WE are not worthy. This season Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden have compiled two of the most compelling MVP cases in recent memory and it’s a shame that they happened to come in the same season. However, only one Maurice Podoloff trophy is handed out annually and with the regular season now in the rear vision mirror, it’s time to unpack each players’ case and hand out some hardware to a more than worthy winner.
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The Case For Giannis Antetokounmpo
PICKING the best player on the best team is always a good way to make your MVP selection. Giannis fits that bill for 2018-19, consistently producing in the regular season for the Milwaukee Bucks as they chalked up 60 W’s for the first time in 38 years. In every month this past season Giannis averaged at least 25 points and 11 rebounds, with his three games in April the only month that Antetokounmpo failed to average at least 5.5 assists. He dominated opponents with ease, using his size to finish second in the league for dunks (279), with just 58.4% of them assisted baskets. Every other player in the top-10 for made dunks has at least 70% of them coming via an assist.
ANTETOKOUNMPO’S ability to gather a head of steam and barrel to the rack saw him average a career-high 9.5 free throw attempts a game, which is part of the reason he scored 27.7 points a game, the 3rd most in the NBA. If teams closed Giannis’ driving lanes he was able to find his sharpshooting teammates on the arc, part of the reason that he averaged a career-best 5.9 assists per night. With such dangerous three-point shooters littering the roster, opposing squads were left feeling helpless as the Bucks carved them up through a barrage of deep balls or watched a monstrous Giannis thundering towards the hoop.
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HAVING a superior team allowed Milwaukee to prioritise the health of their superstar for the playoff push, with Giannis playing his lowest minutes per game (32.3) since the 2014-15 season. Still, even though he wasn’t on the court as much managing the 11th highest field goal percentage in the NBA (57.8%) saw “the Greek Freak” score at a high and efficient clip. He excelled on the other end of the court as well, finishing with the highest defensive rating in the league for players who played over 500 minutes this season. For argument’s sake, James Harden was 81st.
GIANNIS’ season averages of 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists are numbers that we’ve only ever seen from Oscar Robertson once upon a time (30.8/12.5/11.4 in ’61-’62) and Milwaukee’s cheat code took giant leaps with his outside shot throughout the year as well. Before the calendar flipped to 2019, Antetokounmpo was shooting just 15.4% from deep, while still putting up impressive numbers. However, from January 1st onwards, he doubled his production, knocking down 32.0% of his attempts. There are a lot of eye-popping numbers that Giannis put up to solidify his MVP case, but the fact that he might be getting better strikes fear into the hearts of future contenders.
The Case For James Harden
LET’S start with the obvious talking point; James Harden put the ball in the basket this year at a historic rate. He joined Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Michael Jordan as one of four players in the history of the league to average 36+ points per game, all while putting up a better true shooting percentage (61.6%) and field goal efficiency (54.1%) than the other three members in that PPG group. In fact, the 2,818 points that Harden scored this season are the second most in the last 30 seasons, bested only to Kobe Bryant’s 2,832 in ’06-’07. This lofty total illustrates that “The Beard” not only produced at an all-time level this season, but he did so on a consistent basis, barely missing a beat in his 78 games.
THE term “most valuable player” can be interpreted a lot of different ways based on your personal preferences and while Harden’s shot taking has many labelling him a ball hog, his aggressiveness was the key to Houston’s success this season. After a rough 11-14 start that left them sitting second last in the conference, Harden threw the Rockets on his back averaging 38.5 points over his final 56 games. That’s not a typo. The highlight of that points binge was a 32 consecutive game span in which Harden scored 30 or more points, the second longest streak of 30+ in NBA history.
HARDEN’S killer scoring streak coinciding with the Rockets getting their season back on track, amidst a bunch of injuries to key personnel. Houston owned the third-best winning percentage (69.5%) in the entire league during the two month period that Harden took over, with Chirs Paul missing 18 games and Clint Capela sidelined for 15. Even though he lacked support, Harden left opposing squads scratching their heads as they tried to develop a game plan to slow down the reigning MVP.
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TAKING a league-high 24.5 shots a night was obviously going to hamper Harden’s assist numbers, but he still managed to post 7.5 dimes per game for the fourth straight season. That saw him finish in the top-5 for total assists, which is a pretty noteworthy achievement for someone who led the league in scoring. He and Clint Capela formed to make a near unstoppable duo at times, with near half of Capela’s baskets during the regular season coming via a Harden assist.
THIS was the case for a handful of Rockets, thriving on open looks created by Harden drawing double and at times even triple teams from opponents. It helped to unlock Houston’s potential and led by James Harden’s memorable performances, the Rockets are shaping up as one of the favourites to win it all.
THERE may be no player in the league more ‘valuable’ and integral to his team’s success than James Harden. While Giannis continues to develop into a modern-day Shaq before our eyes, Harden was equally as dominant from the perimeter, thriving in iso-ball situations and scoring the rock no matter what defenses threw at him. Most of those defenses Harden faced on a nightly basis came from the superior Western Conference, who owned eight of the best 13 records in the league this season. Producing at such a high level against tougher competition compared to Giannis while playing over 500 more minutes than the Greek Freak gives James Harden a pretty compelling case to go back-to-back for the league’s highest individual honour.
AND yet, I still can’t give him my vote. As I’ve clearly illustrated the MVP can be interpreted a number of ways, but the best player on the best team deserves the award over a historic individual scoring season in my eyes. The NBA’s leading scorer has only won the league MVP six times in the last 20 seasons, with Harden one of the few who pulled off the feat. Part of the reason Harden scored so many buckets was that his team needed him to do that to save their season. It doesn’t make his feat any less impressive, but I’m sure if Milwaukee needed to, they could have leaned heavier on Antetokounmpo.
AT the end of the day, both James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo put forth incredible individual seasons worthy of the MVP award. When you are running through the categories though, Giannis just emerges as the winner is more areas than Harden. By just watching Antetokounmpo you can tell that on almost every night he was the best player on the court, warping the perception of what we believed a 7-footer was capable of. Sounds like a deserving winner to me.
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