James Harden is the Early Season MVP

— November 29th 2017

The offensive juggernaut that is James Harden currently leads the way in the MVP race.

By Preston Dubey

James Harden has been the best player in the NBA through the first quarter of the season. While everyone was focusing on the Celtics’ winning streak out East, the Rockets have quietly raced out to a great start in the West at 16-4 and atop the standings. Chris Paul missed much of the first two months, but he’s back now. He joins Harden, who is playing like an MVP.

Leading the Way

Houston holds a slight lead on Golden State in the standings, and the Rockets beat the Warriors in their only meeting thus far. Houston is second to Golden State in a number of stats, including points per game, offensive rating, and net rating. This year’s Rockets and Warriors teams are on pace to duplicate what last year’s teams did, which was two of the best offensive seasons in league history.

Roughly a quarter of the way through the season, James Harden leads the league in points per game (31.7), assists (9.8), three pointers made (90) and three-point attempts (221), free throws made (159) and free throw attempts (185). His 36 Usage Percentage also tops the league. James Harden is the early season MVP, and is on pace to have a season similar to–if not better than–each of his MVP runner-up seasons.

In addition to traditional stats, Harden also leads the league in box plus/minus (11.3), offensive BPM (10.7), win shares (4.8), win shares per 48 minutes (.319), and value over replacement player (2.4). Harden’s assist percentage is 50.5 (which leads the league), meaning he assists on half of all of his teams’ made shots while he’s on the floor. That’s kind of crazy, and shows how incredibly important Harden is to Rockets’ early season success.

Three-Point Shooting

Out of all those stats, a few stand out to me. The first is that Harden has both taken and made more three pointers than anyone else this season. His 90 makes is 17 better than Klay Thompson and 23 better than Steph Curry, who are the next closest. He has taken 35 more three pointers than teammate Eric Gordon, who is second in the league in attempts, and 40 more than Steph Curry, who is third.

Harden leads the league in both three pointers and free throws, and that is 100 percent by design. Many of his threes still come off of iso situations and dribble pull ups:

And using ball screens, especially if he gets a big switched onto him:

But he’s also improved in getting shots playing off of the ball, both in transition and in the half court. This is a credit to the great design of the Houston Rockets offense. The actions are specifically meant to force the defense to rotate and leave a shooter.

Even if it’s just for a split-second, Harden can hurt you:

Points in the Paint

As I mentioned above, many of Houston’s offensive actions are meant to make the helpside defense choose between protecting the rim or defending the three. Harden has excelled this season at making the defense pay for giving up open threes. But he’s also been effective at attacking the rim when the opportunity presents itself.

Harden is leading the league in free throw makes and attempts, demonstrating his ability to create his own shot and get to the rim. He’s equally skilled at creating shots for his teammates, as he is currently leading the league in assists, as well. Roughly one-fourth of his assists are to teammate Clint Capela, who shoots almost exclusively at the rim.

Most of these assists to Capela occur on plays similar to the ones that gets Houston open threes. The primary difference being that the defense plays it differently, and Harden still finds a way to make them pay.

On this open-side ball screen, the defense doesn’t rotate over to protect the rim, and Capela gets an easy slam:

And same thing here on this double ball screen:

Sometimes Houston’s offense is so good, Harden gets his choice of open looks. And he’s not shy about lobbing it up and letting his big man Capela hammer it home:

MVP Level Impact

Chris Paul’s injury has been the headline of the season for Houston, but it may end up have helping the Rockets’ rhythm as a team. CP3 got to watch this offense up close and personal for a month. He’s been back for a few games now and has looked great.

The under-reported story has been Eric Gordon’s incredible start. He was 6th man of the year last season and is playing even better. Gordon is the second leading beneficiary of Harden’s assists behind Capela.

Even without Chris Paul for most of the season so far, Harden has the Rockets well positioned in the Western Conference, and ready to make a push in this next crucial part of the season. CP3 is back now and already has two double-doubles in three games. With an MVP candidate in Harden leading the way, Houston has a legit chance to dethrone the Warriors this season.

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