Editor's note: It's MVP Week at Bleacher Report, which means each day we'll examine the NBA's most prized award from a different lens. Today, B/R looks at a recent trend in MVP winners and how Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden have become favorites to win this year's award.
If you look back at the last several recipients of the NBA MVP Award, an emerging trend connects them. In recent seasons, the winner has been the player who most dramatically pushed limits, changed the game and forced a reconsideration of what optimal basketball can look like.
That description should bring James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo to mind. They're the ones busting barriers in 2018-19, which is why they're the clear front-runners for this season's honor.
They're the latest in a line of MVP game-changers.
Let's Step Outside
Stephen Curry demolished norms when he won his first MVP in 2014-15, setting a record with 286 made threes on 44.3 percent shooting from deep. That was the outer limit of high-volume, high-efficiency bombing...until Curry exceeded it to win his second MVP the next year.
During that encore, he obliterated his own record by hitting 402 threes on 886 attempts. That's a 45.3 hit rate—better than the 44.3 percent he made the season before. It was as if Curry's axis-tilting efforts in 2014-15 were only a dress rehearsal before the real show.
His unanimous win in 2015-16 also featured a record 73-9 mark for the Golden State Warriors as yet another example of the barrier-breaking that's become so common for recent MVPs.
Curry inverted paradigms with his deep shooting off the dribble, forcing defenses to focus on locations 30 feet from the hoop before worrying about territory much closer to the goal. Before him, these were bad shots a defense would happily concede:
Now, preventing them is every opponent's top priority.
The One-Man Show
Russell Westbrook's envelope-pushing 2016-17 season proved league-altering advances could take many forms.
He averaged the first triple-double since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62, which forced us to reconsider the degree to which an individual could impact a game theoretically designed for team play. Westbrook's 41.7 percent usage rate set an NBA record (which still stands), and his nightly stat-stuffing was the product of an energy level that felt otherworldly.
It was a triumph of will as much as stamina and athleticism. Though he should have grown exhausted from the effort, Westbrook also put together one of the great clutch seasons of all time. His usage rate in close-and-late situations exploded to 60 percent, and his on-court net rating stood at 24.4 points per 100 possessions.
Both led the league by a mile.
One player, we thought, couldn't possibly exert this level of control over a game—not without torpedoing his team in the process. But Westbrook blew that narrative apart and put up numbers not seen in a half-century while also producing wins in the process. Led by his complete late-game takeovers, OKC went 25-15 in games that featured clutch situations.
His MVP was a reward for never-before-seen individualism.
The Impossible Combination
James Harden's 2017-18 MVP borrowed elements from Curry and Westbrook. Part feat of stamina, part advanced shot profile, he annihilated the previous relationship between usage and efficiency.
Through 2016-17, there had been nine seasons in which a player surpassed 33 percent usage while still scoring efficiently enough to keep his true shooting percentage above 58 percent.
Harden blew past those thresholds with a 36.1 percent usage and 61.9 percent true shooting. Until this year, it was the only season of its kind. His 12.2 points per game in isolation were twice as high as LeBron James'—the second-place finisher in the category. Not only did Harden lead the NBA in isolation frequency, but he also topped everyone in points per play.
Harden hadn't reached a limit; he'd gone far beyond it, demanding we rethink our understanding of effective offensive basketball.
Suddenly, this became normal:
If Harden wins another MVP this year, it'll be because he has again stretched the bounds of our imagination, upping his usage to an even greater degree while still giving nothing back in terms of efficiency. He's up to 40.7 percent usage in 2018-19 while averaging 18.0 points in isolation and overshadowing the figure that set him so far apart just a year ago.
He's now tallying nearly four times as many isolation points per game as anyone else, and he ran up 304 straight points without the benefit of a teammate's assist in January. No player had ever averaged at least 10 free-throw and three-point attempts until Harden did so last year. In 2018-19, he's upped those per-game marks again by attempting 11.2 free throws and 13.4 threes per contest.
Like Curry before him, Harden could be following one groundbreaking MVP season with another.
If Antetokounmpo gets this year's award, it'll be because he's also pushing the limits of individual creation—just much closer to the basket than Harden or Curry ever did.
Giannis leads the league in unassisted dunks by a wide margin and is on pace to be the first player with averages of at least 27 points, 12 rebounds and six assists since Oscar Robertson in that historic 1961-62 season. Oh, and he's doing so while topping the league in defensive box plus-minus.
If you filter the data in search of other seasons that match Antetokounmpo's 32.1 usage percentage and 64.3 true shooting percentage, you get just one: Curry's unanimous MVP season. That Antetokounmpo is doing all this without the benefit of a three-point shot shows how quickly one revolution can beget another; in the era of ever-rising three-point volume, he's making history at point-blank range.
Let's also remember to appreciate the aesthetics. Antetokounmpo's length, dexterity and power exist in unprecedented combination. At 6'11", he gets to the front of the rim against opponents of any size. If he cannot navigate around a defender with his long strides and immense reach, he'll go through the unlucky human obstacle.
The word "freak" is right there in his nickname, so it can hardly come as a surprise that Antetokounmpo's brand of dominance feels mutated.
Zoom out, and you can see how narrative and statistics—basically the two drivers of MVP voting—dovetail with players like Harden and Giannis. The numbers show us they're doing things that have never been done, and that statistical truth then takes life, becoming a story of trail-blazing, of pushing limits. And when you watch them play, the novelty is undeniable.
It's an annual tradition to get hung up on the concept of value as it relates to MVP. Is the most valuable player the one who produces the highest win total? The one whose team would be most adrift without him? The one who tops the field in your catch-all metric of choice?
If the last few winners are any indication, maybe the concept of value is actually a simple one. Maybe it's about value to the game itself. In that sense, the MVP is the player who most forcefully shoves basketball toward new horizons, who shows us that more is possible than we previously imagined.
The stats, which will always be vital to an award case, are just byproducts of that evolutionary advancement.
If the MVP is about recognizing players on the vanguard, Harden and Antetokounmpo are in the right position: way out ahead of everyone else.