now.
So Daryl Morey and Rockets fans should quit lamenting last season. They should stop and smell the roses tonight and appreciate James Harden’s MVP award.
They’ve earned it.