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James Harden finishes third in The Athletic’s early MVP poll

It’s not a terrible list, but we definitely have some nits to pick.

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NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

There’s been some great performers so far at this early stage of the NBA season, and with more than a quarter of the games in the books, the MVP-contender group is coming into focus. Though some might say it was set before the season even began, but I digress...

But The Athletic just published their own early-season MVP vote featuring 38 of their writers picking their top five placers, and it looks mostly like one would expect, with James Harden of the Houston Rockets coming in third place.

In first, of course, is the media anointed-one, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who won the award last year based mostly on storyline, and was the media pre-favorite again before this season. He appeared on all 38 ballots, finishing with 26 first-place votes.

Second was LeBron James, who appeared on 37 ballots (really, LeBron’s not on someone’s top five? Let’s hope it’s not someone with an actual vote) and had 11 first-place votes.

Then our beloved Beard, who also appeared on 37 ballots (really? some genius also left Harden out of their top five? Are we even watching the same game?), and he also received one first-place vote. Sam Amick at least seemed to acknowledge the prevalent Beard bias in his write-up:

Oh man, Daryl Morey isn’t going to be happy about this one.

The Rockets general manager has been vocal about his view that Harden should have won much more than just one MVP award by now, and there’s a debate to be had there (full disclosure: I voted for Harden last season). But these dynamics are something altogether different because, well, you’d think a guy could win the MVP award when he’s averaging more points per game (38.9) than any scoring champion since Wilt Chamberlain in 1962-63 (44.8).

Alas, just one of our staffers gave him a first-place vote.

The uptick in Harden’s scoring pace from last season (36.1 points per) has come almost entirely at the free throw line, as he has gone from 11 attempts per to a career-high 13.1. As if that’s not enough, Harden is the leading assist man (7.4 per) for a Rockets team that has the league’s third-best offense.

As for the overall optics, it would certainly help if the Rockets (18-9) were keeping pace with the elites. Still, there’s plenty of time to move up the standings from here – preferably, for his purposes, with the help of a defensive surge.

Harden will always have an uphill climb on this front with the voters. While he’s far from the laughingstock of yesteryear defensively, and much has been made of his defensive improvement in recent years, he still can’t claim to change the game on that end like some of the other stars on this list. What’s more, the Rockets are average defensively so far (16th in defensive rating).

Surprisingly, the fourth-place finisher, Luka Doncic appeared on all 38 ballots, something only Giannis was able to do and not Harden or James.

Fifth-place finisher Anthony Davis appeared on 33 ballots, and he was followed in order by Pascal Siakam, Jimmy Butler, and Joel Embiid.

Even though it’s not exactly how I would have them ranked, it’s not an egregious list, with my only complaint being Harden and James left off a ballot while Luka was not, and hey, The Beard was ranked ninth (yes, ninth) in the ESPN preseason MVP poll, so at least public opinions seems to be on the upswing for The Beard.

Anyway, for the record, here’s my top 5

  1. LeBron James - Best player, best team. Essentially Magic Johnson this year averaging 25.9 points and 10.6 assists per game.
  2. James Harden - Perennially disrespected, yet doing things no one else in the league can do, and most couldn’t do throughout its history. Held back from the top spot only due to the 18-9 record.
  3. Giannis Antetokounmpo - Leading the league in usage percentage, and I mean, couldn’t anyone do these things if they handled the ball as much as him? And his free throw rate of .527 is higher than either Harden’s or LeBron’s. And really, who wants to see all those free throws? It’s ruining the game. Wake me when Giannis does something in the postseason. It’s all about the rings, baby! (see what I did there?)
  4. Pascal Siakam - Did anyone have the Raptors at 18-8 without Kawhi? Not me.
  5. Luka Doncic - No one had the Mavs at 18-8 either, but a Luka-less win over the Bucks shows me this is just better team overall than anyone expected and lessens his impact some. This is a well-coached squad. Will one game matter as much in the big MVP vote? No. But it matters in one after 26 games. Let’s see where he is in March or April and I might change my mind.


Where is James Harden on your MVP list?

This poll is closed

  • 57%
    First, duh.
    (276 votes)
  • 17%
    (81 votes)
  • 12%
    (59 votes)
  • 6%
    (29 votes)
  • 1%
    (5 votes)
  • 5%
    Not in the top 5
    (26 votes)
476 votes total Vote Now