BY HUNTER DONELSON
In this year’s MVP race you’re either voting one way or another; Giannis Antetokounmpo or James Harden. This might be the closest voting we’ve seen in YEARS, possibly the closest since Karl Malone and Michael Jordan back in 1997 when Malone beat out MJ by just 29 voting points. Here I’ll breakdown why each player this season could win over the other. Buckle your seat belts because it’s going to be a long ride to the finish, but first let me explain how exactly voting works.
A panel of NBA sportswriters and broadcasters throughout the United States and Canada decide the NBA awards. They each receive a ballot, just like in politics, but on their ballot they fill out who they think is the most deserving of the award in numerical order one through five. The player voted number one would receive 10 points, second is seven votes, third is five votes, fourth is three votes and fifth is one vote. Now, all you have to do is add up the total number of points for each player and you have your award winner, sounds easy right? Well in the wise words of Lee Corso, “not so fast my friend.” Understanding the points system is the easy part, the hard part is deciding where to place each player on your ballot. And I’m not here to make it any easier.
“The Greek Freak”, Giannis Antetokounmpo, has led the Milwaukee Bucks to the best record in the NBA at 60-22. His incredible all-around game and his ability to play any position equally as good as the best has made him the front runner in this MVP race. With his position-less play style and switch-on-everything defensive mentality, he has become the NBA’s perfect representation of today’s game.
One NBA head coach told The New York Post, “For me, it’s a slight edge to Giannis. What he’s done with that franchise, what he does on both ends of the floor, the multiple ways he impacts the game, that’s an MVP.”
The 24-year-old put up numbers in the same atmosphere as prime Shaquille O’Neal with 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, shooting 57.8 percent from the field. One thing Antetokounmpo hasn’t found in his arsenal yet is a three-point jumpshot, he shoots very inefficient but also doesn’t force them as he attempts just 2.8 per game. Who needs a three-point jumper when nobody can stop you in the paint? I’m sure that’s something he will develop over time much like we saw with LeBron James in his first few seasons, and when he does, Antetokounmpo could evolve into one of the most unstoppable players the NBA has ever seen. Not only have these numbers made him a top three player in the league, they have also allowed him to elevate the play of his teammates. This is something we don’t always see with James Harden’s isolation play style.
It’s no secret that Harden’s constant one-on-one battles have somewhat hurt the Houston Rockets. In fact, an assistant coach close to Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni said the team doesn’t play the pass-friendly, Spurs-esque offense he prefers. Of course that’s not a stab at Harden, it’s simply because Harden is just that good on the offensive end (scoring 30-plus points in 32 straight games and also 30-plus points on every NBA team this season).
Based on a player poll from The Athletic, James Harden beat Giannis Antetokounmpo 44.3 percent to 38.9 percent with Paul George a distant third with 12.7 percent.
There are bigger reasons Harden could be this year’s MVP other than scoring, and that’s surprisingly on the defensive end. For the past seven years of James Harden’s career there have been memes, and overwhelming criticism about how lost he is when playing defense. So how exactly has he been able to flip this in just a single season? Houston’s defensive game plan. The Rockets added a new defensive scheme this season that is switch-heavy and allows Harden to switch onto post players who are not quite used to having to post up in today’s NBA. As a guard, Harden has quicker reflexes than the big men in the post which is where the two steals per game come from ranking third in the NBA.
One thing to note is that there has not been an MVP winner anywhere in the past 10 NBA seasons that didn’t lead their team to a top-two seed in their respective conference (excluding Russell Westbrook in 2017 when OKC finished 6th in the West). If it takes the first triple-double average in over 60 years to win an MVP as a non-top two seed then the chances of doing that aren’t very high. In this case, as I mentioned earlier, Giannis has brought his team from 7th in the Eastern Conference last season to the best record in the NBA this season. Meanwhile Harden’s Rockets sit at 4th in the West going into round one of the playoffs.
There are great cases to make for each of these players, but at the end of the day voters will have the tough task of narrowing it down to just one. I would expect Antetokounmpo to take it but people (including myself) are in awe of what James Harden has been able to do this season. Take a look at the poll provided and tell us who you having bringing home the hardware.