James Harden: Unluckiest superstar ever?

He’s been one of the league’s best players for years now, but has he also been the victim of NBA History?

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James Harden has come second in two of the last three MVP races. He seems to have cemented himself as one of the top five players in the league, but has also been the victim of a historic period in NBA history. 

The Houston Rockets are dominating the league this season, and Harden has been instrumental in their rise. He’s first in points with 32.5 a game this season. He also dishes out 9.2 assists and grabs 5.2 rebounds a night at the halfway point of the campaign. But when it comes to the MVP race, unprecedented circumstances could once again be his downfall. 

Round one: 2014/15

In his first second-place MVP finish in 2015, Harden put up 27.4 points, 7.0 assists and 5.7 rebounds, as he led the Rockets to a 56-26 record and second place in the Western Conference, which the franchise hadn’t achieved since they won the NBA Championship in 1994. Harden clearly had a season worthy of an MVP trophy. However, something even greater was brewing in the West. The Golden State Warriors improved by 16 wins from their previous season, storming the league with a 67-15 record. The Warriors’ dynasty we are witnessing today took off under then new head coach Steve Kerr, and a stacked lineup that went 12 to 13 players deep. 

However, it was the emergence of Steph Curry that proved to be the main headline, as he averaged 23.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, 7.7 assists and 2.0 steals that season. Whilst Harden had a better stat line, and even won the Players’ Choice award, it was Curry who took home his maiden MVP award that season. Weeks later, Curry added the championship to his spoils. It must have been a tough pill to swallow for Harden, but given the significant improvement of the Warriors, it would have been tough for him to get the votes, even if he played better as an individual.

Round two: 2016/17

Last season is definitely the more bitter of the two close MVP misses for ‘The Beard’. Harden was sensational, averaging 29.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and a league-leading 11.2 assists, and led the Rockets to third place in the West with a 55-27 record. 

After Dwight Howard’s departure to the Atlanta Hawks, and with new coach Mike D’Antoni taking charge, most pundits predicted that the Rockets would be a low playoff seed and exit in the first round. While credit has to be given to D’Antoni’s coaching and aggresive new system, Harden was the orchestrator of the team, expertly distributing the ball to various shooters on the floor. With Harden at the point, the Rockets were the second-best offense in the league behind only the Warriors, who had by then added Kevin Durant to their powerhouse lineup. 

But it wasn’t a Warrior that was Harden’s undoing this time, but a season from Russell Westbrook that had only been accomplished once before in NBA history. Fans were down on the season when Durant joined the Warriors to form a new super team, but Westbrook brought the excitement back with a triple-double average for the season, putting up 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists, and an NBA-record 42 triple doubles in 82 games. Before Westbrook, only Oscar Robertson had accomplished this feat in 1962, and many thought it impossible to achieve in the modern game. It was truly a special season.

Once again, Harden suffered as Westbrook took home the MVP, even though Harden led his team to more wins. In terms of stats, he was only two rebounds away per game from a triple-double average for the season himself. Some still had Harden ahead of Westbrook until about the last two weeks of the season when the latter played so well it was impossible to take the award away from him. Both players had no other stars on their team, but the fact that Harden’s teammates could shoot at an elite level, and that he had two top quality reserves in Eric Gordon and Lou Williams on the bench worked to Westbrook’s benefit. 

Round three?

Harden has picked up right where he left off last season, and now that star point guard Chris Paul is in the backcourt with him, the Rockets are looking as strong as ever. But over in the Eastern Conference, something unprecedented is happening once again. In his 15th year in the league, LeBron James is having a historic season, averaging 27.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 9.3 assists (second in league). What’s even more scary is that James is shooting a remarkable 56% from the field and 41% from deep.

The Cavs started the season 5-7, but have since cruised back into contention in the East. If the season were to end today, Harden would still probably take the award, but we’re just about to reach the halfway point. If LeBron continues to put up astronomical numbers, and leads the Cavaliers to first place in the Eastern Conference, then Harden could once again come second to another unique NBA season. This will be even more likely if Cleveland end up finishing with a better record than the Rockets.

To put up three MVP-caliber seasons and potentially be rewarded with no MVP awards is astounding. We’ve seen stars like LeBron and Michael Jordan take home a few MVPs, and then be disregarded by voters as they preferred to look for the ‘new kid on the block’. We’ve also seen Kobe Bryant win only one MVP as he either put up great individual numbers on average teams, or was playing in the Shaq and LeBron eras. 

But you’d be hard pressed to find one player who had to compete against three historic seasons from three different athletes in such a short space of time. If he doesn’t win this year, you have to wonder what Harden needs to do to win the Maurice Podoloff trophy.

Maybe wearing the number 13 wasn’t such a good idea for The Beard.

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