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Houston Rockets star James Harden is not one for many sit-down interviews on national television, but he sure made the most of a six-minute discussion with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols for “The Jump.”
The bearded former MVP all but guaranteed a championship in his career, declared himself the NBA’s best player and took multiple shots at reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, all while rehashing his belief that Harden is the only player in league history to face consistent double teams.
Harden vs. Antetekounmpo III
Let’s start with the Antetokounmpo stuff, because that is the juice.
It is unclear where the rivalry between the league’s last two MVPs began, but Harden discrediting Antetokounmpo’s award as merely a misguided “media narrative” on a radio appearance over the summer is a decent starting point. (Antetokounmpo received 78 first-place votes to Harden’s 23.)
Antetokounmpo struck back at the All-Star Game, sandwiching barbs at Harden’s isolation-heavy play and defensive limitations around an elbow to Harden’s throat during the exhibition. Serving as a captain prior to the game, Antetokounmpo passed on Harden in favor of drafting Kemba Walker, saying, “I want somebody who’s gonna pass the ball.” Afterward, Antetokounmpo said of his team’s late-game strategy, “We were just trying to find whoever James Harden was guarding.”
Harden returned serve with Nichols on Friday.
“I average more assists than him, I think,” said Harden, who indeed is averaging 7.3 assists per game in Houston this season to Antetokounmpo’s 5.8 in Milwaukee. “I don’t see what the joke is.”
Harden then added to Nichols, “I wish I was just 7 feet and could just run and just dunk. That takes no skill at all. I’ve got to actually learn how to play basketball and have skill. I’ll take that every day.”
That was clearly a dig at Antetokounmpo, who obviously does not just run and dunk and is skilled.
Antetokounmpo had a chance to respond to Harden on Friday, but opted to take the high road. Antetokounmpo said there was no “back and forth” with Harden.
"There's not back and forth. ... At the end of the day, if that's what [James Harden] believes, that's what he believes."
—Giannis Antetokounmpo on James Harden's comments about him pic.twitter.com/92XoqMxeGU
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) February 29, 2020
‘I feel like I’m the best player’
Harden has on several occasions suggested he is the first player ever to face consistent double teams upon crossing halfcourt, which ignores Stephen Curry’s existence entirely, along with every other player in NBA history who has been double-teamed. Harden quadrupled down on this theory, just moments before declaring, “I’m not the type to go out there and say it or broadcast it.”
“I feel like I’m the best player,” Harden said when asked by Nichols who he believed to be the league’s best player. “Throughout the course of the year, I don’t see double-teams of anybody else. Maybe Dame [Lillard] when he’s going on an amazing stretch, but usually you see a double team after you have a 50-point night or a 60-point night. If I have an 18-point night, the next night I’m seeing a double team, which is pretty cool. The NBA’s never seen it before at halfcourt, so I’m just trying to figure out ways to be great in that. But you don’t see another player that’s getting double-teamed. It’s totally different than any other player in this league or probably that’s ever been.”
Harden is sticking to this narrative, even as teams have started to go away from blitzing him.
The Rockets star is currently third behind Antetokounmpo and James Harden on the MVP ladder regularly produced by NBA.com’s Sekou Smith, up from fifth last week. Nichols informed Harden he was not in the top five, which suggests the interview was conducted at some point between Smith’s Feb. 21 edition and the previous edition on Feb. 7, which had Harden outside the top 10.
“That’s crazy,” said Harden, “and I still lead the league in scoring.”
If you didn’t know, the MVP award is not annually given to the NBA’s leading scorer. Value takes defense and contributions to team success into consideration, among other things. We should mention that Antetokounmpo is among the top Defensive Player of the Year candidates on the team with the NBA’s best record by a wide margin. He also plays five fewer minutes a game than Harden.
None of this should surprise anyone, since Harden has felt he deserved MVP over the last three players to edge him out — Curry in 2015, Russell Westbrook in 2017 and Antetokounmpo in 2019.
Harden all but guarantees a title
Speaking of team success, the Rockets are 6-2 since trading center Clint Capela in their full embrace of small ball — another subject of conversation with Nichols — and Harden is feeling good about Houston’s prospects. He is “very, very confident” his team will win this year’s title if healthy.
If not this year, then, Harden said at some point before his career is over, “I’ll get it.”
The Rockets lost in the second round of the playoffs last season after reaching the Western Conference finals the year before. They are currently 38-20, owners of the conference’s fourth seed.
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