Bearded Picasso Is the MVP

Apr 14 2017
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Harry How/Getty Images
Trevor Ariza
Houston Rockets
Apr 14 2017

I’m here to try to convince the entire basketball world that James Harden is this year’s MVP.

But before I get started, if it’s cool with you, I want to just address Houston Rockets fans for a second.

What’s up, Red Nation? It’s playoff time again, and I want to do some reminiscing.

Remember last year around this time?

We’d just finished the season 41–41. It had been a rocky year — with two different coaches and some ups and downs. We barely snuck into the playoffs as the 8 seed, then lost in the first round.

It wasn’t the type of season we’d hoped for after the year before, when we went to the Western Conference finals. Remember?

I know you remember. And we do, too — because the off-season came early last year, which gave us a lot of time to think … and to listen.

People were saying lots of things about our team: I’m sure a lot of you heard the narratives that started to form last summer about the Rockets?

First Coach D’Antoni came on, and people were critical. They questioned whether our roster was a good fit for his up-tempo style.

Then Dwight left, and people were saying we were destined for a few bad years.

We picked up Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson — and people wondered how guys who hadn’t really found their grooves for other teams were going to help us get to where we wanted to go.

Remember that narrative — the one about how we should probably just blow everything up and start over?

Houston, you know what I’m talking about. And I know you all hated to hear it.

It wasn’t fun for us to have to listen to, either. Critics will be critics. But one thing I can’t shake is how people wrote us off even before we got to training camp. As early as last summer, the consensus was that we would finish somewhere in the neighborhood of 41–41, 42–40 or 40–42 — just like the previous year.

And playoffs? I think people thought that if we made the playoffs, we weren’t going to make it out of the first round.

We had a different plan. Or, not really we.

James Harden had a plan.

David J. Phillip/AP Images

O.K., apologies for that detour.

I’m supposed to be talking about the MVP race. My original plan was to talk about stats, and to tell you why James Harden’s numbers are more impressive than the stats put up by LeBron, Russ, Kawhi … and blah, blah, blah.

But I’ll let the numbers people do all of that. I’m not a big stats guy.

If stats alone were the clincher in the MVP conversation, Russ’s year of super-duper triple doubles would probably get him the award. I love Russ — he’s like my li’l bro. And what he’s doing this year is some phenomenal s***, no doubt.

You could also argue that Kawhi’s stats, on both ends of the court, are MVP-worthy. And LeBron’s stats this year — his stats every year for the last decade — are absolutely MVP-worthy.

But numbers aren’t the whole story with James. Problem is, even though I know James really well, it’s very difficult to put his game into words. It’s hard to describe the profound way James Harden changes the game of basketball when he’s on the court. It’s not easy to capture the way he can see two or three steps ahead of everyone else. James is unlike any player I’ve ever played with.

I know James can be hard for most people to read, with his beard and his facial expressions on the court. He has his own swagger — he’s not copying anybody, and he doesn’t really remind you of anyone, past or present. He’s got a slow, quick style. He’s a huge three-point threat, but he’s even more deadly going to the basket. He led the league in assists this year, but he’s also without question the best guy in the NBA at getting to the line. James doesn’t just make all of his teammates better, he also makes the game easy for us. Whether it’s me or Eric or Ryan or Lou, we’re all just so open all the time. It’s no coincidence we just set the single-season record for most threes by a team in NBA history.

Paul Battaglia/AP Images

To me, James Harden is like basketball’s Picasso — he’s an artist whose work you respect, even if you don’t always understand its significance until later. (Or maybe Van Gogh or some other artist — I’m not an art history buff, but you get my point.)

So I’m asking you to think outside the box — just like James does when he’s playing basketball.

To really explain why James Harden is the true MVP, I have to tell you about his game with a story.

To do that, we have to go back to last summer — to when all those negative narratives about the Rockets were going around. That’s the best way I can put into perspective how unbelievable James’s season has been.

After Coach D’Antoni was hired, one of the first things he did was set up a meeting with James. In their first meeting — franchise player and new coach — Coach asked James something that probably sounded … insane. And I realize that everyone might know the story by now, but just take a second to consider how crazy Coach D’Antoni’s first order of business was.

He asked James to move to the point guard position.

You have to understand how bold Coach’s request was: a new coach, asking one of this generation’s best pure scorers — a 6′ 5″, 220-pound lefty who had never played point.

I mean, look: James Harden had just come off a season when he had averaged 29 points … and now Coach D’Antoni wanted him to … accept a role that would mean fewer scoring chances? How does that not sound like a demotion?

Bob Levey/Getty Images

I can tell you … if I were James Harden, I might have said, “Who do you think you are, Coach?” Almost as a reflex.

James didn’t respond that way, though.

That’s why he’s Picasso on the court, or Rembrandt or Gaugin or Cezanne (I had to look those guys up). Basically, there’s a lot going on in James’s game that you don’t see at first, but later … you get it. James asked Coach one question — just one — in response: “Will it help us win?”

Coach said it would, but he also warned James to be prepared for a serious adjustment period.

James didn’t even take a day to think about it. He just said right on the spot, “Yes, I’ll do it.”

Do you know how rare that is? Superstar NBA players don’t just change positions in their prime. Not eight years into their careers… not when they’ve been consistently at the top of the league in scoring … and especially not when their team lacks another dominant scorer. Why would they? It’s a big leap of faith. It’s a risk to your personal stat line, too. It’s very, very hard to deconstruct your game without needing an entire season — or more — to rebuild it. And without your game suffering in the meantime.

I know, because I’ve played with a lot of superstars. Starting off as a scorer, then turning into a point guard? You just don’t see that. Sometimes you see the opposite, like Steve Nash, another guy who played for D’Antoni (and who coach helped transform from a distributor into a dual threat).

When the season started, James got thrown into the fire at the point position and he never looked back. People really don’t appreciate how quickly he mastered the role. There’s usually a period of adjustment after you make such a drastic position change like that — you gotta give yourself time to make mistakes. But even with all that was going on, his points per game average didn’t fall off from last year — and his assists went up almost four per game (I had to look that stat up). Four assists more per game. Think about that — Kawhi, with all due respect, averages four per game.

But one of the most underrated things about James is his maturity level. He doesn’t think he knows everything. Superstars usually think they do. I get that … it’s often what makes them so great — they trust the instincts that got them to the top. But James is different on that level … he’s willing to question his own understanding of the game. He admits that he doesn’t know it all. By moving to the point, James showed that he’s willing to make personal sacrifices to make us a winning team.

Thomas B. Shea/USA TODAY Sports

Put it this way: James Harden could’ve averaged 40 points (and seven and seven) if he hadn’t been running the point.

I really, really believe that. But I also know for a fact that the Rockets wouldn’t have won 55 games and finished with the league’s third-best record.

Zooming out a little bit, the one big thing that bothers me about the MVP conversation is that we sometimes get so focused on numbers and stat comparisons that we tend to get away from what really matters about basketball: winning.

At the start of the year, lots of people said we weren’t going to win many games this season. I don’t know, maybe they forgot that we had James Harden on our team? James is dead focused on winning. Watch out for some unreal performances from him in the playoffs, too. I like to say that James is not just unbelievably consistent, which he is. But he’s also consistently unbelievable, especially in big games.

The chance to prove that this team can be truly special begins now. Rockets fans, I know you’ll ride for us.

We’ll go as far as our bearded Picasso takes us.

Trevor Ariza
Houston Rockets