Behind the Numbers: James Harden’s MVP Case


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The other day, I came across a Denver Nuggets social media platform. Instead of talking about their victory over the Sacramento Kings, fans were discussing Houston Rockets’ James Harden and his dominant season. In an overtime victory against the Golden State Warriors, Harden finished with 44 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds. The winning shot? A James Harden 3-pointer.

It is difficult to argue that anyone else could be the Most Valuable Player at the end of the season, even if Houston were to miss out on the playoffs. With Chris Paul bouncing around the injury report, Harden has picked up any leftover slack.

As a team, Houston is sitting with a record of 22-15. This was a franchise that was 5-7 to start off the season, with some pundits asking if Houston would even be in contention for a playoff berth at the end of the season. James Harden has been the leading scorer in 31 of those games, and has been the leading scorer in 16 consecutive games dating back to December 1st. From that point, the Rockets have been 12-4.

Harden is well and truly in the MVP mix this year – USA Today

Over the course of the last 8 games, Houston is 7-1, with the lone loss coming away to Miami. On Wednesday against Golden State, Harden took over 32% of the Rockets shooting attempts from all aspects of the court.

Looking back to the statistics that brought James Harden brought to his MVP run last season, the two campaigns are comparable. For simplicity, we are using his average as taken after the January 3 game against the Warriors. We will also compare these based off of 72 games played for the season; the same amount that Harden played in the 2017-18 regular season.

Currently, James Harden averages 33.6 points per game. That equates to a grand total of 2,419 points after 72 games, 228 points more than he scored last season. Harden is shooting at a similar percentage rate compared to last season, with a slight decline in field goal shooting (44.9% to 44%). There is also a small decline in free throw shooting, with that going down to a flat 85% from 85.9%. In saying that, Harden is shooting over 2% better from beyond the arc, averaging 39%.

Harden is averaging just under 6 rebounds a game, with his 5.9 game average good for 425 rebounds on the season. That would be an increase of 35 rebounds on last season. However, Harden has been more productive on the offensive side as compared to last season. With 72 games played, Harden had 41 offensive rebounds in the 2017-18 season. After 34 games in 2018-19, he has 26.

Based on Harden’s current assists average this season of 8.6, he would just sneak under last seasons total of 830 by 11 total assists. Harden is on track to possibly eclipse his career best year in steals, set in 2014 where he played 81 games (154). Harden currently has 70 to his name.

Where his attacking statistics have increased rather nicely, more offense and time on the court inevitably means more turnovers for the Rockets star. Harden has 189 turnovers on the season, whereas last season he had 315. Based on the current average of 5.55 turnovers per game, Harden may just eclipse 400 turnovers on the season.

Some of those turnovers can be accounted for offensive fouls, where Harden tends to pick up more this season than in most previously. The tendency for Harden to drive into the paint in an attempt to draw fouls and 3-point plays sees him draw charging fouls, which shows on his current foul number. Last season, Harden had 169 fouls, whereas currently he has 116 on the season.

Negative plays aside, it has been an outstanding season for James Harden. The likes of Giannis Anteokounmpo, Anthony Davis and LeBron James are holding out at the top of the contender board, while Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic on the outside looking in. Taking away averages, why is James Harden a sure fire MVP candidate?

To this point, Harden leads the league in total scoring and 3-point shots made/attempted. He is 4th in steals, sitting only 12 behind Paul George. Harden is 5th in assists and total efficiency on the season so far. Kevin Durant is the closest in terms of general statistics, while the likes of Embiid and Antetokounmpo run from Harden in rebounding categories.

There is no denying that others are having incredible seasons, and some are shining lights in their respective organizations. However, James Harden is the super glue holding this Houston Rockets franchise together until Chris Paul returns from injury. If Harden can make it through the season relatively free of injury, then he will be an easy pick for MVP this season.

Image credit – Bleacher Report

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