The NBA MVP: Freak vs Unique

At last! The debate we have all been waiting for! 

This season showcased two of the best individual seasons the NBA has seen in decades. As with every season, several players put the league on notice early as a result of their incredible play. Even up until a couple weeks ago, guys like Nikola Jokic and Paul George had strong cases to be the league’s Most Valuable Player. However, just two top candidates remain now to be this year’s MVP: James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo. 

These two studs lit up the league all season long and represent the closest MVP debate that the league has seen in many years. Let’s be clear up front: there is no easy winner. I have my opinion about the race, but a strong case can be made either way. These were truly two of the best individual seasons the league has seen this century. One more thing to clear up: this debate will focus ONLY on the regular season. The official voting for MVP was wrapped up weeks ago. That’s another reason why I wanted to do this debate early in the playoffs before playoff bias sways people one way or another. This is strictly a regular season award. With that said, let’s analyze this close race. 

The case for James Harden

What a historic stretch for Harden, both when you look at this season individually and also when you step back and look at his last five seasons or so. This year, Harden had one of the greatest offensive seasons in NBA history. He led the league in scoring by over six points per game. His 36.1 PPG average was the highest since Michael Jordan had 37.1 PPG in 1986-87. His 378 made three pointers this year is the second most in a single season in NBA history. Statistically, Harden’s last five seasons rank right up there with just about any five-year offensive stretch for any player in NBA history. This year was the peak so far. 

What made this season special for Harden was how he cranked it up when his team needed it most. Neither Harden nor his team got off to a great start this year. Houston, who came within one game of knocking off Golden State and reaching the Finals last year, returned most of the roster that won 65 games last year. Shockingly, partially due to injuries to key players like Chris Paul, the Rockets started off very slow and had a record of 11-14 on December 8thbefore winning 11 of their next 12 to turn the season around. Harden is the sole reason the Rockets had that flip in direction. Starting in December, he reeled off one of the best scoring stretches the league has ever seen. Harden averaged nearly 44 PPG in January, the highest single month scoring average since Wilt Chamberlain in 1963. When his team became plagued with injuries in the middle of the year, Harden turned it up to a new level and never looked back. He single handedly carried the Rockets to 53 wins in remarkable fashion. 

One of the debates about MVP is how to actually look at the award. Is it the player who had the best season? Is it the most valuable player to their team? Is it the best player from the best team? Strictly by the name of the award, no player was more valuable to their team this season than Harden was to the Rockets. Houston likely would not have been a playoff team without him. He shouldered the burden each and every night and posted unbelievable numbers without ever showing fatigue. One of the quips against Harden used to be his defense. We all rolled around laughing watching clips from Harden’s defense years ago where he would stand around watching the ball while his assignment drove behind him for easy layups and alley-oops. 

Harden has evolved defensively and it’s worth noting. He finished fifth in the league in steals this year. While some may argue steals are an overrated stat (on an unrelated note, I personally feel that sacks are also one of the most overrated stats in sports, feel free to sound off below), it at least shows that he made plays defensively this year. 

Harden’s play was practically flawless this year. The other amazing thing about his numbers is the simplicity of execution that got him there. We all know Houston has been pushing for only three-pointers, layups and free throws for years to eliminate the inefficient mid-range shot. Harden took that to a new level this season. Harden made 754 free throws this year, seventh all time. Combined, 704 of his 843 field goals were either three pointers or shots from less than 5 feet. He did it all through isolation, free throws and step back threes, which is truly astonishing. Some people may not like his style of play, but no one can argue the results.

If you really want to get into it, you could criticize his shooting percentages, but his volume justifies those percentages. The only other knock against his case (and it’s a significant one) is his team’s final record and previously mentioned slow start. I will get into that more below. But overall, Harden’s astounding impact on his team this year makes it easy to argue him as the MVP of the league. 

The case for Giannis Antetokounmpo

The Greek Freak has arrived. Six years ago, the Milwaukee Bucks selected a paper thin 18-year-old from Greece. Milwaukee knew it would take plenty of time to develop the young man, but they saw potential that the 14 teams in front of them in the draft did not. Six years later, Giannis and the Bucks are here. Giannis surprisingly lead Milwaukee to the best record in the league. I would love to see how many people had the Bucks finishing with the best record before the season started; I certainly did not. Right off the bat, there’s an advantage for Giannis over Harden: no one saw this coming. Everyone knew Houston was going to be good with Harden being the reigning MVP. In fact, some people would chalk up the Rockets’ 53 wins as a disappointment. Before the season, Vegas had Houston at 54.5 projected wins and Milwaukee at 46.5 projected wins. Houston failed to live up to their number while the Bucks obliterated their projection on the way to 60 regular season wins this year. Before the season, everyone was talking about the Celtics, Raptors and Sixers as favorites in the East. Giannis led the Bucks to the top of the conference when not many thought he could. 

Giannis has slowly improved every year since being drafted. Last year, he made his second All-Star team by averaging a double-double with about 27 PPG and 10 RPG. This year, he took it to another level, averaging 27.7 PPG, 12.5 RPG and 5.9 APG. 

He is simply an all-around unstoppable beast. The term “unstoppable” is thrown around often in the NBA. Giannis embodies it. Where Harden has off nights where he struggles to get long range shots to fall, Giannis is basically never “off”. He shot an incredible 58% from the field this year. His insane combination of size, length, athleticism and aggression make it nearly impossible to slow him down. His ball handling, vision and passing are criminally underrated. He can get baseline to baseline in about three dribbles. No one gets to the rim easier than Giannis. He led the NBA in dunks this year and is so unstoppable that Shaq himself recently anointed him with the “Superman” nickname. In fact, a lot of comparisons are being made between Shaq and Giannis. Giannis’ numbers this year are right up there with some of Shaq’s best years. The difference? Giannis is basically a dominant Shaq that can also shoot, hit free throws, handle the ball and pass, not to mention he can guard all five positions defensively.

Some people knock him for not having a consistent three point shot. Truthfully, Giannis does not even need one right now. At just 24 years old, if Giannis develops a consistent three point shot, he truly has a chance to become the greatest player in basketball history. Factoring in every advanced metric, Giannis was the best in the league this season. His defense was so good that he is a front runner for Defensive Player of the Year. Should he snatch both awards, he would become only the third player in NBA history to win DPOY and MVP in the same year (Jordan and Olajuwon were the other two).

History has told us that team success is often the most important factor in the MVP race. After all, you do PLAY TO WIN THE GAME. 

Milwaukee has set up a perfect system for Giannis: have their 7 footer handle the ball and get to the rim while surrounding him with shooters. This season was no fluke for the Bucks; they will be a powerhouse in the East for years to come as long as they have Giannis. His dominance on both ends of the court, coupled with his team having the best record in the NBA this year, makes him the front runner for the MVP.

My Take

Giannis is the MVP this year. Yes, this really was the closest race we have seen in a while but I think it’s clear. There is sometimes a difference between who I think SHOULD win and who WILL win. Giannis is the answer to both this year. In my opinion, Giannis is the best basketball player in the world right now, and the only thing holding him back is lack of postseason success. He has a chance to change that and potentially win a title this year. To put it plainly, he is currently the most dominant player in the NBA on both ends of the court. 

Like we’ve discussed, both players had historic seasons statistically. It would be nitpicking to criticize either player. With that said, we need to look closer at team success. Harden’s ability to resurrect his team in December was otherworldly. However, we can’t just ignore how they got there. We can’t just throw away Harden and Houston’s abysmal start. The Rockets started 11-14, meaning they struggled for the first third of the season. Giannis and the Bucks have been dominant from game one.

We also can’t undervalue the importance of team success. A precedent has been set in the NBA: team record is perhaps the most important factor in the NBA MVP debates. The only true outlier to this was Russell Westbrook winning the 2017 MVP award despite his team only being the 8 seed in the West. (He also averaged a 30 PPG triple double that year.) 

Outside of that year, team record has been paramount. It is the reason why Nash robbed Kobe of a couple of MVP awards back in the mid-2000s. 

Unfortunately, we won’t know for absolute certain what the case will be this year until the NBA awards ceremony on June 24th. It is sure to be a close race, but I believe Giannis takes it.

What do YOU think? Is the Greek Freak going to take home the Maurice Podoloff trophy? Or will it be The Beard again winning the prestigious award? Sound off below!

NBA expert and IU grad. '96 Bulls > Warriors. #FireGarPax

Twitter: @realdmill