Since the turn of the millennium, 3 players have recorded back-to-back MVP seasons, in Tim Duncan, LeBron James, and Steph Curry (LeBron did it twice). As the reigning MVP, the honeymoon for James Harden is over, and the expectations for him entering this season went up after the Rockets’ historic (and not in a good way) season finale in the WCF.
The Rockets’ disappointing end to their all-time-great year was compounded by their rocky start to the current season by going 1-5 in their first 6 games. They lost as many games in their first 6 this year as they did their first 31 in the previous season. At the time, it was safe to say they weren’t going to win 60+ games this year, and they still almost certainly will not. But the Rockets have turned themselves back into a playoff team with their recent run, and Harden is the man responsible.
James Harden, in the last 2 weeks, has averaged 40.43 (!) points per game in 6 wins and 1 loss in that time frame. A win Monday night against the Grizzlies would cap off two 5-game win streaks in the month of December, despite Chris Paul’s absence for much of their recent schedule. If this team is able to put forth a record earning a top 4 seed in the West, after the start that they had, would certainly put Harden in the MVP conversation.
My only concern with all of this is Harden’s history of disappearance in the post-season. In the past 2 weeks, James Harden is averaging nearly 39 minutes per game, among the absolute highest in the leage. Chris Paul has yet to return from his hamstring injury, and who’s to say he doesn’t have another short-term absence for injury after he returns?
If this Rockets team is to accomplish what they would need to in order for Harden to be in the MVP conversation, what would be the point? He could be completely out of juice come playoff time, and they wouldn’t be able to earn full home field advantage last year, unforeseen circumstances aside. So what really is the use of earning a top 4 seed if it means Harden has so little left to give? You never know with Chris Paul. Harden might be running the show come April, anyway.
There is also a question surrounding even the short-term sustainability of the type of play Harden has exhibited recently. Harden is nearly a lock for 35+ a night at the moment, but without CP3, is this team winning games without production from the bench? If Gerald Green didn’t go 3/7 from 3, and Austin Rivers didn’t score 10 points off the bench in short minutes, do the Rockets beat the Celtics? Harden does about as much on a night-to-night basis as any man could, but if Harden drops only 37 instead of 41, or if Eric Gordon doesn’t drop 21, do they lose to the Pelicans?
Speaking of Gordon, he will undergo an MRI on his right knee as I write this, meaning one of the most pivotal role players for Houston might take a leave of absence. Harden could put up 45 points every single night, but will that be enough against their upcoming schedule of Memphis, Golden State, Portland, Denver, and Milwaukee? As good as the Beard is playing, it makes you wonder whether or not the minutes load is justified by the potential return on investment.
Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe on 39 minutes Harden leads the Rockets past all 5 of those teams, but what will that really accomplish for their playoff aspirations?
All of these questions aside, one has to believe that there are still moves to be made by Houston before the trade deadline, or perhaps free-agent signings off of waivers. This team needs contingency plans in the event that anything happens to Chris Paul, limiting his ability to balance Harden’s minutes. But in the meantime, the Houston Rockets can let their diamond shine and step up his MVP contention.