As Houston Rockets fans, we’re all pretty familiar with the term “gaslighting,” which is when a person attempts to manipulate you into questioning your reality and/or your sanity. We’ve been pointing out that there’s an obvious anti-Rockets, and in particular, an anti-James Harden bias, only to have some in the mainstream sports media and knuckledraggers on Twitter tell us that we’re crazy, we’re playing the victim, or that we’re all simply a bunch of whiners, criers and complainers.
“No,” we’re told (and I’m paraphrasing), “no one out there is intentionally hating on James Harden, it’s just that Rockets fans enjoy a persecution complex.” Honestly, I’ve really heard it all.
But no matter how you look at it, there’s really no other explanation than Harden-hate when you see that a recent ESPN panel of so-called “experts” voted for who they thought would be MVP for the upcoming NBA season, and then ranked each player by the votes that they got. Essentially a mock preseason MVP vote. Harden finished ninth. Yes, you heard that correctly. Ninth.
This is a guy still squarely in his prime, coming off of three consecutive finishes in either first or second place for the real MVP (winning it in 2018). He also finished in second in 2015, giving The Beard a top-two finish in four out of the last five years. In fact, the only season Harden finished as low as ninth since he’s been with the Rockets was in the disastrous 2016 year in which Houston put up just a 41-41 record.
This is a player coming off of the single most dominant offensive season in recent memory, and a guy that’s improved his defense so much that he finished third in the NBA in steals, first in deflections, and was one of the league’s premier post-defenders (and yes, “premier” is the right word here. He finished in the league’s 90th percentile).
I’ve heard some rationalize this ESPN prediction by saying that having a second superstar in Russell Westbrook around will make Harden’s numbers less impressive and also lessen his impact (the one-ball theory). Only LeBron James finished third in the voting and Anthony Davis finished fifth. And in case you’ve been asleep all summer, they both now play on the same squad.
Anyone remember the last time Anthony Davis finished ahead of Harden in the real MVP race? If you said, “Freaking never!”, then you’d be the winner of this quiz. In fact, it’s been since 2016 since even King James finished head of The Beard in the MVP race.
But as Rockets fans, we’re used to this. From Harden being officiated differently than any other player in the NBA, especially from beyond the three-point line (he’s earning too many four-point plays, we have to do something!), to being booed after being injured on the court against Golden State (you see total media outrage when this happens to any other player), to ESPN’s Zach Lowe basically admitting before last season that voters realized they had to vote Harden as MVP in 2018 just so they can conscious-free go back to ignoring his accomplishments because they don’t aesthetically enjoy his playing style.
Heck, we even had some people out there criticizing Harden for discussing this past season’s MVP vote, where he lost out to Giannis Antetokounmpo. No one seems to want to mention that Harden was asked the dang question by a reporter. He’s not just walking around, bringing it up. Besides, he’s not exactly wrong. While some voters who were being intellectually honest did bring up Harden’s finish in the poll as a snub, others continue to use their vote as a self-fulfilling prophecy and to pat themselves on the back:
Snellings: For the second straight season, my preseason pick for MVP is Giannis Antetokounmpo. He is such a unique talent, and even though he took over the NBA as I predicted last season, he still is only 24 years old and, in his own words, is still only at about 60 percent of his potential as a player.
Anyway, there’s only one way to end all of this nonsense, and that’s for The Beard to win a ring this year. He’s already taken home an MVP trophy, and the league has made it clear he’s not about to win another one, even when what he’s doing is historic, as it was last year. But as The Beard himself said in the same MVP interview (which people conveniently gloss over in lieu of tossing Twitter tomatoes):
“All I can do is control what I can do, and I went out there and did what I was supposed to do at a high level.”
I’ll be expecting the same from him again this season. I just won’t be expecting another MVP, no matter how well he plays.