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James Harden as MVP? Zach Lowe thinks not

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Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets Photo by David L. Nemec/NBAE via Getty Images

In each of the last eight years, James Harden has been in the top 10 of MVP voting in the NBA including the last four in the top three. For the record, he’s finished third, second, first, second, ninth, second, fifth and eighth. It’s an extraordinary run and it’s likely to continue this year.

Zach Lowe wrote Friday about Harden’s candidacy in 2020-21. He doesn’t think the Nets point guard will win (or should) despite averaging 25.3 points, 11.2 assists, 8.8 rebounds in 38.4 minutes since joining the Nets. For the season, including his eight games with Houston, the 31-year-old leads the league in assists and minutes per game.

Lowe thinks Harden’s “narrative” will sink him ... as will the competition which is very strong this season ... and as he writes, “divisive.”

[T]he voters — about 100 media members — are people, not robots. We are stricken with cognitive ticks that muddy any attempt at compartmentalization. Nagging thoughts about narrative and legacy and past and future performance figured to play an outsized role this season even before Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden entered the picture as one of the most unconventional MVP candidates in league history.

Why “unconventional?” Because no player who ever forced himself out of an unhappy situation, has ever won.

The introduction of Harden is an interesting variable. No player has ever won MVP after being traded during that season. Five players have won in their first season with a particular team: Wilt Chamberlain and Wes Unseld as rookies, and then four veterans who won it after offseason trades.

There’s also the manner in which Harden departed Houston —the strip clubs, the honey buns, the press conference dissing his team’s chemistry (which turned out to be prophetic), and the perception that he was dogging it to get out of Houston and into Brooklyn.

[T]he barrier to winning his second MVP should be very high for Harden considering the nature of his exit from the Houston Rockets. The eight games he played there constitute 11% of this season — a non-trivial share. They will constitute an even greater percentage of Harden’s individual season, because he has missed a few games,

He put up numbers in those eight games, but if you watched them, you know Harden was disengaged. Opponents outscored the Rockets by 6.6 points per 100 possessions with Harden on the floor during his final Houston stretch — and won the minutes Harden rested by almost the same amount, per NBA.com. You can’t erase that from his candidacy for an award based on play in this particular season.

He also suggests that while Harden “has been brilliant as a Net,” he hasn’t been that good (!), good enough to warrant his MVP vote. Lowe is, indeed, one of the 100 media voters.

The Nets have outscored opponents by six points per 100 possessions with Harden on the floor — good, but not incredible. They are about even in the 308 minutes Harden has played without both Irving and Durant, according to NBA.com. Harden has done a nice job carrying Brooklyn bench units. Steve Nash has entrusted Harden with the most solo minutes among his three stars, and Harden is maybe the best equipped among them to thrive in those situations.

What Lowe doesn’t write about in his lengthy discussion of MVP voting, is Harden’s leadership and accountability which former ESPN colleague Mike Mazzeo wrote about this week. Harden wasn’t exaggerating when in his first press conference described himself as an “elite player, elite teammate and elite leader.” He’s been all three.

Lowe also admits things could change. IF Joel Embiid misses significant time due to his hyperextended knee night that “may crack the door slightly” for him. Similarly, if Kevin Durant is waylaid longer than expected with his hamstring strain, that could help his candidacy. (Perish the thought!) Still, Lowe thinks Nikola Jokic, LeBron James and Embiid have better resumes’. Lowe doesn’t compare Brooklyn’s record with KD out to the Lakers record without AD, Anthony Davis. He certainly should.

It’s no secret that Harden has been miffed in the past believing he should’ve won more than one MVP. He also seems to understand that just playing in New York has helped his reputation, noting last week that his leadership — and other aspects of his game — are “the same,” but “It’s just I get credit now, and previously I wasn’t getting credit. Same leadership. I’ve been the same person and haven’t changed not one bit.”

Back in 2002, Jason Kidd faced somewhat similar circumstances. He had a LOT of baggage from his time in Phoenix and his statistics weren’t as good as eventual MVP Tim Duncan’s —he shot only 39 percent that season, as Lowe notes— but he led the previously woeful Nets to 52 wins, twice the number they won the year before with essentially the same young cast. That would seem to be the very definition of “valuable.”

The second half of the season of course has only just begun and the debate will be enhanced with each week leading up to the playoffs. Harden may not win. Durant may not win. Irving may not win. Still, it has to be edifying for the Nets front office that “MVP” chants are worthy for any of their “Big Three!”