NBA: Giannis Antetokounmpo or James Harden? A deep-dive to examine the claims of this season's MVP contenders
Racing towards the coveted MVP trophy, Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden represent two sides of a philosophical battle.
Racing towards the coveted MVP trophy, Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden represent two sides of a philosophical battle.
Antetokounmpo is the young and ballistic breakthrough star in the NBA, a 24-year-old, 6-11 Greek Freak who has leapt past rigid structures of basketball.
Harden is the unsolvable Rubik's Cube, the most lethal scorer the game has seen in years. The 29-year-old reigning MVP is hungry to defend his title.
Being on separate conferences, the Bucks and Rockets played each other just twice this season, and Milwaukee went 2-0 in the season series.
Choosing between Antetokounmpo and Harden is like splitting hairs. It's tricky to contrast their efforts because their campaigns have been so different.
I'm no connoisseur of fine art. I barely know the difference between modern and post-modern. I couldn't tell you if a seemingly-random jumble of juxtaposed colours is "better" than a finely-detailed self-portrait.
But I do know is how any piece of art makes me "feel". The feeling is purely subjective. Sometimes, I'll stare longer at two blue planks on a white canvas than a lush, colourful natural landscape. Sometimes, it’s the opposite. Sometimes, the best of art tells you more about the observer than the art itself.
This year's NBA MVP race — featuring two magnificent masterworks of basketball dominance — is somewhere in that space: a space where greatness and appreciation has become subjective; where numbers can give you a strong and well-curated framework for genius, but only an abstract "feeling" can give you a deeper answer; where that answer might reveal more about you than the masterworks themselves.
Presenting the two contenders.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the young and ballistic breakthrough star in the NBA. A 24-year-old, 6-11 Greek Freak who has leapt past rigid structures of basketball. A two-way superstar capable of playing and defending any position at any time, perhaps the greatest athlete the game has ever seen, and the best player in this season's best team.
James Harden is the riddle many have failed to solve and the most lethal scorer the game has seen in years. The 29-year-old reigning MVP is hungry to defend his title. He is a shooting, driving, dribbling basketball ballerina, the man who has made improbable scoring performances seem routine, who saved his team's season and kept them in contention.
There have been years in the NBA when there have been many 'best' players, but none that truly took the leap to generational greatness, the type of greatness that will have them remembered forever. This year, there are two. And only one will walk away as the victor.
There are many ways to define what constitutes as 'value' when it comes to the NBA's 'Most Valuable Player'. Is the most valuable player the one with the best statistics? Is he the best player on the best team? Is he the player who best defined the narrative of how the season unfolded? Is he, as per the 'eye-test', simply the most talented player, no matter what his team or individual numbers might say?
Here is my definition: the Most Valuable Player is the one player whose absence would make the biggest difference in the final standings of the league. This player isn't just the best stats guy or the best player in the best team: he is a combination of all factors that affect both his team and the rest of the league more than any other player.
These different (and subjective) philosophies of 'value' have come to a head-on clash when choosing between Antetokounmpo and Harden this season. For some, Harden's scoring outbursts make him an easy choice, despite his deficiencies on the defensive end and his team's worse record. For others, Antetokounmpo's overall mastery of the game and ability to raise the Bucks (average last year) to the NBA's best team are the clear MVP answer.
Both are winners, but really, there is only one winner. Let's compare and contrast all factors before we arrive at a more conclusive answer.
Antetokounmpo is the sixth-leading scorer in the league, averaging a career-best 27.4 ppg (points per game). What is especially amazing is that he is doing most of his damage attacking the basket. In this era of high-frequency three-point shooting, Antetokounmpo is a rarity among perimeter stars, attempting only 2.7 threes a game, and making less than 25 percentage of his long-range shots. In the paint, however, it's a different story. Antetokounmpo has developed into one of the most lethal finishers around the rim. His field goal percentage (58 percentage) is the highest of anyone attempting more than 11 shots a game.
Meanwhile, James Harden has made a mockery of NBA scoring statistics. The league's clear scoring leader, Harden is on pace to have the greatest scoring season (36.4 ppg) since Michael Jordan in 1987. Only Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain have scored at a more torrid pace for a season. He's the league leader in threes made (at over 36 percentage shooting) and is on pace to make the second-most threes of any single season (after Stephen Curry in 2016) in history. He is also unstoppable attacking the basket, leading the league in both free throws attempted and made (9.8) per game. He has already had twenty-eight 40-point games, nine 50-point games, and twice touched a career-high of 61!
Antetokounmpo is an elite rebounder and currently ranks fifth in the league (12.5 rpg). He is top-20 in assists (6.0 apg), a stat that puts him in a rare club of players to average over 27, 12, and 6 in NBA history — only Oscar Robertson scaled these heights, back in the 60s.
Harden is far from a one-trick pony, too, and, despite the scoring, has always been a willing passer. He is seventh in the league in assists (7.5 apg). He gambles the passing lanes on defence and gets the second-most steals (2.1). He also grabs 6.5 rebounds per game.
Advanced metrics / "Irreplaceability"
Most of the regular stats mentioned above are useful but don't tell the full story. To gauge a player's true value, we must study their influence relative to circumstances like pace, possessions, efficiency, on/off numbers, and more.
A great measuring point is PER (Player Efficiency Rating), a stat that attempts to measure every player's per-minute performance, adjusted to pace. It's an inexact science, but the players with the highest PER per season are often the best players in the league that season. The top 3 PERs in 2018-19 are of course Antetokounmpo (30.6) and Harden (30.4).
Harden is additionally carrying a historically heavy workload, with the second-highest usage rate in NBA history (40.7). He is the leader in that category this season. Antetokounmpo is 5th.
Another interesting stat is the win share, which helps determine a player's contribution to team success on both sides of the court and to overall wins. The leaders for the season here won't surprise you. Harden leads the league in offensive win shares (Antetokounmpo is third), and Antetokounmpo leads the league in defensive win shares. The two are almost inseparable in terms of overall win shares for the season, with Harden leading Antetokounmpo with a tenth of a point at the time of writing.
A final interesting advanced stat to look at is Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), which calculates a team's point differential if the player is to be replaced by an 'average' player. Harden leads VORP this season with 9.3. At second place, of course, is Antetokounmpo.
Basketball is a two-way game, and it is on the defensive end where Antetokounmpo truly separates himself from his competition. The Greek Freak is the most important defensive player for the NBA's best defensive team this season, and his ability to shut down players from both the perimeter and the paint has been revolutionary this season.
We've already learned that Antetokounmpo leads the league in defensive win shares. But a closer look at the numbers shows some more impressive accomplishments. He is one of only two players this season (along with Utah's Joe Ingles) to be top five in defensive rating while playing over 30 minutes a game. Antetokounmpo is sure to be in consideration for the All Defence First Team and might become only the third player in NBA history (after Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon) to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season.
Harden, unfortunately, lags far behind on the defensive end. The Rockets are in the bottom half of the league's defensive efficiency rankings and Harden's weak defensive on/off numbers (despite the slightly-misleading steals stat) are a primary reason why they are often exploited with him on the court.
But the Rockets are a Mike D'Antoni team, and their objective has always been to outscore their opponents, no matter at what cost. Harden might struggle on the defensive end, but his brilliance on offence more than makes up for it. At the end of the game, the only thing that matters is the team that finishes with more points.
Speaking of finishing with more points, no team has done it better than Antetokounmpo's Milwaukee Bucks. Led by their do-it-all forward, the Bucks currently stand 57-19 — the best record in the league — and are on pace to win 61 games this season. This would be a considerable leap after winning just 44 games last season and finishing seventh in the East.
Usually, a major leap in wins is usually accounted for by the addition of another star player. But the Bucks have been a surprise because their success has come with smaller moves than a major splash. The addition of head coach Mike Budenholzer was a game-changer, as his system allowed Antetokounmpo's style to succeed on offence. Antetokounmpo's support crew includes Kris Middleton (who became an All-Star this season), Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and important midseason addition Nikola Mirotic. Antetokounmpo led the team in points, rebounds, and assists and was their best defender.
Harden's Houston Rockets, conversely, has seen a season of many more ups and downs. They started 11-14 (otherwise known as the 'Carmelo era'), lost star player Chris Paul (and others) to injury, saw Harden go on a ballistic scoring run to save their season, and made an impressive climb up the Western conference charts by the end of the season. They are currently 48-28, fourth in the West, and slated to finish with 52 wins. It's a major slip-up from last season where Houston won a league-best 65, but it's still a decent finish.
Playing over 37 minutes per game at a league-high usage rate, Harden definitely has had to carry a heavier load than Antetokounmpo this season. He has played 10 or more additional games than other important players like Chris Paul, Clint Capela and Eric Gordon. He's the team leading scorer and second in assists. When deployed to carry the team 'alone', Harden went supernova, scoring over 30 points for 32 consecutive games, averaged 42.8 ppg for a 20-game stretch in December/January, essentially saving Houston's season.
Antetokounmpo clearly has an advantage as the best player (by far) in the league's best team (by far). But one could argue that the team was specifically constructed around him to allow for his strengths to shine and to hide his weakness (shooting).
Harden, meanwhile was unstoppable almost all by himself, regardless of who was around him. Of course, the system helps: Harden is the perfect on-court extension of D'Antoni, and both player and coach revel in a system with pace, a high number of possessions, more threes, more lay-ups, more free-throws and inflated stats.
The debate is between a player with 9/10 stats in a 10/10 team or a player with 10/10 stats in an 8/10 team.
Head To Head
In the larger scheme of an 82-game season, the head-to-head matchups between the two contenders are almost negligible. But don't tell the players that, who are usually charged with competitive fire to prove that they can shine brighter when on court with their rivals.
Being on separate conferences, the Bucks and Rockets played each other just twice this season, and Milwaukee went 2-0 in the season series. The first game in January showcased the best of both MVP contenders, as Antetokounmpo notched 27 points and 21 rebounds to overcome Harden's 42-point outing with a 116-109 win. In late March, the Bucks beat Houston again with a more defensive effort at home, 108-94. Antetokounmpo finished with 19 points and 14 rebounds and Harden was defended well to be limited to 23 points on 26 shots.
Overall impact on the NBA season
Yes, we've discussed the stats and the results. But often, sometimes the search must extend beyond to more abstract zones, to the subjective. Basketball is great because it's something more than the sum of its parts: it's art, it's a jazz ensemble, it's a story.
And who told the better story this season?
Was it the Young Buck, the new face of the league, the hyper-mobile uber-athletic giant gyro-stepping into the paint to steal our hearts and smash-slam-dunk his opponents into oblivion? Was it this uniquely-gifted player that became the most dominant player on either side of the floor, led an underrated team to the top, and ensured that the world learned to pronounce "An-Te-To-Kounm-Po"?
Or was it the 'Bearded One', the one-man offensive bulldozer, a guard who shattered many of the league’s scoring records, from three-pointers to free-throws to making 50-point triple-doubles seems like a regular thing, who saved his team from the abyss, who will leave the biggest statistical imprint, who will be the flashpoint of 2018-19 when people look back at this regular season?
Choosing between Antetokounmpo and Harden is like splitting hairs. It's a race as close as they come, and it's especially tricky to contrast their respective efforts because their campaigns have been so different. Both have been on good stats and good teams: one has done it with lower usage for more success, the other has gone full blast to stay afloat.
Because 'most valuable' is a subjective designation, its interpretation will be subjective, too. And for me, it was Antetokounmpo who has had the biggest impact on the NBA. Remove Harden from the league and you would lose the leading scorer on a mid-table team. Remove Antetokounmpo and the NBA's best team is barely in the playoff picture, and you'd lose a player who made a big impact on both ends of the floor.
The 2018-19 MVP should be Giannis Antetokounmpo.
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