Is James Harden 2019 MVP Material?

Welcome to the first of a four-part series where Is He Any Good takes on the 2019 MVP race.

It’s the same as regular Is He Any Good except the bar’s been set a lot higher; the only way someone’s getting Confirmed on these is if in the estimation of the advanced stats and the Standard MVP Voter Rules™ (“best player on the best team” or exceptional statistical accomplishment like Russell Westbrook in 2016-17 or “his team would be drafting Zion Williamson if they didn’t have him”) says that he’s the MVP.

We’ll be looking between now and the end of the season at Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Paul George, but we start with the defending champion in this particular contest, James Harden of the Houston Rockets.

Harden’s case this year rests on exceptional counting stats; he had a stretch of 30-point games earlier in the season that rivaled Wilt Chamberlain‘s heyday, and Harden nearly became the first player not named Wilt Chamberlain or Michael Jordan to break into the NBA’s 3,000 points in a season club.

As it stands, Harden has 2,656 points and is on pace to challenge Kobe Bryant‘s 2,832 for the most by anyone other than Wilt or MJ in a season.

But points alone do not make someone MVP; if they did, we’d give the award out alongside the scoring title.

So you know how this is going to go. Hold onto your butts, folks, a guy who is a confessed James Harden hater is going to try to stay objective on this one.

The Counting Stats

This will be the third time Harden has led the league in total points and the second time he has led the NBA in points per game—Harden won the scoring title last year even though LeBron James, by dint of playing in 82 games to Harden’s 72, had the most total points.

Harden is averaging 36.4 points per game, a career-high, raising his career scoring average to 24.3, which is third among active players and 15th all-time.

Five of the top six seasons in NBA history for points per game belong to Wilt. The fifth-place spot belongs to MJ.

Harden is seventh, although he’s unlikely to close a gap between himself and the top 5 with only five games left.

On the other hand, his assists are way down while his turnovers remain constant; when he set an NBA record for turnovers per game with 5.7 in 2016-17, he at least had 11.2 assists per game to offset his shame.

This year, he has 7.5 assists and 5.0 turnovers per game, which will make this the fifth time in his career Harden has led the league in turnovers.

“But Referees”

But y’know what? Since so much of the “Harden isn’t the MVP” argument rests on the idea that all of his success is the result of getting a gift from the referees and having free throws bail out what would otherwise just be turnovers or bad shots, let’s look at the 23 games where he had at least 15 FTA and the 24 games where he had eight or fewer and look at his shooting percentage and turnover count in those games. We should see a meaningful difference, right?

In games where he had 15+ FTA: 281-619 FG (.454), 123-341 3PT (.361), 127 TOV (5.5/game)
In games where he had <=8 FTA: 228-543 FG (.420), 98-287 3PT (.341), 105 TOV (4.38/game)

The lesson here? Harden tends to get timid shooting the ball when the referees aren’t bailing him out on his crap by sending him to the line, and if the turnover counts are anything to go by, it looks like he also gets more aggressive attacking (taking more risks and therefore making more mistakes) when he’s getting calls.

A difference in eFG% from .553 to .510 is a huge dropoff. Harden is only MVP quality when he gets bailed out by the refs, and the numbers back that assertion up.

We’ve got one more category to look into.

The Advanced Stats

Of course all the guys on the list are going to have fantastic Big 5 numbers, but here’s Harden’s entry:

A 30.4 PER, .612 TS% (thanks in no small part to shooting 88 percent at the line), .247 WS/48, 11.7 BPM, and 9.3 VORP, leading the league in the latter two categories.

He’s also got a 40.7 Usage Rate, second only to Westbrook’s ridiculous season in 2016-17 for the highest in NBA history and greater than Kobe’s 2005-06 year.

It is easy, if you are a competent scorer, to score lots of points if you use enough possessions for two guys when you’re on the floor.

Hell, if the careers of Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson taught us anything, it’s that you can wow the rubes with counting stats if you take enough shots.

Harden gets big ups for that VORP; for perspective, LeBron had a league-leading 8.9 VORP on last year’s Cavaliers, and now look what Cleveland is without him. And if that doesn’t convince you, same criterion, but from 2010 to 2011.

THE VERDICT!

Look, I’m not saying James Harden sucks at basketball. James Harden doesn’t suck. He’s good. He’s a legend-level scorer and a one-man wrecking crew when he takes over.

What he is not is the most valuable player in the league. He can’t shoot for beans when the refs aren’t bailing him out, and you can take him entirely out of the flow of his offense by not getting snookered into his cheap rip moves (easier said than done, sure, but that’s the refs’ problem.)

And that’s before we even start in on that whole uncalled travel on the stepback 3 thing. If refs called that, Harden’s scoring average would instantly drop by 6 a game.

Plus, Houston fails the “best team” test, something that’s going to dog PG13 when we get to him, but that’s next week.

For now, Harden’s MVP case is Busted. I have him third on my ballot.

NEXT WEEK: Paul George.