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Will Free Throws Decide The NBA MVP Award?

One of the most beneficial skills that a basketball player can have is the ability to get to the foul line. Elite scorers in the modern NBA have the ability to draw contact and get to the charity stripe when their team needs to slow the pace of the game or get a quick 2 points to stop a momentum swing.

James Harden is today’s king of getting to the line. Averaging 11 free-throw attempts per game, Harden converts 88% of the time on his foul shots. While Harden has openly said “I don’t try to get fouls, I just play. Fouls come,” in an ESPN interview, he clearly seems to have a lot of foul drawing moves in his bag of tricks. Something, however, that grinds my gears are fans who try to discredit the historical season Harden is having because of his high free throw attempt totals.

As mentioned earlier, Harden attempts 11 free throws per game this season, an NBA league high. When it comes down to this tight MVP race versus Giannis Antetokounmpo, many want to discredit the 36.4 points per game average James is posting. Do people not realize the player chasing Harden for the MVP award is also averaging 9.5 free throw attempts per game himself? Not to mention at a much less efficient 72% conversion rate.

36.4 points per game would be only the third time in the modern NBA a player has average 35 or more points per game. Kobe Bryant average 35.4 in the 2005-2006 season and controversially, he did not win MVP that year. Michael Jordan average 37.09 in the 1986-1987 season when he finished second in the MVP voting to Magic Johnson. The common denominator between the two? Both players shot more than 10 free throws per game (10.2 attempts for Kobe and 11.9 for Michael Jordan). Two of the most elite scores in NBA history were also crafty in getting to the foul line by attacking the basket, how wild right?

As the great “Agent 0” Gilbert Arenas once said it his ‘No Chill Gil’ podcast, “A player attacking like he wants to drop 50 a night opens up so much for his team”. Hardens’ attacking ability opens up  passing lanes leading open shots, while also providing opportunities to draw a contact from the late-arriving help-defense. On the flipside, defenders who respect Harden’s ability to draw contact will give James more space in fear of sending them to the line. This skill set is so unique on a historical level and should only improve Hardens MVP chances.

With just a few games left in the regular season, this MVP race is razor tight. Giannis Antetokounmpo put in a staggering 43 point 13 rebound performance last week in Philadelphia with 6 assists and 5 blocks as the cherry on top. Out of those 43 points, 16 came from free throws on 22 attempts. This could have been Giannis’ final big entry on his MVP résumé and it was filled with the same thing many have torn James Harden down for. Free throws.

The NBA playoffs start April 14th on ESPN and ABC.

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