Well, that pretty much does it. With the recent slump the Houston Rockets are in — now losers of four straight games and falling to the sixth seed — there’s virtually no chance for James Harden to win another MVP award.
Now just 26-16 on the year, which is just a 50-win pace, the Rockets are reeling, and their star player is playing his worst stretch of ball of the season. Over the four-game losing streak, Harden is averaging just 29.3 points per game (though as an aside, how good is a guy when we’re using the qualifier “just” next to 29 points), and his shooting has been abysmal. He’s shooting just 33 percent from the field and 17 percent from deep during this stretch.
On top of that, no one on the Rockets outside of Russell Westbrook is currently performing, and that includes head coach Mike D’Antoni, and the team appears to be getting worse, not better, which is a very un-Rockets like thing to do. If you recall, they’ve gotten better throughout the year over the last couple of seasons.
And while this could be just a mini-slump (2 weeks ago Houston looked like legit contenders), the Rockets have some obvious issues that need to be addressed — rotations, lack of size (though there’s a 7-footer with game inexplicably handcuffed to the bench), a need for wing depth, some new offensive wrinkles, tighter defense — and they don’t have a ton of ammunition (though they do have a little) to get anything done on the trade market, especially with Eric Gordon unable to be traded until the summer.
With what the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers are both doing right now in the standings, there’s no chance the MVP doesn’t come from one of those teams, and you can bet the national media is already having wet dreams of when they get to vote for Giannis again.
At the moment, Harden doesn’t even have the “historical argument”. There’s a line of thought (though it would obviously be discarded in this case since we’re applying it to Harden), that doing something historic is qualification enough for not only serious MVP consideration, but to win it. That’s what won Russ his MVP in 2017 over The Beard and his more accomplished Rockets, and for a while this season, Harden was doing something historic.
Hovering just south of 40 points per game over the season’s first three months, he looked set to average the most points per game in the NBA since the unstoppable Wilt Chamberlain. However, his recent scoring slump has now dipped him to 36.9 points per game, which is now below Michael Jordan’s 37.1 in 1987. Should that placement hold, it would still be the highest-scoring season in 30+ years, but a sixth-seeded Rockets team isn’t going to be afforded the same respect as a sixth-seeded Thunder squad, that I assure you.
And honestly, even if the Rockets and Harden rebound from this slide (which I expect them to - the middle of the West is really tight), their issues are glaring enough, and they’re certainly not doing themselves any favors by hitting this slump. No, this downturn has likely sealed Harden’s MVP fate on the year.
But what it hasn’t sealed is the Rockets’ fate. Even in sixth, they’re just three games removed from the second seed. The season is 50 percent in the books, and 40 games is plenty of time to make up that lost ground.
But it’s not going to be easy. This is a difficult stretch. The next six games feature the Denver Nuggets twice, the Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers (who just beat Houston) and Minnesota Timberwolves. If they can right the ship and even things out over the next six games, the schedule lightens a bit, and they’ll have a chance to make a run.
The Beard’s not going to slump all season. And if Russ can keep playing the way he’s been (his best ball so far as a Rocket), and Harden gets his act together so they’re playing well simultaneously, the Rockets will be in business.
Houston does still need to add an impact player. Coty suggested Makieff Morris in his piece from the other day, which is a move I like. The Rockets do have two first-round draft picks (2020 and 2022) potentially in play, but are pretty light in players they can return that are meaningful in any way except to match salaries.
Clint Capela could net a return, but Mike D’Antoni already has a problem playing Isaiah Hartenstein backup minutes. What would he do if he was forced to start him?
But the new owner’s a wild card, he could get antsy, and he could force someone’s hand if things don’t improve.
The season’s not over. The Rockets aren’t out of it. But one thing you can close the book on for this year is James Harden’s MVP chances.