SANTA MONICA, Calif. (AP) — Third time was the charm for James Harden.
The Houston Rockets star was voted the NBA’s Most Valuable Player after twice being runner-up, beating out four-time winner LeBron James and Anthony Davis of the Pelicans at the NBA Awards on Monday night.
Harden joined Michael Jordan as the only players to average at least 20 points, eight assists, five rebounds and 1.7 steals in a season.
He led the league in scoring, 3-pointers and 50-point games with four while helping the Rockets to an NBA-leading 65 wins.
“The last four years have been like knocking on the door, knocking on the door. Now the moment is finally here,” Harden said backstage. “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.”
James didn’t attend the show in Barker Hangar at the Santa Monica Airport amid frenzied speculation about his future. He has until Friday to tell the Cavaliers if he will pick up his $35.6 million option for next season or opt for free agency.
Harden, who is from Los Angeles, led his mother on stage before he accepted the trophy from Commissioner Adam Silver.
“I’m not going to get emotional,” he said from behind dark sunglasses. “She’s my backbone in good times and bad times.”
Harden received a total of 965 points and 86 first-place votes. James finished second with 738 points and 15 first-place votes, while Davis was third with 445 points and no first-place votes.
Harden didn’t prepare a speech.
“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 backstage. “If I won it, then I was going to go off the top and try to show my appreciation to everybody helping me along the way.”
Harden’s teammate, Chris Paul, popped up among reporters backstage and asked Harden how many bottles of liquor Rockets CEO Tad Brown would have to buy at the next location.
“Couple cases,” Harden said, grinning.
The Rockets had another winner in Daryl Morey, who was honored as Executive of the Year.
In other awards, Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers won Rookie of the Year.
The guard averaged 15 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, joining Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson as the only rookies to post those numbers in a season.
Simmons helped Philadelphia to a 52-30 record, including ending the season with a 16-game winning streak.
He beat out finalists Donovan Mitchell of Utah and Jayson Tatum of Boston.
Guard Victor Oladipo of the Indiana Pacers earned Most Improved Player.
He averaged 23.1 points in his first season with the Pacers while nabbing his first All-Star berth. He also led the league in steals for the first time.
The Defensive Player of the Year went to center Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz.
He was the leading vote-getter for the league’s All-Defensive first team while anchoring a Jazz defense that ranked second in the NBA in defensive rating.
Lou Williams of the Los Angeles Clippers took Sixth Man honors.
The guard became the first player to average at least 20 points for the first time in his 13th season or later. He led the league in fourth-quarter points and scoring average.
Williams kissed his two young daughters on his way to the stage after becoming the Clippers’ third winner in the last five years.
Dwane Casey was chosen Coach of the Year for his work with the Toronto Raptors, who fired him last month. He has since become coach of the Detroit Pistons.
“Can’t look in the rear view mirror,” Casey said backstage. “Winston Churchill said success is measured by failure, failure, and then come back with enthusiasm, and that’s what I’ve done.”
Casey led the Raptors to the No. 1 seed in the East for the first time in franchise history after winning a team-record 59 games. Casey coached the East in the All-Star Game for the first time.
Casey won over Quin Snyder of Utah and Brad Stevens of Boston.
Robertson received the Lifetime Achievement Award from presenters Charles Barkley and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
After Barkley mentioned last year’s recipient Bill Russell, Boston’s Hall of Fame center flipped his middle finger in Barkley’s direction.
Robertson is the career leader in triple-doubles and was the first player to average one for a season. His antitrust case against the NBA also ushered in free agency for players, which Robertson said was his most important assist.
Backstage, Robertson commended the activism of today’s players, although he wondered why more white athletes aren’t speaking out.
“The only thing that really bothers me is where are the white athletes when this is happening?” he said. “This is not a black athlete problem. You see injustice in the world. It’s all around.”
Robertson went on to say he hopes “the whites and the blacks get together, even with the football,” a reference to NFL players who have taken a knee or sat in silence during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial inequality.
Former NBA player Dikembe Mutombo received the Sager Strong Award, named for the late Turner Sports broadcaster. He donned a garish sports coat similar to what Craig Sager always wore.
The Hustle Award went to Amir Johnson of the 76ers.