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Does James Harden have a case to be second unanimous MVP in NBA history?

Barring something unforeseen, James Harden is going to win his first MVP this year after finishing second two of the last three seasons. The question is: Will he win it unanimously? 

Not many seasons warrant even asking that question, but Harden once again is putting up all-time numbers — first in scoring at better than 31 a game and second in assists nearly nine a night. The icing on the cake is the Rockets enter Monday as the best team in the league with a slim lead over Golden State for the No. 1 seed in the West. 

The award is his. 

If anyone else were to win, or even come close, it would be a sham of the highest order. 

But winning unanimously is a different story. Stephen Curry, of course, became the only player in history to secure all 130 votes in 2015-16, when he authored probably the greatest offensive season to date. His advanced numbers were off the charts that year. He led the league in scoring. He joined the exclusive 50-40-90 shooting club. The 402 3-pointers he made is one of the most ridiculous records in all of sports. The Warriors won a league-record 73 games. That’s what it took to become the first unanimous MVP, and right now, Harden is not having that kind of season, as unfair as that benchmark might be. 

That said, he doesn’t necessarily need to have a better season than Curry did two years ago, even though voters do value history and will likely measure Harden, or anyone else for that matter, against a certain baseline of production before they’ll consider elevating him to unanimous status — and the only unanimous season in history would seem to be a pretty logical barometer. 

At any rate, Harden has been incredible this season. He’s scored 40 or more points nine times, 50 or more four times, and he notched the first 60-point triple-double in league history against Orlando back on January 30th — on 19-of-30 shooting no less. To put those four 50-point games in perspective, Kevin Durant, arguably one of the five best scorers in history, only has five 50-point games for his entire career. 

Who could steal a first-place vote or two from Harden? Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is a distant second to Harden in scoring and is also having himself a bonkers statistical season, is certainly a candidate. Considering the mess the Cavs have been most of the season, the fact that LeBron James still has them as the No. 3 seed in the East and is having another spectacular, if taken-for-granted, season, could certainly get the King a handful of first-place votes. 

Maybe Durant gets a vote or two given that he’s pretty roundly accepted as a top-five defender in the league now. I think DeMar DeRozan should get at least one first-place vote for the season he’s having for the current No. 1-seed Raptors. Kyrie Irving has the Celtics as fringe contenders after everyone wrote them off the second Gordon Hayward went down. But the guy I’m looking at most closely is Curry. 

Entering Monday, Curry leads the league in offensive rating, is second in net rating, and across the board he has far better shooting percentages than Harden — who’s “only” shooting 45 percent from the field and 38 percent from three. Curry is 7-0 without Durant this year, while Harden is 11-7 without Chris Paul. Harden is 2-0 against the Warriors this year. The teams are virtually tied for the best record in the league. 

The point is, a lot of things are close — perhaps closer than you might think — between Harden and Curry, and again, while Harden is the clear-cut MVP for a lot of reasons, we’re only talking about someone, Curry or otherwise, having to steal a single first-place vote. At this point, it seems unlikely that Harden will sweep the voting. 

That said, he’s within range. So much of this is gut. Who “feels” like the MVP. Harden is the first name that comes to everyone’s mind this year. If he were to go on a ridiculous scoring run over the final stretch of the season (he’s started pretty well with 31 and 41 points in Houston’s two games since the All-Star break), and if the Rockets were to run off with the No. 1 seed in the West, I could see it happening. 

Otherwise, I think he wins by an overwhelming majority, but not unanimously. He just doesn’t have that one feather in his cap that makes it absolutely ludicrous to vote for anyone else. Curry had the 402 threes and the 73 wins. Those are once-in-a-lifetime achievements. To not vote for Curry that year would’ve warranted psychiatric evaluation. If you were to vote someone ahead of Harden this year, you would have a very hard time explaining yourself, but you would still be within the normal boundaries of sanity. Barely. 

And that’s really all it takes. Some media person trying way too hard to make a point, to be “smarter” than everyone else, those couple doofuses who didn’t vote Willie Mays into the Hall of Fame because of the Mets years. There is no one who deserves the MVP over Harden this year, but a few guys are close enough for a few voters, or even just one voter, to get cute. Harden has been marvelous, but in the end, Steph Curry will likely remain as the only unanimous MVP. 

Brad Botkin

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