The Most Valuable Player race unfolded like a melodrama, with pundits fanning the flames for candidates like Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and DeMar DeRozan, among others, throughout the season. But after finishing in the top 10 in MVP voting in each of the past five seasons, including second in 2014-15 (behind Stephen Curry) and 2016-17 (behind Russell Westbrook), James Harden should win his first MVP award decisively.
Harden is Houston’s heartbeat; he makes the team’s innovative system not only function but flourish. The 28-year-old guard is having one of the most efficient high-volume scoring seasons in NBA history, averaging 30.6 points with a 62 true shooting percentage and a 54.1 effective field goal percentage. Toss in his 8.7 assists per game and he enters the stratosphere of the greatest offensive seasons in history; Michael Jordan is the only other player to drop 30 and eight with true shooting greater than 60 percent.
Harden’s scoring excellence is nothing new. He has always possessed a diverse skill set that allows him to create his own shots off pick-and-rolls and isolations or score off handoffs and screens. But this season was different for Harden. The addition of Chris Paul gave the Rockets a second Hall of Fame–caliber point guard, a fantasy come to life for Mike D’Antoni and his offensive system, which is known for its high doses of pick-and-roll. Defenses today switch on-ball screens to force offenses into stagnant situations. Shot creation is a necessity, and no one is better than Harden at scoring in isolations.
Harden scores 1.24 points per isolation possession, which is the highest recorded by a player with a minimum of 100 logged possessions since Synergy Sports began tracking data in the 2004-05 season. No one has even come close to scoring on isolations with such success at such a high frequency. Of the 35 individual seasons a player logged at least 500 isolation possessions—which includes multiple seasons by LeBron James and Kobe Bryant—the average player besides Harden this year scored 0.95 points per possession. But Harden’s 1.24 is better than any team has scored in transition during the past four seasons, per Synergy. Harden has also scored more total isolation points (868) than any other team this season (the Cavaliers are next closest with 801). That doesn’t seem possible.
It’s an especially remarkable feat considering the iso has rightfully earned a reputation as an inefficient, ball-stopping play that sucks the life out of a team. But the Rockets have turned it into an advantage by building a system that enhances Harden’s ability to get layups, draw fouls, and shoot 3s off of isolations. They space the floor with either five shooters or with four shooters and a lob threat in Clint Capela, and they run an offense that can look more like a one-on-one at Rucker Park than a five-on-five in an NBA arena. It’s easier said than done to find the correct ingredients to make their homemade dynamite, but D’Antoni and Rockets general manager Daryl Morey have put together a winning blueprint that future teams can try to follow.
The problem is it’s near-impossible to find a player as special as Harden. He is elite at all the things that make isolation scorers great—shaking and baking defenders, getting into the paint like Jordan and LeBron, dancing and spinning from midrange like Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady, pulling up from outer space like Curry. What we haven’t seen is a player step back to 3-point land like Harden has this season. Harden has more makes (79) and takes (176) on step-back 3-pointers than any team in the NBA; the next closest teams are Portland (45 makes) and Denver (122 takes). No team is featuring those shots in its arsenal, while Harden is hitting them at a 44.9 percent clip.
D’Antoni gives Harden the green light regardless of the situation, because Harden can score no matter what look defenses give him. If they back off him, he pulls up. If they crowd him, he blows by them. If they stop his drive, he steps back. If he’s covered, he’ll kick the ball out to a shooter or lob it to a big. Harden’s volume, proficiency, and degree of difficulty, combined with his ability to make plays for his teammates and play off-ball alongside Paul, is truly hard to fathom. Harden is unguardable.
Another big part of Harden’s scoring efficiency is his ability to get to the free throw line. Harden has drawn 140 fouls on 1,213 drives to the rim this season, per Second Spectrum. Only one other player (DeRozan) has logged more than 100. Harden tricks referees into blowing the whistle with Oscar-worthy performances on his drives to the rim, swinging his arms into his defender’s side like he’s a wide receiver jostling with a cornerback. Many fans understandably get annoyed by Harden’s habits. Watching free throws isn’t fun. But until it’s outlawed or referees make it a point of emphasis, it’s hard to knock a guy for bending the rules to help his team. Not to mention, of the 45 players to shoot at least 250 times on drives, Harden ranks fourth in field goal percentage. He’s elite even without a whistle. But there’s an art to drawing fouls, and he’s simply better at it than anyone else—even if it can be frustrating to watch.
While Harden has rightfully been knocked in the past for providing as much resistance on defense as unlocked saloon doors, he’s been more reliable on that end this season as part of Houston’s improved defensive culture. Harden isn’t the reason the Rockets have the seventh-ranked defensive rating, but they’ve used him against multiple positions, depending on the matchup. He’s been asked to battle against big forwards, fight on the defensive boards, and slide his feet against quick guards, and he’s generally done a solid job. He’s allowing less than 0.8 points per possession against isolations and post-ups, is snatching 4.9 defensive rebounds per game, and ranks in the top 25 for both deflections and loose balls recovered. Harden isn’t a defensive stopper, but he’s no longer a liability.
The Rockets are the best team in the NBA and have one of the top offenses in history and an elite defense. Harden is their best player, and he’s having one of the greatest scoring seasons in history. The MVP debate was fun over the course of the season, but it really was never close.
Most Valuable Player Ballot
Here’s the rest of my MVP ballot, which, outside of the top spot, is subject to change by Friday’s deadline.
1. James Harden
2. LeBron James
3. Anthony Davis
4. LaMarcus Aldridge
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo
I always say don’t take LeBron for granted because what he’s doing now—at age 33, no less—will not last forever. I gave LeBron real consideration over Harden but ultimately couldn’t find enough reason to vote for him. LeBron’s defense has been porous this season, and that has been a factor in why his team has been much worse in a weaker conference. LeBron just doesn’t care as much during the regular season (his real season doesn’t start until this Saturday).
But LeBron has still had a remarkable regular season, which is why he should be named to the All-NBA first team for the 11th consecutive time and 12th overall in his career, the latter of which would set a new record. With Kevin Love missing a huge chunk of games this season, LeBron has picked up the slack on the boards, posting a career high in rebounds per game (8.7). With a revolving door of point guards, LeBron has stepped in at the 1 and posted a career high in assists per game (9.2). As usual, he’s among the league leaders in scoring (27.7 points per game) with impressive efficiency metrics. Oh, and he’s going to play 82 games for the first time in his career. LeBron could become the GOAT. Deal with it.
Davis belongs here whether or not the Pelicans make the playoffs. New Orleans’s season seemed lost after DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his left Achilles tendon in January, but Davis gave the team life. During the Pelicans’ 10-game win streak from February 10 to March 7, Davis posted 35.6 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.1 blocks, and 2.8 steals per game. If they make the playoffs, it’s because of that remarkable stretch.
After the top three, you could make the argument for a long list of players for the fourth and fifth spots. Aldridge feels like the right choice since he’s turned into the NBA’s John Wayne during a sobering time for San Antonio without Kawhi Leonard. On/off statistics can be shaky, but since Kawhi’s last game on January 13, the Spurs are outscoring teams by 7.3 points per 100 possessions with Aldridge on the floor (or about the same as the Raptors over the full season), and they’re being outscored by 4.2 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the bench (the equivalent of the Nets). Over the past month, Gregg Popovich is force-feeding Aldridge more minutes and opportunities, and he’s producing at an optimal level on both ends of the court. Aldridge is willing the Spurs into the playoffs. Isn’t that what MVPs do?
The same goes for Giannis. The Bucks would be dumpster diving in the lottery if it weren’t for their 23-year-old superstar. They dealt with the firing of head coach Jason Kidd, injuries to key players like Malcolm Brogdon, an extended absence for Jabari Parker, and little roster continuity after a few midseason trades and signings. Antetokounmpo has kept the team afloat with his ferocious two-way performance. The scary part is there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Giannis is shooting only 35.3 percent on spot-up 3s and has hit only 11 of 50 pull-up 3s, per Second Spectrum. Once LeBron declines or retires, it’ll be a battle between Giannis and Ben Simmons to be the new face of the NBA. The first one to acquire a reliable jumper wins.
C: LaMarcus Aldridge
F: LeBron James
F: Anthony Davis
G: James Harden
G: Russell Westbrook
C: Joel Embiid
F: Giannis Antetokounmpo
F: Kevin Durant
G: Victor Oladipo
G: Damian Lillard
C: Nikola Jokic
F: Ben Simmons
F: Al Horford
G: DeMar DeRozan
G: Stephen Curry
You could go a number of ways with this list and I wouldn’t argue with you about it. My eyes almost started bleeding from staring at my laptop for too many hours while researching, and I’m still not 100 percent certain about my picks. So many superstars got hurt this season that it’s hard to figure out where players who missed a bunch of games, like Curry and Rudy Gobert, fit in. And the positional designations made by the NBA make some choices even harder. Is Davis a center or a forward? Is Simmons a forward or a guard? Who knows? Does anyone really care? The NBA is positionless anyway, so to make the process easier, I disregarded positions until I had to make my final decisions. Sacrifices were made.
I ended up putting Aldridge at center and Davis at forward to assure they were both on the first team, which bumped Giannis down to the second team. It’s unfortunate that we’re not allowed to put LeBron at guard even though he possesses the ball more and logs more assists than most point guards. Alas, bumping Giannis down to the second team meant that one guard had to get elevated to first team. Russell Westbrook gets the spot for now. Westbrook’s impact as a scorer, playmaker, and rebounder plus the way he’s carried the team during its playoff push as Paul George and Carmelo Anthony both struggle give him the razor-thin edge over everyone else. I’ve been dubbed a Russ hater for all of my criticisms of his game, but that’s only because he can still be so much better with just some minor tweaks. Westbrook is still awesome.
I gave Oladipo serious consideration for the first-team spot. Aside from Jimmy Butler, there hasn’t been a better two-way player this season. Oladipo transformed his body, his game, and the Pacers. He should win Most Improved Player unanimously.
Lillard is a lock to make it at guard, so it was a matter of finding the right team for him. I gave him an edge over DeRozan because of his superior scoring efficiency and playmaking. Lillard channeled 2015-16 Steph Curry for a few weeks to propel the Blazers into the West’s 3-seed. DeRozan’s scoring has regressed over recent months, but his midseason explosion is a big reason Toronto is the no. 1 seed, and he’s sustained his improved passing. I’m excited to see whether the playoffs are different this time around for him.
I’d ideally like to put Simmons on the second team. He is only 21 and already one of the NBA’s 15 to 20 best players. He’s a top-level point guard and, when he wants to be, an outstanding defender. It’s unreal that he’s able to do what he does without a jump shot. Unfortunately, moving him to the second team was impossible at forward with Giannis and Durant blocking his path. Durant, much like Giannis, has been a two-way star this season. Simmons could have gone in as a guard, yet that would have bumped Lillard to third team and Curry off altogether. But Curry, despite playing only 51 games, was just about as great as he’s ever been this season, and his absence has only proved that he’s Golden State’s most valuable player. That’s why he gets in, and I put Simmons in as a forward ahead of Paul George. Other key players at guard, including Butler, Paul, Kyrie Irving, and Devin Booker, have all missed significant time and thus missed out on my list. And dark horses like Bradley Beal, Donovan Mitchell, and Klay Thompson just aren’t on the same level as Curry.
Embiid, who will end up playing 63 regular-season games, lands at second-team center and should draw Defensive Player of the Year consideration. It’s hard to believe the Sixers could have two All-NBA players already. The Process is working. Sorry, Stan Van Gundy.
Horford was eligible as a center and forward. I plugged him in as the third-team forward over George because he made a more significant overall impact on the NBA’s top-ranked defense and is also one of the best shooters and playmakers in the league among bigs. George is a tough cut. But his defense has slipped since Andre Roberson’s injury, and his offense has recently fallen off a cliff at a time when Oklahoma City needs him most.
There was a traffic jam at center this season. Karl-Anthony Towns is talented enough to be here, but he doesn’t get enough shots or touches to make it. (What is Tom Thibodeau thinking to give Andrew Wiggins so many more shots per game?) Steven Adams and Clint Capela are both awesome, but I felt other players made a larger overall impact. Capela still needs to play more minutes per game. I left Gobert off because he’ll play a maximum of 56 games—which feels horrible considering the argument for and against Curry also applies to Gobert. It especially feels silly since Gobert will be my choice for Defensive Player of the Year. But All-NBA is an honor for both sides of the ball, and offense is worth more than defense.
Finally, Nikola Jokic gets an edge because he’s played way more games than Gobert, he’s Denver’s top playmaker, he’s a primary scoring option, and he’s an excellent rebounder. Jokic is a turnstile on defense, but he’s remarkable on offense. Since March 7, Jokic is averaging 23.9 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 6.1 assists while leading Denver to a potential playoff berth. Buy Jokic stock while you still can.