James Harden grabbed the NBA MVP on Sunday. Well, he grabbed four-time NBA MVP LeBron James, locking elbows with the Cleveland Cavaliers forward on a drive to the basket and refusing to let go while the referees awkwardly watched.
The play embodied this season for Harden, the Houston Rockets guard who has pushed, prodded and kicked his way to the front of the 2014-15 NBA MVP race. He took the lead for the first time in USA TODAY Sports’ weekly poll, edging Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry 50-49 in points.
That one-point margin at the top doesn’t begin to explain this tense race. Four players — Harden, Curry, James and New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis — received votes, while Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook was ahead of at least one of those players on nine of the 10 ballots. (Ten NBA journalists pick their top five, with points distributed on a 7-5-3-2-1 basis.)
But mostly, it’s Harden vs. Curry. And choosing, for better or worse, seems to require a stance on basketball morals.
Harden is a professional jaywalker. He declared himself the best basketball player in the world before this season, and he has spent the year perfecting his acerbic style. The 6-5, 225-pound shooting guard flings himself into the lane, daring opponents to block his flailing shots without fouling him in the process. When he gets a clean look, he seems surprised. Flopping and offensive fouls are against the rules, but Harden knows their penalties and has accepted the risk of punishment. That bore out Monday, when he was suspended one game by the NBA for kicking James in the groin while on the ground.
His game is a shortcut, then, but it’s usually in the best of ways. Harden represents a culmination of trends in basketball analytics. Nearly 70% of his field goal attempts are either at the basket or behind the three-point arc, the kinds of high-yield shots advocated by Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. The result: An All-Star caliber talent has grown into an MVP front-runner.
He had his moment Sunday. He stood toe-to-toe with the best player in the world (yes, that’s still James), came out on top and even had the Rockets’ Twitter feed dub him “King James,” a direct shot fired at the Cavaliers star.
But Curry’s moments came against Harden. They came in a 4-0 sweep by the Warriors, particularly in the two games in Houston. Curry outscored Harden 61-34 at the Toyota Center this season, two comfortable victories over an elite opponent. Warriors GM Bob Myers pointed to that head-to-head matchup, as well as the Warriors’ NBA-best record (46-11, six games up on the 41-18 Rockets), as the driving factors in Curry’s MVP candidacy in a panel at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference this past weekend.
Morey was there, too, on the same panel. He pointed to Harden’s lack of support in advocating for his star. That’s the narrative at work, though, and both of these guys have the story lines to back their statistics. That’s why Westbrook (too many games missed) and Davis (a mix of injuries and a lack of consistent team success) probably won’t get the support their statistical résumés might otherwise command. James’ case is hurt by a weak start to the season, in which the newly loaded Cavs seemed set to implode.
Curry is the best player on the best team, and the Warriors need him more than anyone might want to admit. He missed his first game of the season Feb. 22, and the Warriors lost to the Indiana Pacers. His on/off splits are extreme: Golden State is 16.8 points per 100 possessions better than its opponents when he is on the court. He leads the NBA in three-pointers and steals along with several advanced metrics, such as Basketball-Reference’s win shares per 48 minutes and adjusted plus-minus.
But Harden is keeping the Rockets afloat. Dwight Howard has missed nearly half of the season with injuries, and the Rockets are a flat-out bad team when Harden is off the court (4.5 points per 100 possessions worse than their opponents). He went from being a laughingstock for his defense to being aggressive and convincing on that end for the first time in years. He leads the NBA in points and minutes played, perhaps the most underused statistic in MVP discussions. And the advanced stats like him as much as Curry, as he leads in Basketball-Reference’s total win shares and ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus.
Curry is the stylist. He’s guy with the Everyman build and personality and the breathtaking handles and shot. He moves fluidly, and he draws fouls at half the rate of Harden while scoring at a more efficient rate anyway.
Harden is the grinder. His beard is everything Curry’s boyishness is not. His dribbling is built to frustrate opponents as much as get past them. His critics say his game is imbued in ugliness, such as that kick to James. But the NBA MVP isn’t about being liked.
Harden told us he was the best basketball player in the world, then went out and earned his spot — on top of the MVP leaderboard.