Scroll Down to Read Story
The 2018-2019 NBA MVP race is shaping up to be an exciting one full of worthy and elite candidates who all stand a chance of winning the award.
You have Oklahoma City forward Paul George, who has taken an unexpected leap in his second year with the Thunder and has cemented himself as a legitimate top-five top-seven player while carrying the Thunder to the third seed in the vaunted Western Conference.
Then there is Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard, who has vaulted the team into legitimate title contention with the second-best record in the league and has elite numbers to back him up. However, he has missed 18 of his team’s 66 games, and in those games, Toronto has gone 13-5.
You also have old friends from the Warriors Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, who are quietly putting up excellent numbers, but because they play on the same team, along with another All-Star, they are almost immediately discounted.
The 76ers center Joel Embiid is having the season we have all been waiting for, averaging 27.3 points and 13.5 rebounds, although his efficiency has been subpar for a player at his position and caliber.
Denver forward / center Nikola Jokic is the dark horse because he has the young, upstart Nuggets as the shock team in the vaunted West, securing the number two seed in the conference and just 1.5 games behind the first-place Warriors. But his numbers don’t stand out.
But, defining the “Most Valuable Player” in any sport has been difficult because everyone has a different definition. Is it the best player on the best team? Is it the guy doing the most with the least? Is it the player with the best numbers? Is it the overall best player in the game? How much should health factor in? What about team record?
Regardless, the race appears to be between James Harden of the Houston Rockers and Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks since they have done the best at combining all the above factors.
Harden is the reigning MVP and is averaging a ridiculous 36.7 points, 7.6 assists, and 6.6 rebounds on 44% from the field and 36.4% from three. And as we all know, he had 32 straight games, scoring at least 30 points (second-longest ever), which has helped him accumulate 11.1 win shares (an estimated number of wins contributed by a player), according to Basketball-Reference, and a league-leading 30.4 PER (Player Efficiency Rating where 15 is average). He’s helped carry the Rockets to a 38-25 record, despite future Hall-of-Famer Chris Paul missing significant time. It’s fair to say Harden is putting up quite the defense.
As for Giannis Antetokounmpo, or the “Greek Freak,” he is showing that you can still win at an elite rate if you have just one superstar and if you are surrounded by the proper team. The 25-year-old has finally arrived, averaging 27.1 points, 12.7 rebounds and 6.0 assists on 57.9% from the field. He’s accumulated a league-leading 11.4 win shares and an excellent 30.3 PER and led the Bucks to the best record in basketball (48-15) from wire-to-wire.
However, he lacks shooting technique. He is a mediocre free-throw shooter and a subpar three-point shooter – areas Harden usually excels in. But this is where Harden’s advantages end. The 29-year-old is putting up these numbers with an absurd 40.4% usage rate while playing for Mike D’Antoni, who is known for inflating all his primary ballhandlers’ numbers.
What this means is that Harden’s numbers are a bit skewed because the isolation-heavy system he is running allows him the most opportunities of any player to pad his stats. Not to mention, he gets away with traveling in what feels like every other play and gets rewarded the most tick-tackiest of fouls of anyone, drawing the ire of opponents.
He also leads the NBA in turnovers, and while his defense isn’t as horrendous as it once was, it still isn’t good (a bad 110 defensive rating). And this is where Giannis differs. His usage rate is 31.9% (which is more in line with what the standard elite player usually resides), he has been a better team player and he is playing nearly five fewer minutes per game than Harden. He has a +21 rating per 100 possessions (Harden is at +8), a league-leading 98.6 defensive rating, 4.6 defensive win shares and a 5.2 defensive box plus/minus.
To put it in layman’s terms, he’s been the best defensive player in the game and has the chance of becoming the third player in history to win both the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards in the same season.
So yes, Harden has been magnificent on offense this season, while Giannis has been excellent in his own way but with a massive gap in the defense. A difference that makes the slight offensive gap in Harden’s favor look microscopic and has turned Giannis into perhaps the best all-around player in the NBA.