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Dan Bickley

James Harden’s performance at end of playoff run invalidates his MVP

Houston Rockets guard James Harden sits on the bench during the first half of Game 4 of the NBA basketball Western Conference Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Rockets in Oakland, Calif., Tuesday, May 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

James Harden, MVP. Sounds right. Feels wrong. Further proof the NBA has marginalized a majestic award, mocking the real superstars who turned professional basketball into a goldmine.

No disrespect intended. Only a fool would fail to appreciate Harden’s wealth of talent, especially since he’s technically a local. Just like Phil Mickelson. Just like most of us.

Harden didn’t declare his greatness in college, not like Mickelson did. But he left behind powerful bragging rights. Thanks to him, ASU fans rightfully claim the best NBA player who ever played college basketball in the state of Arizona. Take that, Tucson.

But Harden is not a MVP by NBA standards. His performance over the last six quarters of the Western Conference Finals invalidates the trophy he now owns. He continues to struggle at high altitude, when the biggest games seem to spawn his most erratic performances.

There is no argument that Harden was the king of unimportant basketball. He was the MVP of an 82-game exercise considered to be the silliest season in sports. He’s why the NBA needs to clarify what they are rewarding, not who.

They need to anoint a Regular Season MVP, announced before the playoffs, observed and saluted before the postseason begins. Anything else is an affront to basketball and what separates the best from the greatest.

No sport glorifies the individual more than the NBA, where a transcendent player can change a franchise overnight. No professional league is more reliant on singular, superstar talent. Michael Jordan has reigned as the greatest player in history for nearly two decades. LeBron James has finally proven worthy of debate.

Together, they have played 30 seasons of professional basketball. They have combined for only nine MVP awards.

Throw in Kobe Bryant and his one MVP trophy in a 20-year career, and the NBA has bestowed 10 MVPs in a half-century for three of the top six players in history. The numbers don’t tell the real truth of basketball, or how the NBA has misfired in definition and appreciation for the truly elite.

Meanwhile, a trio of future Hall of Famers — Harden, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook — played together in Oklahoma City and never won a championship. All are recent NBA MVPs.

Harden has obviously come a long way since then. His production is no longer an eyesore, built on the foundation of drawing fouls and shooting free throws. He is a lethal offensive weapon who posted incredible statistics in 2017-18. Fifty-six points and 13 assists against Utah. Forty-eight points in a Valley homecoming last November. His demolition of the Magic –- 60 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds and four steals –- earns honorable mention among the greatest performances in history.

Back in the day, Harden was a groundbreaking recruit for ASU. His arrival felt strange because he was mostly a kid fulfilling a promise, once vowing he would follow his high school coach anywhere. Herb Sendek was smart enough to hire that guy as an assistant, burrowing his way into a game-changing signature.

Harden was an excellent college player, dominant at times, a little soft in the middle. His commitment to ASU will forever command respect. But his one NCAA Tournament appearance, and the struggles that ensued, only foreshadowed his playoff failures in the NBA.

Harden isn’t like Mickelson, who became the sixth person in history to win a PGA Tour event as an amateur, becoming an instant frat-boy legend at ASU. He is now a made man at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, where he plays 18 holes while cheered every step of the way. Few people in history have tipped their cap more often.

But basketball is a different animal. The greatest players must lift their teams while making big shots in big moments. They dominate with star power and will power, on demand and under pressure. They rarely leave you wanting more, unlike Harden’s time at ASU.

Same with his reign in the NBA.

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Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and AZCentral.com and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to ArizonaSports.com.
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier