Long before the Houston Rockets’ James Harden became a six-time All-Star, back when he was an eighth-grader growing up in Los Angeles and Kobe and Shaq ran the NBA for those hometown Lakers, he wrote a letter to his mother that has now become part of his hoops legend.
“Imma be a star,” it read.
Harden is even more than that as it turns out.
“Sixth man of the year to the MVP,” Harden said at his MVP acceptance speech. “Shout out to all the young ones, they got a dream. It’s a vision out there. Go take it, go chase that dream.”
The 28-year-old was announced as such at the league’s awards show on Monday night, and it was apropos that the event took place inside an airplane hangar just 10 miles from the Audubon middle school where his rise began. Harden has always found a way to soar to new heights, his nonstop route taking him from nearby Artesia High School to Arizona State to Oklahoma City and then to the Rockets in 2012. But it’s these past few years that put Harden in rarefied air.
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Not only was Harden the best player in the 2017-18 regular season, averaging 30.4 points, 8.8 assists and 5.4 rebounds for a Rockets team that had the league’s best record, but he’s been on the precipice of this territory for nearly four years now.
During that 2014-15 campaign in which Golden State’s Steph Curry was named MVP, Harden (27.4 points per game) trailed only the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook in scoring while also averaging seven assists and nearly six rebounds for a Rockets team that finished 56-26 and fell to the Warriors in the Western Conference finals.
In 2015-16, there was an uptick in his personal production (29 points, 7.5 assists, 6.1 rebounds per) but Houston (41-41) took a significant step backward before falling to the Warriors in the first round.
In 2016-17, when new coach Mike D’Antoni paired so wonderfully with Harden as he was moved to the point guard position, he averaged 29.1 points (second behind Westbrook), 11.2 assists (first), and 8.1 rebounds for a Rockets team that had the league’s third-best record (55-27) and fell in the second round to San Antonio.
This isn’t a cumulative award, of course, but anyone who paid attention these past few years could tell that it was only a matter of time before Harden got his hands on the Maurice Podoloff trophy.
He won by the kind of comfortable margin that was widely expected, receiving 86 of the 101 first-place votes (Cleveland’s LeBron James had 15) and totaling 965 points in all (James had 738, while New Orleans’ Anthony Davis had 445).
“The last four years I’ve been knocking on the door, knocking on the door, and now the moment is finally here,” Harden said afterward. “Just every single, year you try to come back and be better than you were the year before, and just to be holding that trophy finally, it means a lot. But it doesn’t stop here. We’ve got a long way to go. But it feels good to have it though.”Harden admitted during the telecast that he didn’t have a speech prepared. But his play, even long before this season, had spoken for itself.
“You know, I felt like last year I should have won as well, so I didn’t see a difference between last year and this year,” he said when asked why he didn’t have a speech. “If I won it, then I was going to go off the top (of his head) and try to, you know, show my appreciation to everybody helping me along the way. Give respect and pay my dues.”