If last season wasn't evidence that James Harden of the Houston Rockets deserves to have an MVP award to his name, then he's certainly showing so far this season that he can go one better to make sure he wins the achievement this campaign.
During the 2016-17 season, the Rockets star finished second in the MVP voting behind Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder, with a career-best season of averaging 29.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 11.2 assists per game, helping Houston achieve a Western Conference semifinal finish on the year.
This past summer, Harden signed a four-year contract extension with the Rockets for approximately $160 million, giving him a total six-year deal with $228 million guaranteed, the richest contract in NBA history. He's already starting to show this season why he deserves it.
After 12 games played, Houston sits on a 9-3 record at the top of the Western Conference with the guard averaging 29.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 10 assists per game. This past Thursday, he recorded his second triple-double of the season and 33rd of his career with 35 points, 11 rebounds, and 13 assists, to go with five steals, in a 117–113 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
This stat line of at least 35/10/10/5 in a game has only been accomplished by one other player in the last 30 years. That last player so happens to be Michael Jordan, who did it in a win over the Los Angeles Clippers in January 1989.
On top of this, Harden has scored 30 or more points in three of the last four games, including a 56-point performance in a win over the Jazz on Sunday. He's close to unstoppable right now and is very much leading the race for the MVP award.
What's even more impressive is that these improvements in statistics from last season have come while Chris Paul, who was brought in from the Los Angeles Clippers during the offseason to help Harden out, has been on the sidelines with a knee injury, as he hasn't played since the Rockets' opening game of the season against the Golden State Warriors.
While fans might be concerned that when Paul returns he might eat into Harden's individual stats, pulling him away from the MVP conversation, they shouldn't be worried at all. Having Paul back on the court would be a huge boost for the 28-year-old, as it would mean less of the offense would have to go through him in order for the team to win games.
Paul's inclusion on the court for the Rockets as well would naturally mean opposing teams would have to take him into consideration as well on defense, as he is a talented player himself. He's not on the same level as Harden, but he can certainly be a threat if he's given the chance.
Last season with the Clippers, the point guard averaged 18.1 points, five rebounds, and 9.2 assists per game, so he is a productive offensive scorer and playmaker. If he isn't scoring the points himself, he's able to find someone else who can. Harden is one of the best in the NBA when it comes to offense, so you couldn't ask for a better teammate.
In the last five games, Harden has had 11.4 attempts per game, but his rebounds have gone down to 4.9 per game from 8.1 last season. That won't matter too much so long as he is a big lending hand on offense, especially when it comes to points and assists, and when Paul returns, he can do more of just that.
The Rockets’ offense has been running like a well-oiled machine this year and with Paul's return on the horizon, more shots could soon become available to Harden, adding to the fluidity on the court and providing the team with even more wins.
There's so much momentum on his side now, it's hard to not consider him to be one of the favourite, if not, THE favourite for the MVP award this season.