According to James Harden, it’s a no-brainer that he’s the 2016-17 NBA MVP.
The Beard argues that his gaudy stats, combined with the Rockets’ unexpected success this season make his candidacy for the Maurice Podoloff Trophy unassailable.
The 27-year-old superstar guard says removing distractions from life led him to playing the best basketball of his career.
— Lee Jenkins (@SI_LeeJenkins) February 28, 2017
“I’m not worried about anything but hooping,” says Harden, 27, “and that may be why I’m having this kind of success.” The process of untangling a crowded life began a year ago, when he and Khloé (Kardashian) broke up after an eight-month romance, which began with a meeting at Kanye West’s basketball-themed birthday party at Staples Center in June. Harden does not reference Khloé but reflects on the tabloid apparatus that accompanies her. “I didn’t like all the attention,” he says. “I feel like it was for no reason. I wasn’t getting anything out of it except my name out there and my face out there, and I don’t need that. It wasn’t uncomfortable, but it wasn’t me. I don’t need pictures of myself when I’m driving my car. Who cares? What shoes am I wearing? Who cares? Where am I eating? Who cares? It was unnecessary stuff that I think trickled down to my teammates. I had to eliminate that.”
Harden trained at Arizona State with longtime sports performance director Rich Wenner, who had introduced him to the Stairmaster as a smooth-faced freshman at Arizona State, and he did skills work with development coach Irving Roland, whom he met at the LeBron James Skills Academy a year later. “I need to get back to what I used to do,” Harden told the men, and they understood. On the days he dragged, Roland threw YG or Meek Mill on the Pill, and he drew a second wind. “It was James Harden, 18-year-old, working out,” Wenner says. “No flamboyance, no drama, just James.”
In early June, Harden called Rockets CEO Tad Brown and said he intended to withdraw from the Olympics, an excruciating announcement for someone who treasures his Team USA memories. “I have to get my mind right, my body right and commit to this organization,” Harden said. He sat in the Rockets’ war room on draft night even though they didn’t pick until the second round. He accompanied executives to Atlanta for free-agent pitch sessions with Al Horford and Kent Bazemore, both of which were ultimately unsuccessful. He hung out for a few days in Scottsdale with Kevin Durant, the prize of the market, which yielded some sumptuous dinners but no formal meetings.