NBA: Two Darkhorse MVP Candidates

NBA: Houston Rockets at Toronto RaptorsBy: Zack Freud

Both DeMar DeRozan and James Harden look extremely hungry this NBA season. They have both maintained huge statistical spikes thus far,and pass the eye test as well. They both very well could be in the running for MVP come the end of the season if this is a permanent change rather than just a strong start.

Harden and DeRozan were not regarded as MVP favorites coming into this season. While everyone was wondering about how Russell Westbrook was going to tear up the league now that he has his team to himself, Harden and DeRozan were probably seething. These are competitive guys in their own right, and I’m sure they both believe that absolutely no one in the league can stop them, and that IS the mindset that all the great NBA players have had. Per Bovada, Harden was 16-1 and DeRozan was 100-1 to win the MVP before the season. Both of those provide great value. Harden definitely has a better chance to win MVP compared to DeRozan, but neither is out of the realm of possibility. Harden did finish second in voting just two seasons ago. Both of these guys are putting up career numbers this year and appear to be in their absolute prime. They both were top 10 picks in the 2009 draft and both went to PAC 12 schools, coincidentally.

With completely different games, Harden and Derozan both still manage to thrive on their skillsets. DeRozan’s success is very unconventional in today’s game. He does not rely on the three ball for his points, taking just 1.7 attempts per game this year and 1.4 per game over his career. DeMar would much rather take his defender off the dribble and work the mid-post area with his combination of midrange, floaters, and post shots. He kind of has a herky–jerk style, in that he doesn’t look as smooth as someone like Harden does with the ball, but he is still very effective and causes defenses to bend toward him whenever he has the ball. He is extremely aggressive in attacking the rim with his combination of size, speed and strength. There has never been doubt of his raw talent, but this year looks different. Maybe playing for Team USA helped him keep his conditioning over the summer. He was literally dunking all over some of the world’s best talent.

DeRozan currently leads the league in scoring at 34.1 ppg. Last year he averaged 23.5. He is taking 6.4 more shots per game compared to last year and is shooting 53.3% from the field compared to 44.6% last year. He has upped his workload and instead of sacrificing accuracy, he has actually gotten better. He is getting to the line 10 times a game further showing his aggressive style. Both his PER and usage% are way up from last season. He holds the 5th highest PER in the association at a stellar 31. DeRozan puts up a 34, 3, 5 every night for the Raptors, and seems to be imposing his will on other teams.

Harden has a completely different style and role for his team. He is being used as the Rocket’s point guard this year for coach Mike D’Antoni, perhaps trying to use him like a hybrid (better) version of Steve Nash. Harden is the basketball analytics poster child. He loves to drive, get to the line, and shoot threes. Nearly 70% of his attempts come from either within 3 feet or beyond the arc. Harden plays like he is never in a hurry to go anywhere, but still manages to slither past his defender more often than not on his way to two points or free throws. He really can get by any defender he wants to with or without a screen. He has the ball on a string and the fact that he is a lefty makes it so that he attacks at different angles than defenders are accustomed to defending. He is not afraid of contact, getting to the line 10 times a game for the past five seasons. He consistently baits defenders into hacking him on drives and he lulls his defenders into letting up for just a second and then he pounces. He seems to have perfected the euro-step move which is always a fun one. He shoots the three very consistently, at 36.8% career and 39.4% this season.

These are all things about Harden we already knew, though. Yes he can score his 25 points a game and yes, he’ll get you around 7 assists per game and yes, he probably isn’t trying hard enough on defense. What we didn’t know, however, was that he would lead the league in assists with a staggering 13 per game so far. The next highest is LeBron James with 9.9 per game for context. Harden also assists on 62% of his teammates field goals while on the floor, which leads the league. He is a very creative passer, often creating cutting lanes for his teammates from his own drives because the defense converges on him. It is very rare for such a prolific scorer to lead the league by far in assists. He is shooting more efficiently than last year by nearly 6 percentage points, from 43.9% to 49.7%.  He’s grabbing almost 2 more rebounds per game, from 6.1 to 7.8. He has a 32.3 PER, only behind CP3 and Kawhi. Harden completely dominates the Houston offense.  He puts up a 30 13 and 8 every night. He is not known to be brazen, but also is not too shy about his skills, recently saying to the media that he is the best player in the league. The way he is playing, it certainly seems like he has a good case.



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