James Harden Emerges as MVP Favorite

Russell Westbrook and James Harden are both threatening the record books this season, and the basketball world stopped to watch them go head-to-head Thursday night.

Westbrook (31.4 pts, 10.3 ast, 10.5 reb) is making an effort to join Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history to average a triple-double over the course of a season, while Harden (28.3 pts, 11.9 ast, 8.2 reb) is bidding to stand aside Nate Archibald as the second player to lead the league in both points and assists in a single season.

In the first match-up ever between players averaging at least 28 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds per game, Westbrook outscored Harden 49-26, but the Houston Rockets earned the win 118-116 and sit comfortably as the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference. Houston owns a 17-2 record since December 1, best in the league in that time, which earned Harden and head coach Mike D’Antoni December’s player and coach of the month awards respectively.

While Westbrook’s triple-double chase is more noteworthy, Harden’s all around game and head-to-head record this season against the Thunder superstar (2-1) has vaulted him to the lead in the MVP race.

On New Years Eve against the New York Knicks, the four-time All-Star posted an absurd 53/17/16 stat line on only 26 field goal attempts. Since 1977, Harden is posting the best true shooting percentage (.614) among players with a usage rate of at least .333 while on the court. Westbrook ranks 33rd out of 56 players on that same list and last when compared to qualified players this season.

Harden’s success this season can be linked to D’Antoni’s free flowing offensive system that allows the California native to handle the ball as point guard, and score and distribute at will.

Surrounded by spot-up shooters Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson, Harden has the floor spacing to create driving lanes to the basket. Harden can deftly draw contact as he drives to the hoop resulting in 386 free throw attempts, good for second in the NBA. If the defense collapses, Harden can kick it out to open shooters, leading to a career high 11.9 assists per game.

When D’Antoni patrolled the sidelines for the Phoenix Suns, Steve Nash earned back-to-back MVP honors in 2005-2006 while leading a run and gun offense.

This year with Harden at the helm, his scheme has reached new heights. Houston has scored at least 100 points in 23 straight games, tying the longest streak since the 1986 Rockets led by Hakeem Olajuwan and Ralph Sampson.

Approaching the midpoint of the season, Harden has recorded nine triple-doubles, 30 double-doubles, 15 games with at least 30 points, nine games with 15 or more assists and has a career high assist to turnover ratio of 2.10 despite a career high usage rate of .339.

Houston’s offensive rating surges to an NBA-best 115.3 per 100 possessions with the Arizona State product on the court, and sinks 103.0 with him on the bench, which would rank 21st in the league.

While Westbrook has the counting stats most look for when determining the MVP, Harden’s efficiency should not be overlooked. With a strong supporting cast, the Rockets have built a team tailored to Harden’s strengths, and he is putting up career best numbers in D’Antoni’s system.

Though the margin is narrow, Harden has now emerged as the MVP favorite.