Brooklyn Nets: James Harden and his historical NBA MVP challenge

Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports /

James Harden has been carrying the Brooklyn Nets on his back and that has him making a run at something never before done in NBA history. The hope now has to be that the hamstring tightness that sidelined him in the Nets’ 120-108 win Wednesday over his former Houston Rockets teammates (those that are left anyway) doesn’t derail his run at the NBA MVP award.

Brooklyn is 16-3 since Kevin Durant went down with a hamstring injury in a Feb. 13 win over the Golden State Warriors. That mark includes going 4-2 without Durant and fellow superstar Kyrie Irving.

Note: The one time the Nets ran without Durant, Irving or Harden was March 24 while visiting the Utah Jazz. We won’t talk about that one, other than to say it did not go well.

James Harden has an MVP case.

Since the Nets acquired Harden from the Rockets in a four-team deal on Jan. 13, they are 26-9, trailing only Utah’s mark of 29-7 over the same span. That record includes the 7-6 stretch Brooklyn endured during the get-to-know-you period immediately following the acquisition.

Since losing three straight from Feb. 6-9, the Nets are the hottest team in basketball, going 19-3. Yes, that would be 19-2 with Harden in the lineup and a perfect 13-0 when Harden and Irving have been available.

In the 21 games Harden has played during Brooklyn’s hot stretch, he’s averaging 27.5 points, 10.9 assists and 9.5 rebounds per game, while shooting 53% on 11.1 two-point tries per game, 35.7% on 8.1 three-point attempts a night, and 86% from the foul line. That’s coming in 37.7 minutes per game.

Harden has also recorded seven triple-doubles over his last 21 appearances, and his 44 points in Friday’s road win over the Detroit Pistons matched his high-water mark since arriving in Brooklyn.

Overall in 33 games with the Nets, Harden is averaging 26.1 points, 11.2 assists and 8.9 boards in 38.3 minutes per game. The assist and rebounding numbers are the best on the club (save for Jarrett Allen’s 10.4 rebounds per game in the 12 he played before heading to the Cleveland Cavaliers as part of the Harden trade).

In the process, The Beard has been shooting up the charts with the oddsmakers. Some sportsbooks are giving Harden the second-best current odds of being named the NBA Most Valuable Player, according to Action Network, behind the odds-on favorite, Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic.

Harden still has an uphill climb to what would be his second NBA MVP to go with the trophy he won with the Rockets in 2017-18.

James Harden being named MVP would be first of its kind in any sport.

Not only would Harden be the first Net to win the award — Julius Erving won or shared three MVP awards in the old American Basketball Association, but that was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away … or something like that — but he also would be the first to win during a season in which he wore more than one team’s uniform.

Since the media took over the NBA MVP voting for the 1980-81 season, only four players have gotten votes while playing for more than one team in a season. The last was Stephen Jackson in 2009-10 when he went from the Warriors to the old Charlotte Bobcats and helped lead them to their first-ever playoff berth.

The others? Vince Carter with the Toronto Raptors and New Jersey Nets in 2004-05, Clyde Drexler with Portland Trail Blazers and the Rockets in 1994-95, and Dominique Wilkins with Atlanta Hawks and Los Angeles Clippers in 1993-94. Carter and Wilkins share the high-voting mark with three. Jackson and Wilkins each got one vote.

So it would be fair to say none of that quartet constituted a legitimate contender for the award.

Beyond just the NBA landscape, however, no player in any of the North American big four sports (Major League Baseball, National Football League, National Hockey League) has been named MVP of their respective league while playing for more than one team in a season.

About the closest to it was Rick Sutcliffe winning the National League Cy Young Award for the Chicago Cubs in 1984 after beginning the year in the American League with the Cleveland Indians.

Not quite as rare would be the distinction of being named NBA MVP during a first season with a new team. That was last accomplished by current Brooklyn coach Steve Nash in his return to the Phoenix Suns in 2004-05, so it’s not exactly recent.

The only other to do so in the media-voting era was Moses Malone, who copped a second straight NBA MVP in his first year with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1982-83.

James Harden vs. the current field for the NBA MVP award.

Climbing out of the way-back machine, there are other potential contenders Harden is dealing with besides the Joker. Joel Embiid of the 76ers and LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers still have support, but recent injuries to each player could scuttle their chances. Beyond that, the two-time reigning NBA MVP — Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks — is hanging around.

Jokic is averaging career-highs in … pretty much every damn thing. His 26.8 points per game is a huge hike over the 20.1 he put up in 2018-19, and his 11.1 rebounds a night, 8.5 assists and 1.6 steals would set new career bests. Jokic is also shooting 60.5% from two-point range to go with career-highs of 42.5% from deep and 86.7% at the line.

Those shooting numbers would be terrific for a wing. For a 6-foot-11 center? Ridiculous.

But for all of the Joker’s heroics, Denver is still fifth in the Western Conference. The Nuggets are part of a logjam for the third through sixth spots out West, but are seven games behind Utah.

Brooklyn, meanwhile, moved into sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference with their victory Wednesday night over Houston. The Nets now have a half-game lead over Philadelphia and are 2½ games ahead of the Bucks.

So it will come down to the fickle fingers of the media voters. The NBA MVP most often is the best player on the best team, but Donovan Mitchell of the Jazz isn’t winning based on the current odds.

That leaves Harden, who projects to be the most productive player for the best team in the East if Brooklyn keeps up its current pace, or Jokic from a very-good-but-not-great Denver squad.

There are two things working against The Beard — he’s won before and he forced his way out of Houston. Media guys have historically had a tendency to punish players for the latter (or for exercising free agency rights to leave the team that drafted them, because every superstar’s ultimate career path should be dictated by a ping-pong ball).

Though it doesn’t seem like it, Harden’s case for the NBA MVP award is much more of an uphill battle than many realize.