One of the few certainties in the NBA is that if you put the ball in the hands of James Harden enough, numbers will accumulate at a rapid rate. Points, of course, but also assists. Opponents will foul him, leading to embarrassing numbers of free throws.
You may not give him style points for his ball-dominant isolation style, but when the day is done you can’t argue with the numbers.
And because of those numbers, Harden is making the argument – both on the court and to the media – that no one else in the Association is more valuable to his team than he is to the Brooklyn Nets.
"Do I feel like I belong in it? I feel like I am the MVP," Harden said after he dropped an easy 44 on the Pistons' heads. "I mean, it's just that simple. I don't want to be speaking individually on myself. I am just going to leave it at that." Not leaving it at that, he added: "Numbers are showing it for itself, and we're winning. That's all I can say."
Oddsmakers, who had been pushing back against the Harden MVP talk, are just now starting to come around. Listed at +900 only a few weeks again and a pedestrian fifth behind Nikola Jokic, LeBron James, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo among betting favorites, Harden is now second, at +700.
Harden has finished second in the MVP voting three times, and his scoring this year is actually down a bit from the season (2017-18) that he actually won it. But his assists and rebounding totals are higher, and he takes fewer shots – of course, that will happen when you are on the court with two other future Hall of Famers in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.
With Durant injured and Irving missing games simply because he’s Irving and that’s what Irving does, the spotlight has been on Harden. And if you believe, like more than a few voters, that the MVP award should go to the best player on the best team, consider that the Nets recently took over first place in the Eastern Conference, and with James and Anthony Davis limping around out West, Brooklyn is now the betting favorite to win the championship.
People outside of New York City may not like the way Harden gave up on the Rockets and shot his way out of town after a few weeks this season, but the NBA is what it is, and if it’s results you want, Harden gives them to you.
Early MVP buzz centered around Philly’s Embiid, who pre-All Star game was having a career year and leading the 76ers to the top of the East (again, the best player on the best team). But a bone bruise sent Embiid to the sidelines, and by the time he returns he will have missed more than one-fourth of the season with injuries as the Sixers have fallen behind the Nets.
Jokic’s Nuggets are a distant 22/1 to win the title, oddsmakers figuring that they would have to pull two major series upsets to even get to the Finals. Then there’s this – if the MVP Award goes to the league’s most valuable player, pull Harden off the Nets and you still have a team that could easily to the Finals. Subtract Jokic from Denver and the Nuggets are a lottery team.
But if you want to take the Harden approach and compare numbers, Jokic has a pretty strong argument. He scores (27.2 per game) more than Harden, he rebounds (11.1) more than Harden and he is sixth in the league in assists at 8.6 (behind five guards, one of them being Harden). Plus, Jokic basically brought a slow-starting Nuggets team back from the dead. Denver is on pace to win 45 games in the 72-game season and has a puncher’s chance to finish as high as second in the West. Because of Jokic, mainly.
Embiid is likely to be babied by the Sixers for the rest of the season. James also knows nothing much matters until the playoffs, and in Milwaukee, Antetokounmpo won’t be going pedal to the metal after winning the award in each of the last two seasons. So it looks like Jokic and Harden in a match race as the NBA season heads to the backstretch.