Coming out of the All-Star break, the competition for the 2018-19 NBA Most Valuable Player is a three-man race.
Others could force their way into the conversation for the Maurice Podoloff Trophy. Don't sleep on Nikola Jokic if his triple-double habits and passing brilliance keep the Denver Nuggets pushing the Golden State Warriors for the top record in the Western Conference. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid and Kawhi Leonard need some love as well.
But while Harden, Antetokounmpo and George are the clear front-runners at this point, only one of them can take home the hardware. Here's the case for each.
The Case for James Harden
Even though Antetokounmpo and George are having fantastic seasons, Harden is obviously the MVP.
Voters can often be hesitant to name the same player MVP in back-to-back seasons, but the Beard passes all of the necessary tests. He's a statistically dominant contributor who enjoys a compelling narrative because of the high-scoring exploits that push him into Wilt Chamberlain territory, and he has helped his Houston Rockets overcome injuries to remain in the battle for a top seed in the Western Conference.
But let's be real. One of those factors matters more than the others.
Although Houston emerges from the All-Star break with a 33-24 record that's good for fifth in the West, team success isn't going to work in Harden's favor. His squad sits four games behind the Oklahoma City Thunder, while the Milwaukee Bucks have the league's best record. His placement near the top of so many advanced-stat leaderboards will have a similarly marginal effect, especially now that George has moved past him in ESPN.com's real plus/minus and RPM Wins.
Narrative reigns supreme, and Harden benefits from capturing the NBA's full attention with his remarkable run of 30-point games.
Ever since beginning that 31-game streak with a 50-spot against the Los Angeles Lakers on Dec. 13, he's averaged a scorching 41.5 points, 7.6 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 2.3 steals and 0.9 blocks while shooting 44.0 percent from the field, 37.4 percent from downtown and 89.4 percent from the line. But this is less about the totality of his exploits and more about the raw scoring power, as well as the indelible memories earned along the way.
It's about the 61 points he scored in Madison Square Garden:
It's about the game-winner he drilled against the Golden State Warriors—one of his many clutch buckets this season:
It's about eschewing assists in favor of unadulterated mastery of the unassisted step-back jumper that pushes the bounds of moving your feet while gathering the basketball:
But even beyond those highlights, Harden has proved how singularly valuable he is to the Rockets' communal cause.
Harden's scoring outburst coincided with Clint Capela and Chris Paul exiting the lineup with injuries. The Arizona State product didn't just feel like torching the league and proving no style of defense—not even Milwaukee's decision to play his left shoulder as tightly as possible—could keep him contained for a full 48 minutes. He had to out of sheer necessity.
No play sums this up better than Harden's first bucket during his 61-point explosion against the Knicks:
That play, which gave the Rockets their first three points after PJ Tucker missed a triple on the team's opening possession, is innocuous enough by Harden's standards. He grabbed the defensive rebound, dribbled the ball down the floor before facing a double-team, swung the ball to Faried at the foul line, got it back, dribbled six times and hit a step-back trey while drawing a foul on the overmatched Emmanuel Mudiay before going on to complete the four-point play at the stripe.
Now, look at who was on the floor with Harden, keeping in mind that head coach Mike D'Antoni had yet to call for a single substitution this early in the game.
Tucker was shooting only 41.1 percent from the field and 38.1 percent from downtown at that point in the season, averaging a meager 8.1 points per game. Eric Gordon's percentages stood at 38.1 and 31.4, respectively. Austin Rivers is Austin Rivers, currently at No. 363 on ESPN.com's RPM leaderboard. Faried was in his second game as a member of the Rockets, just two days removed from the team picking him up off the open market. Gerald Green, James Ennis III and Gary Clark were the only three Rockets reserves to come off the bench that night.
No matter how effective he's been with the ball in his hands, Harden is only engaging in this takeover strategy because he doesn't have many other options.
The thing is...it's working.
The Case for Giannis Antetokounmpo
Even though Harden and George are having fantastic seasons, Antetokoumpo is obviously the MVP.
The official coronation is necessary after the Greek Freak has spent 2018-19 proving he may well be the NBA's best player. He's a uniquely unstoppable force who can dunk over any defender, work his way to the rim at will and thrive on defense while serving as the unquestioned linchpin for the league's leading outfit.
Milwaukee is no fluke. It entered the All-Star break with the NBA's best record and a net rating that's 2.7 points per 100 possessions better than the second-place Warriors. That's largely thanks to Antetokounmpo's exploits.
On both ends of the floor, he sparks massive alterations that elevate the team's quality of play.
Milwaukee's offensive rating skyrockets from 104.9 sans Antetokounmpo to 113.2 with him on the floor. His elongated strides, lanky limbs and unteachable knack for finding paths to the rim through traffic completely warp defensive approaches, forcing foes to compress around him as he proves three-point range isn't necessary to exhibit a gravitational pull.
The 24-year-old is averaging a mind-numbing 27.2 points, 12.7 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks while shooting 58.1 percent from the field. But it's his penchant for completing unassisted slams that stands out the most, even against the backdrop of a stat line no one in NBA history has matched.
What are you supposed to do about someone who can use a Brook Lopez screen and stare down the barrel at a trio of Sacramento Kings defenders, only to unfurl his go-go-gadget right arm and slam home the rock through traffic?
What do you do when he's nimble enough to capitalize on the fear of his physicality and corkscrew between defenders for an unabated path to the tin, as he did to the Chicago Bulls?
What about when you try to contest the rim-rattling assault but stand no chance, as poor Jon Leuer found out the hard way when the Bucks kicked off 2019 with a game against the Detroit Pistons?
Antetokounmpo leads the Association in dunks this season at 206—five more than No. 2 Rudy Gobert (201) and light-years ahead of No. 3 Clint Capela (160). But the gap only grows when we look solely at unassisted slams:
- Giannis Antetokounmpo: 91
- Rudy Gobert: 39
- Ben Simmons: 38
- Anthony Davis: 29
- Hassan Whiteside: 29
Not only is that flat-out ridiculous, but it also registers on a historical level.
Based on research from earlier this season, Antetokounmpo is coming out of the All-Star break ready to surpass everyone this millennium (data doesn't go back beyond the 2000-01 campaign). He has 25 games left to play and is on pace for 159 unassisted dunks, which would easily topple the only two left above his current mark: 2004-05 Shaquille O'Neal (93) and 2006-07 Dwight Howard (95).
Antetokounmpo isn't only challenging for the Superman title. Nor is he solely a dunkbot, as he earns 1.1 driving assists per game (39th among the 383 players who have appeared in at least 20 contests).
His switchability and athleticism have also made him a force for head coach Mike Budenholzer's defense, which allows 2.4 fewer points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor. Whether he's jumping passing lanes, stuffing shots at the rim, deterring shots from smaller players who might mistakenly think they have a speed advantage or rotating perfectly, he's functioned as one of the league's deadliest presences on D.
When a player thrives on both ends for the team with the league's best record, awards tend to follow.
The Case for Paul George
Even though Harden and Antetokounmpo are having fantastic seasons, George is obviously the MVP.
Timing is everything, and the Thunder wing has risen to the top of the heap at a crucial part of the NBA calendar. He didn't have as much momentum as his fellow competitors during the season's opening salvo, but he headed into the All-Star break propelling his troops to lofty heights and reaching pinnacles of his own as an individual:
George's exploits may be flying somewhat under the radar, as Harden's ongoing scoring streak and Anthony Davis' trade request overshadowed them. But he's now risen to the top of ESPN.com's RPM leaderboard and has averaged 35.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.3 steals over his last 13 games while slashing an unfathomable 48.1/45.8/85.8. During that same stretch, OKC has gone 11-2 with the league's fourth-best net rating.
As FiveThirtyEight's Chris Herring astutely observed, George has unshackled himself within the OKC schemes, realizing the team is better when he takes over on a more regular basis:
"Somewhat stunningly, at this rate, George is already just 10 games or so away from eclipsing his shot attempt total from last season. His shot chart this season looks essentially the same as last year's, but the clarity about his role seems to have helped his game immensely. George, perhaps more comfortable with Westbrook and the team now, is playing as if he realizes that it's generally a good thing for him to take the reins on offense."
The result? Games like his 47-point, 12-rebound, 10-assist triple-double against the Portland Trail Blazers on Feb. 11, during which he dominated both the ball and the opposition from start to finish:
But 2018-19 George isn't just an offensive savant. His candidacy hinges on his unabashed two-way prowess, as he's a serious threat to take home both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. In doing so, he would create a three-man club comprised of himself, Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon.
Scoring on George is tough enough when he's defending the man with possession of the ball. But he's even better in off-ball scenarios, routinely flitting around the Thunder schemes like a free safety and waiting to strike in the blink of an eye.
No one is averaging more steals per game. Among the 276 players qualified for the steals leaderboard, only Shaquille Harrison, Nerlens Noel, Tyus Jones, Marcus Smart and Jimmy Butler have higher steal percentages, although Butler is the only one to top him while playing more than 30 minutes per game. George also paces the league (with room to spare) in loose balls recovered per game, while only Harden averages more deflections.
He's made a living out of baiting foes into thinking he's sagging too far from his mark before darting into the passing lane, as he did here against the Boston Celtics:
He also did so against the Blazers after he stayed back just long enough to deter an interior feed:
George's anticipation makes him truly special. How many defenders can make a split-second read that takes them away from a shooter on the wing and into a passing lane between two players they aren't covering?
George might not boast the same level of top-tier name recognition touted by his primary MVP competition. He doesn't have Harden's scoring streak, Antetokounmpo's ridiculous dunks or the team record necessary to push the Warriors for the West's top seed. While his season-long per-game line is remarkable—28.7 points, 8.0 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 2.3 steals and 0.5 blocks while slashing 45.3/40.6/83.7—it doesn't jump out like Harden's or Antetokounmpo's.
He just makes his team better. A lot better.
The Thunder have a minus-11.2 net rating without George on the floor, but that mark climbs to plus-10.4 when he plays—a 21.6 point swing in the right direction. No other Thunder rotation member is in the same ballpark, with Steven Adams (13.6), Jerami Grant (12.0), Russell Westbrook (7.2) and Terrance Ferguson (2.8) rounding out the top five.
Those numbers should make George's case for him.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @fromal09.