The Z Report

Lance Zierlein: Despite LeBron's strong finish, the MVP race isn't really that close

James Harden will win the MVP despite LeBron's late push. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

You are already starting to hear it and starting to read it. You didn’t really think it would be that easy, did you?

LeBron James appears to be gaining some ground on James Harden in the race for MVP thanks to a tremendous stretch of play that has been punctuated by some of the best statistical output of his career. That’s the thing… LeBron doesn’t like the notion that anyone else is considered to be better than him in any given year and it is one of the things that drives him to be great. He has ego. Ego in sports can be a very good thing.

But the truth of the matter is that no matter how much LeBron “gains” on Harden, it will just be a matter of closing the distance with the final vote total. The race for MVP is over as it should be. In the grand scheme of things, Harden’s legacy could hinge on how he performs in these playoffs, but taking home an MVP is the culmination of his journey with the Rockets.

 

 

Beloved LeBron

LeBron is the darling of the national media. He’s the modern day Michael Jordan, but with 41.2 million Twitter followers. He embraces media attention and has since his days in high school. LeBron is never stagnant and wants to move the needle during the news cycle and the national media is eternally grateful.

You don’t have to be paying close attention to realize that many of the move visible and vocal basketball pundits and television talkers are unabashed LeBron fans. They don’t just admire him, they clearly enjoy their role in his life. They see themselves as more than media members covering him, they are acquaintances or even friends.

Make no mistake, I am in awe of the run that LeBron is on and he will be revved up to keep his consecutive trips to the NBA Finals streak alive. I just know that there will never be a time that the more visible media members won’t have LeBron’s back. That could even extend to an MVP vote.

James the Anti-Hero

The national media respects and appreciates the brilliance of James Harden. Don’t kid yourself - it’s true. Now there have been times that they’ve gone after him, but we have too and we were all in the right. Harden’s defense has been non-existent in the past. Harden has disappeared at inopportune times during playoff series.

James Harden dates Trina, Amber Rose, and Khloe Kardashian while LeBron is all about the family. Harden doesn’t subtweet his teammates flaws, he just tells them to their face - at the club. Harden doesn’t come in a nice, neat package that was meant to be marketed to children and fanboys. I’m sure the NBA is always a little leery about promoting Harden because he’s got a little more edge than they are used to.

Even though the national media would love to crown LeBron the “King of the League” again with another MVP, it’s not going to happen. The unwritten rules are already set and followed. The elite player on the best team wins the MVP. That’s how it works. This isn’t a handout to Harden, he earned it. He’s been in the driver’s seat all year. There hasn’t been any drama about where he plays next year, or discord in the locker room or long stretches of losing for his team. It’s been the opposite.

LeBron is great, but Harden is the King for this season. Now about those playoffs...

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5 questions on the John Wall trade

The Rockets made a big move. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images.

The Houston Rockets point guard carousel continued to spin Wednesday night, as the Woj bomb-iest of Houston-related Woj bombs erupted in the Space City:

For the third year in a row, the Rockets will begin the season with a new point guard, in an attempt to finally find someone that can play alongside James Harden. Let's take a look at how the Rockets got to this point, and what it means moving forward.

What led to the trade?

Russell Westbrook simply wanted out. Westbrook is the type of player that needs to be the number one ball handler and that simply wasn't ever going to happen on a James Harden led team. Other reports cited Westbrook's frustration with the lack of accountability and casual atmosphere within the locker room. Ultimately if anyone was going to be moved between Harden and Westbrook, it was always going to be Westbrook.

Why John Wall?

This one is another fairly straightforward answer: they both have relatively similar contracts. Each is making an absurdly overpriced $40 million this season, and both were disgruntled with their current team. Rockets General Manager Rafael Stone and Wizards GM Tommy Sheppard tossed the idea around a few weeks ago, but couldn't find a deal they liked. It was reported that discussions resumed Wednesday afternoon and within a few hours the deal was done in an almost one-for-one swap.

How does Wall fit?

This is a little more complicated because it's not exactly known what head coach Stephen Silas' game plan is. It's also difficult to predict whether or not Harden will still be on the roster when the season starts. But let's assume that Harden takes the court for the Rockets and that Silas' system resembles something similar to what we've seen in Houston for the past few years. In that case, Wall would be a slight upgrade to Westbrook. Westbrook is more athletic than Wall, but when healthy Wall was no slouch. In addition he's a much better defensive player and has much better court vision than Westbrook. Westbrook's assists were usually a bailout after attacking the lane with his head down, while Wall is more likely to set up a teammate.

This isn't to say that Wall doesn't need the ball though. He's fairly ball dominant, but not nearly as much as Westbrook. Harden proved last season that he's capable of effectively playing off the ball if necessary, so it seems like a better fit from a distribution rate alone. If they can find that sweet spot like they did with Chris Paul and stagger the lineups so that each star gets their own time to create, there's potential for an improved Rockets team more reminiscent of their 2018 run than the past two years.

What are the best and worst case scenarios?

The worst case is that the Rockets were sold a lemon. Wall has potential to be an upgrade, but comes with huge risk. He last took the court in 2018, where he was sidelined with a knee injury. He subsequently ruptured his Achilles in an accident at his home while recovering from the knee injury, forcing Wall off the court for almost two years. It's possible an extremely unfortunate Wall reinjures something and completely derails the machinations of the trade. Even if he's recovered fully, it will take time to get him up to game speed which could frustrate Harden on a team that can't afford a slow start in their stacked conference. Harden has managed to cultivate drama with just about every co-star he's played with, so there's no reason to assume this attempt would go any better.

The best case scenario is that Wall arrives ready to play team basketball and resembles the better part of his pre-injury form. Wall and Harden buy into Silas' new system, space the floor, and take turns carving up the lane with dribble drives and kick outs to players who can actually hit from distance. This version of the Rockets could potentially be a 3-seed in this year's Western Conference.

Who won the trade?

At the moment the Rockets. Not only did they remove at least one of their locker room distractions, but they also gain a first round pick. If Wall can stay healthy and Silas can keep both stars happy, this team should be a lot more fun to watch than last season's clunker.

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