How taking a step back helped James Harden take a giant step forward in MVP race

For the Houston Rockets’ playmaking pairing to work, for Chris Paul to be in position to help a teammate reach an individual honor he came this close to capturing 10 years ago, and for coach Mike D’Antoni to have confidence that he might finally have a team that can turn his philosophies into a gold trophy come June, James Harden had to first accept his limitations. Pride pushed Harden last season to pile up points and assists at a level not seen since Tiny Archibard and to defy convention by powering an otherwise starless operation into contention. Humility let him know that he wouldn’t get what he truly wanted without help.

After Harden’s ignominious postseason flameout, the Rockets weren’t going to let him attempt to again see if a team could win in this era with one superstar and some solid complementary pieces. Having another emphatic, one-man assault on the record books would’ve led to an easier case for that elusive MVP award, especially when the most talented collaborations — Steph Curry and Kevin Durant; pre-injury DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis — cancel out one another. But Harden sought out Paul because hogging all of the glory without an accomplished peer would also result in the same failings and subsequent criticisms.

“I’m not one of those guys. I know what I bring to the table. And I’m not selfish at all,” Harden said of why he sought out Paul. “You bring in another leader, another playmaker. A guy who can facilitate, score on his own, leader on and off the court, it helps a lot. It’s two of us now. Makes my job a lot easier and hopefully, I make his job a lot easier as well.”

James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets handles the ball against the Minnesota Timberwolves on February 13, 2018. (Getty)
James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets handles the ball against the Minnesota Timberwolves on February 13, 2018. (Getty)

Taking out the Golden State Warriors is a challenge from which most teams have chosen to abdicate. But the Rockets have made their intentions known that they’d rather topple the potential dynasty than wait for it to end through some other means. That the Rockets are considered the Warriors’ greatest impediment – other than boredom – to repeating is a credit to Harden and Paul, who decided that they needed each other to reach their respective and collective goals but don’t act like it on the court. They both go as they always have – Harden through probing and craftiness, Paul through meticulous attention to detail – and take whomever is on the floor with them.

“They got together and decided, we’re going to make this work. And guess what? They’re making it work. I’m hoping this lasts forever, all the way through and we get to the playoffs, everybody is fresh. But it’s really good right now,” D’Antoni told Yahoo Sports. “If you don’t care about the little things, like the stats and who’s getting the interview at the end of the game and you just want to win, then they make it work. With two great players like that, they’re going to get all the accolades anyway. It’s not like they’re dividing it. It’s a great feeling to see two guys give up some of their game but the synergy from it makes them better.”

Though Harden and Paul aren’t consumed by statistics, they continue to come in abundance. Harden leads the league in scoring and player-efficiency rating, while forming with Paul the only pair of teammates with player efficiency ratings above 26. Paul’s assist average is the lowest since his rookie season but his scoring is up from last season. Harden has also seen his assists dip by more than two from his league-leading average last season with the presence of the game’s most respected floor general. Still, someone would have to make up significant ground to catch him in the MVP race. Paul has already declared, “it’s not even going to be close.”

“Have you been watching? A lot of people just get the alert on their phones. Double-double, triple-double, whatever,” Paul told Yahoo Sports, in response to question about Harden’s case for the honor. “I watch every game that comes on, every night. If you’re just getting alerts on your phone and see what the stats are, you don’t know what’s happening. I see the work that he puts in day in and day out. I see what our record is and how many games I’ve been out [11-7]. We got a ways to go but to me, I get a chance to see what he does for our team.”

Paul had his best shot at claiming the game’s highest individual honor in 2008 but barely lost a closely contested race to Kobe Bryant. Ten years later, Paul is in position to help Harden avoid being the bridesmaid again, as he was in 2015 (when Curry had his moment and ushered a movement) and last season (when Russell Westbrook went all triple-double on the league). “It’s cool,” Paul told Yahoo Sports. “James has been unbelievable all year. I think [the MVP] award will be good for him. But I think our team, we’ve got bigger fish to fry.”

The disappointment of those previous close calls, despite leading the league in win shares both of those seasons, would explain why Harden refuses to openly campaign for something that is narrative driven as much as anything. Harden was showered with “MVP” chants as he shot free throws at a recent game in Brooklyn but dismissed the significance. Postseason success is the only air freshener that could remove the stench of a bizarre no-show against San Antonio in Game 6 of the conference semifinals a season ago. The ghastly performance didn’t erase what Harden accomplished during a historic campaign but it left open for debate how far he could carry a team. Houston was unconcerned, doubling down on Harden by getting him an All-Star-caliber running mate and the richest contract in NBA history.

“He had to make every play, all year. It’s hard on anybody to be able to do that. And we had to play him too many minutes to get the wins and try to get in position [for a higher seed],” D’Antoni told Yahoo Sports. “And if you look back, most people look at the sixth game, but the third, fourth, fifth, the second halves, he was, like, done. He tried. He just could not gather the energy. And I think he realized it — and that’s more important than me realizing it. … Even if he didn’t, if you have a chance to get a Chris Paul, you get him.”

Harden again leads the league in win shares despite playing the fewest minutes since arriving in Houston. But he also leads in usage rate, proving that he is making the most of his time on the floor. Paul has provided some relief and opened up Harden for better looks. Harden’s most memorable moment this season, however, came in Paul’s absence, when he recorded the NBA’s first 60-point triple-double in a win against Orlando. “Obviously, Chris wanted to get out of L.A. and he chose here and so far, so good,” Harden said. “He saw something in me that he didn’t see in anybody else, or any other organization. So far, this year has been a fun one.”

D’Antoni has already coached a player to back-to-back MVPs (Steve Nash), so even if Harden finally adds one of his own, the coach would remain haunted by a postseason résumé that includes no NBA Finals appearances. Harden hasn’t reached the Finals since he was a sixth man in Oklahoma City. Paul has never reached the conference finals. Golden State and Cleveland have already shown that D’Antoni’s fast-paced, 3-point-loving system could produce rings but he’d like to be at the helm for his his own team to reach that pinnacle. He’d also like to eliminate all of the other “buts” that have been used to discredit his success. But, what might work in D’Antoni’s favor this time: He’s never had two of the game’s best facilitators at the same time — including one who has an unguardable step-back jumper seeking redemption by taking a step back.

“The thing that impresses me the most is how he loves to play basketball. I think that’s cool,” D’Antoni said of Harden. “He loves the practice. If I cut practice short, he wants to play more. You always have to beat him to keep him off the court. He’s been durable. There are so many good things and he’s been great in the locker room. He’s funny. The intangibles are all there. We’ve got to get lucky. Golden State is great. We know that. But we’re going to play as well as we can play and see what happens.”

More from Yahoo Sports:

Shaun White apologizes for dismissing harassment question
Tennis star’s dad texts her about revealing swimsuit photos
Kevin Garnett finally explains how his hoodie works
Shaun White violates Flag Code after gold medal win