The MVP award may be slipping out of James Harden’s grips.
Blame the left wrist injury that clearly affected the Houston Rockets star’s recent play, or Russell Westbrook’s electrifying surge to Oklahoma City’s regular-season finish line during his triple-double triumph, or the sustained excellence of the San Antonio Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard, or the justifiable reverence for the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James and his fantastic play. But any way you slice it, Harden – who just weeks ago seemed to be pulling away – is no shoe-in here. The painful part, of course, is that we won’t know the results until the NBA awards show on June 26.
With media ballots due Friday, the timing was right to check in with a man whose perspective matters: Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni.
He’s the guy who sparked their turnaround after his hiring last summer, convincing the 27-year-old franchise centerpiece to move from shooting guard to point guard, which unleashed Harden's best self (29.1 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds per game, marks that only Oscar Robertson previously reached). He’s the guy whose spread-the-floor system and push-the-envelope protocol has been such a perfect fit for Harden’s skills, allowing Houston to shatter the single season record for three-pointers attempted and made while securing the third spot in the Western Conference (54-27). They also posted the league’s second-best offensive rating (trailing only the Golden State Warriors).
Yet as D’Antoni shared in chat with USA TODAY Sports, he’s also the man who doesn’t believe any of it was possible without Harden and his unique talents. Even with Harden’s recent struggles – this eight-game stretch in which he is just 16th in the NBA in scoring (25.8 points per on 36.3% shooting overall and 27.6% from three-point range) with 10 assists and 8.8 rebounds per game as the Rockets have dropped five games – D’Antoni hopes that voters remember everything that came before.
“Well a lot of times that (recency bias) happens,” D’Antoni said by phone. “Out of sight out of mind, and we've been locked in the third spot, so there hasn't been any drama for us the last month. And sometimes it is tough to chase stats, (or) whatever you want to say. If you're trying to win a game, like you go into Philadelphia and you get 50 points and a triple-double like he did (on Nov. 14), and you win and that gives us another leg-up to get third or the second spot, that's one thing. But when you're just trying to hang in there and, you know, try to win as many games as you can without the motivation of moving up in the standings, it's a tougher spot.”
In the interest of full disclosure, the conversation with D’Antoni was the latest PR move driven by team officials who want so badly for their star player to win the award. This is standard procedure this time of year, when the politicking efforts are made until all the votes are in. Rockets CEO Tad Brown noticed a recent USA TODAY Sports interview with Thunder coach Billy Donovan via Twitter, then recommended that D’Antoni join the conversation as well. Alas, here we are.
Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with any of it – especially this season. All four players have compelling MVP cases to be made, with distinct differences in their games and varying versions of history being made (James, by the way, is on track to become the first player to average at least 26 points, eight rebounds and eight assists per game while shooting better than 54% from the field).
To D’Antoni’s credit, he’s as measured and anti-political as they come. And his main point, one that is certainly fair, is that Harden’s entire body of work should be taken into account.
“He does it in a different way, and maybe not as sexy as somebody barreling up and down the floor, so everybody has their qualities. How you can say that somebody is better, or not better? I just was very happy to have this guy on our team. And I know that without him, we wouldn't have had close to the season that we have…I don't envy you guys picking. I know it's an impossible choice. It's almost (like) 'You like the blue dress, you like the red dress, you like the sparkly dress? Everybody has a different opinion."
There are some voters who see D’Antoni’s impact as a reason to take some measure of credit away from Harden when it comes to the collective success. Ditto for Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who last summer surrounded Harden with shooters like Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson who have had everything to do with his league-leading (and career-high) assist total. Yet again, as he reiterated, none of this happens without the bearded man in the middle.
“The only thing I know is that the Coach of the Year gets (that award) because they have the best players, or those players outperformed everybody's imagination,” D’Antoni said. “Every coach is very good in this league, and (does) their jobs in an incredible manner. Look, when we got Steve Nash (during his Phoenix Suns days), I got really smart. We got James Harden moved over to point guard, and I got really smart. There have been years where I wasn't real smart.”
Knicks and Lakers fans nod in agreement.
“We're a product of the players, and like I said I don't think we'd trade (Harden) for anybody,” he continued. “We've got the best, or one of the best, players in the league, and that's all I know. It's a hard question to answer. I don't want to detract from James, because I'm telling you everything that's happened with us is because of him.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Sam Amick on Twitter @Sam_Amick.