The value of James Harden

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As Bill Simmons mentioned in his column today, fans will likely wonder for a long time if Oklahoma City Thunder GM Sam Presti made the right call by drafting low-risk shooting guard James Harden with the third overall pick over Ricky Rubio, Stephen Curry, and Tyreke Evans. Curry and Evans have put up far better numbers than Harden so far, but play the same position as Russell Westbrook, one of the Thunder’s key players. A backcourt featuring any of those three guards alongside Westbrook certainly would have a ton of upside, and could easily have given the Thunder one of the most exciting and dynamic offenses in the league.

However, Harden has been able to come in right away and contribute to an NBA playoff team, which is something that neither Rubio, Curry, or Evans can claim. On Daily Thunder today, J.G. Hastings has a post up that shows how valuable Harden has been to the Thunder, even if he’s been quite a bit less spectacular than some of the point guards the Thunder passed up to draft him. 
As Hastings notes, the Thunder have struggled to get any scoring from their shooting guard spot since Harden went down with an injury, and their bench production has also suffered. Harden hasn’t been incredible in any one area over the course of his short NBA career, and has struggled mightily to finish at the rim. However, Harden’s versatility has allowed him to be effective in a number of ways coming off the bench, particularly with his outside shooting and playmaking. 
One final thought: If Harden was healthy, he probably would have been the one left alone when the Spurs double-teamed Kevin Durant on the Thunder’s final possession last night. Since Harden is a 37.7% three-point shooter, that may have been a gamble the Spurs were unwilling to take. Instead, 30% three-point shooter Thabo Sefolosha was the one given the open looked, and he fired a brick to give the Spurs the game. If Harden had been on the floor, it may have meant the difference between a win and a loss in a game crucial for playoff seeding in the rough-and-tumble Western Conference. 

James Harden: “I am the best player in the league. I believe that.”

James Harden, Stephen Curry
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James Harden was the MVP last season — if you ask his fellow NBA players.

The traditional award (based on a media vote) went to Stephen Curry (in the closest vote in four years), and that was the right call (in my mind). But from the time it happened Harden did not buy it. And he still doesn’t buy it. In the least — and he’s using that as fuel for this season. That’s what he told Fran Blinebury over at

“I am the best player in the league. I believe that,” he said. “I thought I was last year, too.”

Well, it’s a more realistic claim than Paul George’s.

“But that award means most valuable to your team. We finished second in the West, which nobody thought we were going to do at the beginning of the year even when everybody was healthy. We were near the top in having the most injuries. We won our division in a division where every single team made the playoffs.

“There’s so many factors. I led the league in total points scored, minutes played. Like I said, I’m not taking anything away from Steph, but I felt I deserved the Most Valuable Player. That stays with me.”

That’s very Kobe Bryant of you to turn that into fuel. Defining the MVP Award is an annual discussion that nobody agrees on.

I could get into how Harden was the old-school, traditional stats MVP, how that ignores how Steve Kerr used Curry, and how that opened up the Warriors’ offense to championship levels. Curry put up numbers, but he was also the distraction, the bright star that Kerr used to open up looks for Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and others. Curry’s strength was not just what he did with the ball in his hands, but his gravity to draw defenders even when he didn’t. Did the Warriors stay healthier than the Rockets? No doubt. Should Curry be penalized for that?

It’s simple for Harden — if he can put up those numbers again, if he can be the fulcrum of a top offense, he will be in the discussion for MVP again. And, if he can lead the Rockets beyond the conference finals, nobody will talk about that MVP snub anyway.