How Close Will This Year’s NBA MVP Race Be?

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The two presumptive leaders in the chase for the NBA Most Valuable Player will both be on national television tomorrow as the league resumes play for its final third of the season. Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden both have strong cases for the MVP award, though each in dramatically different ways.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst wrote that the vote could come down to “a bit of a basketball culture war” given the stylistic differences between the two candidacies.

Harden has lit the record books on fire with his 31 consecutive games of 30 or more points as he has carried the Rockets to the fifth seed in the Western Conference. He has unparalleled singular dominance of the Houston offense; to wit, he has made 284 pull-up threes this season, which is more than twice as many as any other player in the league, while also leading the NBA in free-throw attempts for the fifth straight year. Harden’s style of play doesn’t draw the most admirers, but the results are undeniable.

Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo has the traditional resume of being the best player on the best team as the Bucks have vaulted from a perennial first-round exit into the team with the best record in the league, including a 7-3 mark against the other top-4 squads in the Eastern Conference. The Greek Freak has had a sterling individual season statistically, posting career-highs in points, assists, rebounds, and field-goal percentage, and has been the league’s most dominant presence at the rim this season offensively.

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An anonymous All-Star encapsulated the debate between the two for Windhorst.

“Guys can say he gets away with travels on the step-back or he flings his body into people to get fouls, but honestly, a lot of us get away with stuff like that,” said one All-Star who wished to remain anonymous because he didn’t want to court controversy.

“Just speaking for myself, and I don’t know how others feel, but what he does isn’t always team basketball. If you look at how Giannis plays, that’s more the way I was raised in the game. Just my opinion,” he said.

Based on admittedly unscientific conversations, there are many players who agree. Earlier this season, Harden scored 304 consecutive points that were unassisted. That streak was tracked with awe by fans and media. For some players, though, it created eye-rolling because it represented the opposite of team play.

Despite the strong arguments in favor of both, Windhorst doesn’t think there would be much of a contest at this point, saying if the vote were to happen right now, Harden wins and “it’s probably not that close.”

His colleague, Zach Lowe, disagreed with that sentiment.

It’s interesting that Harden finds himself on this side of the MVP debate after losing in 2017 to Russell Westbrook, who had strong individual bona fides while Harden played for the third-best team in the league, record-wise. Harden has also played this current role before, as the dominant singular talent versus the best player on the best team, Stephen Curry, in 2015. He lost the media-voted MVP that year but won the Players Association’s MVP, an honor that has since been discontinued.

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2015 would seem to be the closest analog to this year’s race, and it’s not hard to see the similarities between the 2019 Milwaukee Bucks and the 2015 Golden State Warriors. Antetokounmpo is not only his team’s leader and best offensive player, like Curry then, but he is the best defender on the Bucks. Nevertheless, Harden is on a different level now than he was then, having turned his step-back three into an art form and perfected his ability to draw fouls.

A dark horse candidate is also in the mix: Paul George. George has been magnificent in his second season in Oklahoma City, turning more closely into a Kevin Durant replacement than anyone could have possibly imagined. George is second in the league in points per game at 28.7, which is five more than in any previous season. He is also averaging career-highs in rebounds, assists, and field-goal percentage in addition to turning in a potential Defensive Player of the Year performance.

There is a near statistical dead heat between the three. George leads in RPM, Harden in BPM, and Antetokounmpo in win shares, but narrative seems to matter a great deal in determining an MVP. Antetokounmpo’s Bucks have been dominating since the start of the season, much like the Warriors four years ago, and Harden has been in the conversation for the last five years. George, despite his excellence for a very good Thunder team, is behind the pair in terms of crafting his story, and even then, being a rock solid, superstar level player who does some of everything doesn’t seem as compelling as what Antetokounmpo and Harden are presenting.

The level of talent in the NBA is better than it has ever been, and nowhere is that clearer than at the top. Whoever wins the MVP will be a deserving candidate, and with 25 games yet to play, it is far too early to make any conclusions about who that winner should be.