James Harden emerged as one of the best players in the league in the early 2010’s. After winning the Sixth Man of the Year title with the Oklahoma City Thunder — playing alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook — Harden made the big move to the Houston Rockets, and this was where he really found his form.
It wasn’t long before the 6-foot-5 shooting guard proved to be one of, if not the best scorer in the entire league. Six years into his stint as the Rockets’ cornerstone superstar, his individual brilliance was finally rewarded.
This came in the form of the 2017-18 MVP title, which he won after averaging a league-leading 30.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 11.2 assists, and 1.5 steals. Harden also led the Rockets to a league-best 65 wins — the most victories in Rockets franchise history — as they secured the top seed in a ruthless Western Conference. Needless to say, it’s hard to argue against Harden winning the MVP award that season.
There have been several other seasons, however, that Harden could have bagged the award as well. Today we look at three other seasons wherein the former third overall pick almost, but ultimately fell short of winning the MVP title.
2014 – 15 Season (Winner: Stephen Curry)
James Harden had a tremendous 2014-15 campaign. He was named to the All-Star squad for the third consecutive season, putting up averages of 27.4 points, 5.7 rebounds, 7.0 assists, and 1.9 steals, while also connecting on 2.6 triples on a 37.5-percent clip.
This was his third season in Houston, and he just kept getting better and better. If there was still any doubt that he was capable of putting an entire franchise on his shoulders, his season-long performance quashed any and all of them. He led an injury-plagued Rockets side to 56 wins that year, coming in second in the West behind only the Golden State Warriors.
The man who led the charge for the Dubs also happened to be that season’s MVP winner in Stephen Curry. This was the year that Curry officially made his mark in the league, as he put up unprecedented shooting numbers of 48.7 percent from the field (23.8 points per game), 44.3 percent from distance (3.6 triples per contest), and 91.4 percent from the line (on 4.2 attempts). Curry also had the narrative going for him, as he pretty much embodied the rise of an underdog in the league. For all he did that year, Curry absolutely earned that MVP title.
Final verdict: No, Harden did not deserve the MVP title that year over Curry.
2016 – 17 Season (Winner: Russell Westbrook)
A couple of years later, James Harden was once again a top contender for the season’s MVP award. This time around, he went up against Russell Westbrook, who was then with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Westbrook led the league in scoring that year with 31.6 points per game. However, his biggest achievement on the season was averaging a triple-double with 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists. The last time that happened in the NBA was in 1962, when the great Oscar Robertson achieved the same awe-inspiring feat. As of writing, Robertson and Westbrook are the only two players who have averaged a triple-double in a season.
For his part, Harden did not average a triple-double. He put up 29.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, and perhaps most impressively, a league-leading 11.2 assists. The Rockets superstar proved this season that despite being one of the best scorers in league history, he is also one of the best playmakers of all time.
Harden also led the Rockets to 55 wins that year, as they secured the third seed in the West. Westbrook’s Thunder finished as the sixth seed with 47 wins.
Final verdict: Harden could have easily bagged the title that season, but in the end, Westbrook’s insane numbers could not be ignored. We’re picking Russ by a hairline here, but could also easily be swayed.
2018 – 19 Season (Winner: Giannis Antetokounmpo)
James Harden may have been a beast in the previous two seasons we discussed, but one could argue that he was even more impressive during the 2018-19 campaign. That year, he bagged his second scoring title by averaging 36.1 points per game. His amazing scoring tally ranks seventh all-time in terms of season average. The last time a player put up a better season-long scoring average than Harden was back in the 1986-87 season by a little known guard named Michael Jordan.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, on the other hand, was not bad himself that year. The Greek Freak averaged 27.7 points on 57.8 percent shooting, with 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.3 steals, and 1.5 blocks. Giannis also led the Bucks to a league-best 60 wins, bagging three more victories than the Warriors that still had Kevin Durant in their squad that year.
Final verdict: It would not have been a complete travesty if Harden finished ahead of Antetokounmpo in the MVP race that year, but based on their overall season-long achievements, Giannis
So taking all this into consideration, Harden’s one MVP title sounds just about right. He certainly came close on a few occasions, but in the end, his opponents held a slight edge. If there was a record for most almost MVP wins, then Harden would certainly be in the conversation.