MVP Ladder: Rockets’ turnaround tale fueling Harden’s run at hardware

FILE – OKLAHOMA CITY, OK- APRIL 23: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets handles the ball during the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Four during the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2017 NBA Playoffs on April 23, 2017 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)

Wicked numbers alone won’t secure a Kia MVP.

Reigning Kia MVP James Harden knows that better than most, given his checkered recent history with the NBA’s top individual regular-season honor.

Harden believed his case to be rock-solid in two separate seasons, but came up short both times before finally breaking through last season.

Sure, his numbers were off the charts in 2016-17, when he finished second to his friend (and former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate) Russell Westbrook. The same goes for 2014-15, when he finished second to Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry in the first year of Curry’s back-to-back seasons winning the award. Harden did win the NBPA’s first MVP in a vote of his peers, but the sting of losing out to Curry was already there.

The place where Harden came up short in both instances was in the narrative department, which, like it or not, has always been a crucial component for the media-panel voters.

Westbrook’s campaign came both during his historic (first) triple-double season and immediately after 2014 Kia MVP Kevin Durant bolted for the Warriors in free agency. Curry’s first win was on the strength of his (and the Warriors’ breakout season) that ended a 40-year title drought. His second MVP came as he fueled the Warriors’ record-breaking 73-win season.

Truth be told, a large part of Harden’s compelling narrative last season was his previous near-misses (not to mention the Rockets’ wire-to-wire run as the NBA’s best team and their league-best 66 wins).

With the winds changing seemingly by the day in this season’s MVP chase — thanks to the work Harden and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo are treating fans to — Harden is crafting yet another gripping drama for voters to consider.

Dragging the Rockets from 14th place in the Western Conference standings last month to their current fifth-place perch is a great place to start. Doing it with Chris Paul and other rotation players injured fed the drama. And chasing history — 18 straight games of scoring 30 or more points in a run the league hasn’t seen since Wilt Chamberlain’s days — always punches up the script.

“All you need is eyeballs to know what’s going on. James has been unbelievable and what he’s done for that team is unreal,” a Western Conference executive said. “The hard sell this season is in what these guys are doing on the court, both he and Giannis. There really isn’t a need to create some back story for any of these guys, and I include Steph in that as well. He’s on that level, too. There’s plenty of season left, though, for all of these guys. It’s too early to make any final declarations, isn’t it?”

Indeed.

There is much more season to play out, for the current frontrunners and everyone else.

But as they all know, it’s never too soon to start weaving that narrative that might push your campaign over the top.

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