In a late January game against the Orlando Magic, James Harden did something that even he had never done before. Less than two weeks earlier, Harden was in the middle of an MVP-caliber season when he suffered a serious hamstring injury, one that threatened his position as the leader of the pack for the league’s most coveted award. He was supposed to have missed at least two weeks, and we were supposed to believe Harden’s best chance yet to win his first MVP award was finished. But Harden sat out only seven games and quickly found his form again. In his first game back, against the Magic, he scored 60 points while adding eleven assists and ten rebounds, achieving the highest-scoring triple-double in NBA history. It was just another win for the Rockets on their way to a league-best 47-13 record, but it was an important moment for Harden—one that solidified him as the favorite to win MVP. He hasn’t looked back since.
Harden checks off all the MVP boxes . . . just like he did last year, when we also said he’d win MVP (oops!). But for real this time, Harden will
probably definitely be MVP. His season is statistically impeccable: he averages a league-leading 31.4 points per game, topping the second-leading scorer, New Orleans’s Anthony Davis, by more than three points per game, while also chipping in 8.9 assists and 5.2 rebounds. He’s blowing the field away in the nerdy-statistics realm too. He leads the league in his Player Efficiency Rating (which basically measures a player’s overall performance on a per-minute basis) of 30.5, a Win Shares rating (how much a player contributes to any given win) at 11.9, and a Value Over Replacement Player rating—a metric wonderfully known as “VORP” that measures how much better or worse any given player is than the league-average player that could be playing in his spot instead—at 6.2.
He seems to have the more traditional MVP metrics locked down too. Harden has led the Rockets to the best record in the NBA. At 47-13, the Rockets are on pace to blow by the 1994 Houston Rockets (who were NBA champs that season) for the best regular-season finish in franchise history. Offseason addition Chris Paul (19.1 points per game, 8.2 assists) and second-year head coach Mike D’Antoni certainly deserve a fair amount of credit for the team’s success, but it’s Harden who has been the driving force. He’s been the best player in the league so far, on the best team in the league.
Unlike last year, when triple-double machine Russell Westbrook of Oklahoma City bested Harden in a historic MVP race, Harden has truly set himself apart from the rest of the MVP candidates in 2018. This season, Westbrook has seen his production drop a little after the Thunder acquired two stars, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, in the offseason. San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard, who finished in the top three in MVP voting in the past two seasons, has only played nine games this year while struggling with injuries. Steph Curry and Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors have each had superb seasons and could threaten Harden, but they’d likely have to put together an incredible stretch in the final 21 games of the season to be serious contenders. LeBron James, always a candidate for the league’s best player award (and he’s averaging close to a triple-double), has had a devastating January. A recent roster overhaul could energize James enough to vault himself back into contention, but it remains to be seen. Then there are some dark horse candidates, like Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks or Davis of New Orleans Pelicans, who are having fine seasons. But none of them can really touch Harden.
According to Basketball Reference’s MVP Award Tracker, Harden has a 67 percent probability to win the award. Next up? Curry, at 8.6 percent. The math checks out: a recent Washington Post poll of 100 members of the media saw Harden garnering an incredible 91 first-place votes, blowing the field away with 971 points to second-place Curry’s 466.
If you ask Harden—not that that’s part of the MVP voting process—he’d certainly say he deserves the award. He said as much last year, and he’s been saying it pretty much every year since 2014. Barring a season-ending injury or a major meltdown, Harden may soon finally have the hardware to back up his word (and ours).