According to an informal poll by the Washington Post, James Harden was still the clear MVP favorite less than a month ago. He was leading the over-achieving Rockets to a giant season, putting up incredible efficiency numbers, and leading the NBA in assists while scoring 29 points a game.
Maybe you've heard, but Russ Westbrook will average a triple double, and while there's a pretty clear consensus that he's stat-padding his rebounds, it's still an incredible feat. He's dragging a corpse of a team into the playoffs and putting up staggering numbers along the way. The big knock was that he's been inefficient, particularly when compared to Harden.
The one thing Harden was able to hang his MVP candidacy on was his shooting efficiency. Westbrook is not a great shooter, Harden is. Or at least that was the theory. Since the All-Star break, James Harden is shooting just 32% on threes while firing up 9.5 of them per game. Since March 8th he's shooting under 28% on threes and averaging 9.8 per game.
Harden is trending the wrong way, and while he's been nursing a sore wrist, there's a chance that Ryan Anderson's injury is at least partly to blame too.
The Beard was struggling before Anderson went down, as shown by above stats. He was coming back to Earth on his shooting numbers but he was coming down slowly enough that it still seemed like he was going to take the MVP. Then Ryan Anderson went down.
Anderson provided the most valuable resource for James Harden: Space. With Anderson draining 40% of his threes (he only shoots 3.8 times per game inside the arc), he was the perfect complement at power forward. Harden had more room to drive, draw fouls, make layups, or kick out to shooters.
Since Anderson sat down with a sprained ankle, the Rockets are 3-3 and Harden has been borderline abysmal. He sat out a seven-point win against Phoenix, but in the other five Anderson-free games, Harden has seen a dip almost everywhere on the stat sheet: He's 35.6% from the field, 22% from deep, and averaging "just" 9.4 assists, notably below his season average of 11.2.
This is how simple an offense can be when Ryan Anderson is out there.
While Anderson has been out, there are no bail-out possessions that simple. He draws a big(ish) defender away from the rim and can punish anyone who sags back.
With no Anderson to pass to, Houston has been getting more minutes from Sam Dekker and Nene Hilario, neither of whom are particularly dangerous from the outside. It has also meant more minutes for Eric Gordon, who is dangerous from outside, but affords less defensive flexibility when compared to Anderson's size.
Having Anderson back for the final four games will probably not launch Harden on a 40/15/15 push to win back the MVP, but it might be enough to get Houston rolling again and confident as they head into the playoffs. It'll be Thunder and Rockets in the first round; a 7-game embodiment of the MVP race.
Let's just hope everyone gets their team at full-strength, because it should be a thing of beauty.