The NBA post-season playoffs won’t start until this coming Saturday (Sunday in Manila) as the tail-ending qualifiers are still to be decided by the few remaining season games in both the West and East division conferences.
Debate on who will be the season’s MVP, meanwhile, occupies the interest of the world’s oldest and biggest professional -basketball league fans a well as NBA media.
The NBA MVP won’t be announced until the Finals are over, but this early, the strongest candidates, if USA Today will have its way, are two players named James — Houston Rockets’ James Harden and LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Harden’s credentials, as everyone knows, revolve around his being able to guide the Rockets to a franchise record in wins and the top seed in the West.
LBJ, on the other hand, has navigated the Cavs through rough waters on the way to making the first round playoff in the middle of the eight-team field in the East.
Harden’s qualities as an MVP hopeful started right on the season’s opening day on October 17 at Oracle Arena, where the Rockets bested defending champion Golden State 122-121 in a game that featured Chris Paul at his worst.
Harden’s new teammate who opted out of the Los Angeles Clippers, scored a merely four points in 33 minutes to go with 10 assists, in a night that saw his old knee injury worsened sidelining him for nearly a month.
While Paul was sitting in the bench in the fourth quarter, Harden had 27 points, 11 assists and six rebounds en route to the tone-setting win although that wasn’t what Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni had in mind in getting Paul via trade to help lighten Harden’s workload.
By the time Paul came back from injury, the Rockets had won 10 of 14 games and Harden – who was edged out by Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook for MVP last season – was still at his best.
Harden could be MVP over LeBron because he did it from beginning to end, leading the Rockets to the top of a Western Conference that the Warriors were supposed to dominate. And he did it with an all-around show of talent in scoring and playmaking on one end and a much-improved defensive effort on the other.
As per Basketball-Reference.com, Harden is about to become just the fourth player in league history to average at least 30 points, eight assists and five rebounds for an entire season. Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson and Oklahoma City’s Westbrook were the only others
According to NBA.com/stats, his shooting (league-leading 262 made threes), ability to get to the line (league-leading 721 attempts) and dominate in isolation (1.22 points per possession, compared to James’ 0.96) make him a peerless scoring talent.
Despite the presence of one of the best point guards of all time in Paul – Harden still emerged third in the league in assists for the Rockets team that is tied with the Warriors for the top offensive rating (112.7 points scored per 100 possessions).
Defense-wise, Harden was seventh in defensive rating (103.9 points allowed per 100 possessions). James’ Cavs are 29th (109.5).
LeBron, on the other hand, going into the post-season, was third in points per game, second in assists, 15th in rebounds. He was shooting 54.4 percent from the field and 36.7 percent on three-pointers.
He’s the only player in the league this season to average at least 25 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and shoot 54 percent or better from the field. Career-high in double-doubles (51). Career-high in triple-doubles (18). Accomplishments that are unthinkable for most players, USA Today assessed
What James had done individually with Cleveland’s depleted roster – dragging the team to 49 wins (as of Monday; two games remaining) when they won 51 last season with a better roster – made him the likely 2017-18 MVP.
The Cavs lost Kyrie Irving to Boston in a trade over the summer, and what they got in return, Isaiah Thomas, didn’t work out. The roster was a mess, that not even the return Kevin Love and Rodney Hood and the arrival of Larry Nance Jr. and George Hill could correct the situation.
Despite all this, LBJ was phenomenal, and since February 1 is averaging 29.5 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists and shooting 54.3 percent from the field and 39.4 percent on three-pointers. Before that period, James averaged 26.6 points, 8.7 assists and 7.9 rebounds and shot 54.5 percent from the field and 35 percent on threes.
Without James, the Cavs are likely a lottery team. With him, they are still the oddsmakers’ favorite to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.
James Harden is deserving, and most likely to win it. But there is more than one deserving MVP candidate.