B/R Staff Chooses Giannis Antetokounmpo as Consensus NBA MVP over James Harden
The votes are in, hoops heads. You read it here first.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is your consensus 2018-19 NBA MVP!
OK—maybe we won't know the league's official ruling until the June 24 awards show. But in the meantime, Bleacher Report polled eight of its top NBA writers, and two things were consistent:
A) The MVP field does not go beyond two players.
B) James Harden is not getting back-to-back trophies.
Now, each writer is here to explain his pick. Just what was it about The Greek Freak's season that gave him the edge over The Beard?
B/R scribes tell all in Friday's MVP Week feature.
'Awfully Similar to LeBron James'
No disrespect to the unbelievable season James Harden has bestowed upon us, but this year's MVP resides in Milwaukee.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has elevated the Bucks to first place in what has become a loaded top half of the Eastern Conference. They're the only team that can hit the 60-win mark, and they carry the league's best average point differential at plus-9.3, a full three points higher than that of the second-place Golden State Warriors.
Giannis is leading the Bucks in scoring (27.4 points), rebounding (12.5) and assists (5.9) while also playing elite-level defense with his monster wingspan. The only other players in NBA history to put up at least 27, 12 and five while shooting at least 52.5 percent from the field? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain, both winning MVP awards as a result.
What we're seeing from Antetokounmpo now is awfully similar to LeBron James and his early career with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Like James, Antetokounmpo is now leading his team in nearly every major statistical category while carrying them to 60 wins and the top of the East without another superstar beside him.
James came away with two MVPs during this stretch and has since pushed that total up to four. We could be staring at the beginning of a similar trajectory for Antetokounmpo.
'His Role Is More Well-Rounded'
Choosing this year's MVP is, as ever, extremely difficult. Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden have played themselves into the only reasonable possibilities (sorry, Paul George), but their cases are so equally strong that picking one is a matter splitting already thrice-split hairs.
Both are on equal footing anecdotally. Harden has led, and at times dragged, a Rockets roster beset by injuries and turnover to more than 50 wins and a potential top-three finish in the ultra-brutal Western Conference. Antetokounmpo has spearheaded a Bucks team to the NBA's best record by a perceptible margin. That he plays in an inferior conference is fairly irrelevant. Sixty wins is sixty wins (assuming Milwaukee gets there), and no team posts a better net rating than the Bucks when playing squads from the West.
What Antetokounmpo does seem to lack is a trademark MVP moment or defining stretch. Whereas Harden has the bonkers basketball he played during Chris Paul's absence with a hamstring injury, Antetokounmpo's is more of a wire-to-wire argument. It didn't take him a month or so to his stride.
That matters within a race so narrow—particularly when Antetokounmpo's numbers are no less absurd than Harden's. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the only player to ever match Antetokounmpo's per-game counting stats. Adjust for pace, and Antetokounmpo stands alone.
It likewise matters that his role is more well-rounded. Harden is having an impact in his made-for-him defensive role, but Antetokounmpo is a All-Defensive first-team lock. Opponent shooting percentages drop by 6.3 points whenever he's guarding them—the third-highest differential among 275 players contesting at least seven field-goal attempts per game.
Even Antetokounmpo's outside shooting helps stake his claim to MVP. Much like Harden's defense, his jumper is no longer this glaring, near-unnavigable void. Antetokounmpo has hit 33.3 percent of his threes on 3.4 attempts per game for the past quarter of the season.
In this question of epic, can't-go-wrong proportions, Antetokounmpo is the closest it gets to a consensus answer. This entire season is his trademark MVP moment.
'His Individual Box-Score Stats Are Ridiculous'
I can't recall an MVP race in my lifetime that's been more of a coin flip than this one.
I could have just as easily voted for Harden and felt great about it, and if he ultimately wins, it will be 100 percent deserved.
I lean ever so slightly toward Giannis because of his impact at both ends of the floor on the NBA's best team. The Bucks have the league's best defense, and that defense is 2.5 points per 100 possessions worse when he sits than when he plays—the biggest differential out of any of the Bucks' starters. His individual box-score stats are ridiculous (27.4 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.5 blocks per game), and that's before you factor in that he plays 4.2 fewer minutes per game than Harden because the Bucks blow teams out.
This is the season Antetokounmpo has fully unlocked every aspect of his dominance as a basketball player, and the result is unlike anything we've seen before.
'He's a Much, Much Better Defender'
No disrespect to James Harden, who is having a tremendous season once again with the Houston Rockets, but the 2018-19 NBA MVP should be Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks.
The 24-year-old All-Star captain is leading his team to the top overall record in the NBA, averaging 27.4 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists a night. He's also a tremendous defender with his size, length and athleticism.
The Bucks boast the third-highest offensive rating at 113.5 and the league's top defensive rating at 104.5. Antetokounmpo is the biggest reason Milwaukee has the best net rating in the league at 9.0, well ahead of the second-place Golden State Warriors' 6.2.
The Bucks are the best team in the league, at least by record and net rating, and Antetokounmpo is their best player by a wide margin. Harden has helped carry his franchise through injuries to a 51-28 record, but the Bucks have been more consistent all year. Antetokounmpo doesn't shoot the three like Harden, but he's a much, much better defender.
Give Antetokounmpo the Maurice Podoloff Trophy. It's well-deserved.
'Giannis' Numbers at Harden's Minutes Are Even More Eye-Popping'
I'm going with Giannis Antetokounmpo, despite the fact that we're seeing a pace- and playing-time-adjusted scoring clip from James Harden that hasn't happened since Wilt Chamberlain's 1962 season. Yes, if Harden was playing as many possessions per game as Wilt did that season, he'd be scoring over 60 points per game. I'm still going with the all-around contributions of Giannis.
One thing that seems to be overlooked with Giannis is just how little he's playing. The Milwaukee Bucks have the depth necessary to limit him to fewer than 33 minutes per game, which should lead to relatively fresh legs for the playoffs. Giannis' numbers at Harden's minutes per game are even more eye-popping: 30.9 points, 14.1 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 1.6 blocks and 1.5 steals.
Now, of course, that cuts both ways. Harden's supporters could just as easily argue that his 37 minutes per game and league-leading 40.5 usage percentage show that he's having to carry a heavier load.
Both sides have plenty of valid points to make in this debate. It really does feel like a 1A/1B year. But right now, I'm defaulting to the wide-ranging contributions of the best player on the team with the NBA's best winning percentage and SRS.
'His Presence on the Court Spikes the Bucks' Net Rating'
With so many other factors in play, it's reductive to pick Antetokounmpo on the trite basis of "best player on the best team"—even if that argument has weighed so heavily in past MVP discussions. If Giannis is your MVP pick—and he's mine—there are several better justifications.
Harden's defenders will point to his unprecedented mix of usage and efficiency. He's going to finish with the second-highest usage rate of all time and a true shooting percentage more than five points better than the league average. Offensively, he's raised the bar.
Antetokounmpo has his own historic achievements, though. Nobody has ever averaged at least 30 points, 13 rebounds and six assists per 36 minutes, but he's on pace to be the first. Combine that level of across-the-board production with a legitimate shot at winning Defensive Player of the Year, and you have a player with a global impact on winning that exceeds Harden's. And while Harden's defense has advanced from "terrible" to "generally passable", he's not in Antetokounmpo's league on that end of the floor. I'm not comfortable with the idea that defense is just as valuable as offense when evaluating players, but two-way impact has to mean something.
Also, don't overlook the fact that Houston's net rating improves by a little over two points per 100 possessions when Harden plays. Antetokounmpo's presence on the court spikes the Bucks' net rating by almost nine points. To me, that's more persuasive than Milwaukee's superior win total.
Harden has been phenomenal, and he'd probably deserve MVP in most other seasons. But in this one, the award should go to Antetokounmpo.
'The Most Important Player on the Most Successful Squad'
If I’m the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, I’m saying, “Get me to the Greek” with no hesitation.
Sure, James Harden is pumping in points at a historic level, and that deserves recognition. But it will be recognized when the former-sixth-man-turned-megastar collects his second consecutive scoring crown.
Still, if you take the three-ball out of the equation, Giannis Antetokounmpo is awesome at everything.
He’s not only the best player on the best team—by wins and efficiency—he’s the best performer on that powerhouse in most categories. He leads all Milwaukee regulars in *deep breath* points, rebounds, assists, field-goal percentage, player efficiency rating and net rating differential.
His on-court impact is enormous. Milwaukee fares 9.0 points better per 100 possessions when he’s inside the lines. Houston is unsurprisingly better with Harden, but the difference isn’t near as dramatic (2.3).
And for all the (deserved) attention on Harden scoring like we haven’t seen in decades, Antetokounmpo’s stat line has only been previously produced once—by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his 1975-76 MVP season.
The definition of value in this discussion might be up for interpretation, but being the most important player on the most successful squad seems like it captures the essence of this award.
'Giannis Is the MVP This Season'
Let's be clear: There's no wrong answer this year. Well, as long as your answer is either James Harden or Giannis Antetokounmpo. Both men are absolutely worthy, though their cases are starkly different. (And no, no other player has a case for No. 1 on the ballot.)
My long-held standard still applies: The MVP award is about both individual excellence and team success. You need to check both boxes—gaudy stats and a high win total. What's the right amount of each? That's in the eye of the beholder.
In my view, Giannis is the MVP this season (though I reserve the right to change my mind before filing the real ballot next week).
You want all-around dominance? Giannis is averaging better than 27 points, 12 rebounds and five assists per game—the fifth player ever to meet those thresholds and the first since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975-76.
Of the 13 players averaging at least 25 points this season, Giannis has the second-highest true shooting percentage (which combines twos, threes and free throws), at .641, just behind Stephen Curry (.642). He's also averaging more than a steal and a block per game.
Team success? The Bucks have the NBA's best record and are the only team with a shot at 60 wins.
There's no disputing Harden's case. He's the superior scorer and obviously the better three-point shooter, by far. Every game brings another whirl of obliterated records and humiliated defenders. His defense is not at Giannis' level, however, and his team's D ranks 20th.
The Rockets crossed the critical 50-win plateau—a virtual requirement for MVP in my book—but the most they can get is 54. Sure, Harden saved their season (after a horrific 11-14 start) with one of the most riveting scoring binges in history. But as I've noted, team success matters, so that poor start does hurt Harden's case (his own stats over those 25 games notwithstanding).
We should reward beginning-to-end excellence. The Bucks had it. Giannis is the reason. And the MVP.