Remember that time James Harden called a reporter a “weirdo?” It was during the opening round of the 2014 playoffs, and the Houston Rockets had just gone down 0-2 to a red-hot Portland Trail Blazers team led by LaMarcus Aldridge, who was averaging 44.5 points and 13 rebounds through the first two games of the series. Harden, on the other hand, had shot 14-of-47 up to that point, and some were beginning to question whether he was shrinking from the spotlight.
One reporter, in particular, asked him as much in some many words. A testy exchange followed after the media scrum dissipated, and Harden eventually had to be escorted from the locker room. That veteran reporter turned out to be Fran Blinebury, who’s been covering the league for almost 40 years. The two have evidently mended fences since then, because Harden recently agreed to sit down with Blinebury for a major profile published on NBA.com Tuesday.
There’s plenty to wade through in that piece, but of particular note is the fact that Harden is still miffed about not winning the regular-season MVP award (apparently the Player’s Choice MVP wasn’t much of a consolation). He’s obviously given it a lot of thought, as evidenced by the rather nuanced reasoning he proffered during the interview:
“I am the best player in the league. I believe that,” he said. “I thought I was last year, too.”
“I know I was the MVP,” Harden said. “That’s 100 percent given all the things that happened last season.
“Credit the Golden State Warriors for an unbelievable year. They had an unbelievable team, coaching staff, everything.
“But that award means most valuable to your team. We finished second in the West, which nobody thought we were going to do at the beginning of the year even when everybody was healthy. We were near the top in having the most injuries. We won our division in a division where every single team made the playoffs.
“There’s so many factors. I led the league in total points scored, minutes played. Like I said, I’m not taking anything away from Steph, but I felt I deserved the Most Valuable Player. That stays with me.”
Harden claiming to be the best player in the league isn’t anything new, and he’s clearly using that perceived MVP slight as motivation for the coming season. But it’s very difficult to imagine him replicating or surpassing his numbers from last year. In fact, the exact opposite is more likely. A significant portion of his stat line was a byproduct of being Houston’s de facto point guard for a majority of the season, and with the return of Patrick Beverley and the addition of Ty Lawson, he’ll have the ball in his hands a lot less in 2015-16. And that’s before you factor in a healthy Dwight Howard, who missed half of last season.
But even if that puts a damper on individual accolades, it bodes well for the Rockets as a team, who still managed to make the Western Conference Finals despite a laundry list of injuries. Houston is a great sleeper choice to win the West, and if they can somehow sneak past the Golden State Warriors for the number one seed with Harden at his best, it’ll be hard not to hand-deliver him his much-sought-after MVP trophy.