Sports Sports Opinion

A Race for the Ages

A distinction reserved only for a handful of the best players in the world, the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award has been won by most of the NBA’s all-time greats sometime in their careers. Michael Jordan won five of them in his prolific 15-year career, Larry Bird won it three times in a row from 1983-1986, and in recent years Stephen Curry won the award back-to-back in the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 seasons.

With the 2018-2019 NBA regular season now in the books, a lot of focus has now been placed on the annual NBA awards, specifically the M.V.P. award. In some years, the races were one-sided, like when Curry was voted the NBA’s first unanimous M.V.P. in 2016. This year, however, the competition has been led by two players: Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and Houston Rockets guard James Harden. The two of them have transformed the landscape of the association with their historic performances and impressive stat lines, leading to, what I believe, one of the tightest M.V.P. races ever. While Harden was a scoring machine who put up some of the best offensive numbers in NBA history, Antetokounmpo was the best two-way player in the NBA while being the best player on the best regular-season team. And it is for this reason that I believe Giannis Antetokounmpo deserves to win the 2018-2019 NBA M.V.P.

On one hand, Antetokounmpo has emerged as one of the NBA’s most unique superstars. The 24-year-old led the Bucks to the league’s best regular season record, and will almost certainly be the face of the NBA for years to come. With unreal per game averages of 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.3 steals, and 1.5 blocks, Antetokounmpo is among the league leaders in almost every single of these categories. He is incredibly efficient on the offensive side, finishing third in points per game while also finishing seventh in true shooting percentage. What puts him ahead of the rest, however, is his knack for both offense and defense. He finished third in the league in both offensive and defensive win shares, whereas Harden placed outside of the top 100 in defensive win shares. Antetokounmpo played an instrumental role on the Bucks, which finished as the league’s best defense and the fourth best offense. While Harden’s Rockets did finish as the league’s second best offense, they also finished eighteenth in defense. Antetokounmpo had the second-best defensive rating, along with a plus/minus of plus 12.5 per 100 possessions. His combination of length, speed, skill, and IQ culminated in a P.E.R. of 30.89, which is twelfth all-time.

On the other hand, Harden was an offensive genius. Utilizing what may be one of the most unguardable moves in the NBA, his step-back three, Harden posted one of the best, if not the best, offensive seasons in NBA history. He was the first ever to average at least 36 points, 7 assists, and 6 rebounds. He posted 32 straight games with at least 30 points, the second-longest such streak in NBA history, only behind Wilt Chamberlain’s legendary 65 game streak. Additionally, he had eight games scoring 50 or more points this season. Harden carried the injury-plagued Rockets, a team that only had their regular starting five for 26 games, to the fourth seed in a competitive Western Conference. Unlike Antetokounmpo’s healthy, talented squad including all-star Khris Middleton, as well as other solid contributors Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon, and Brook Lopez, Harden had to deal with injuries to fellow all-star Chris Paul and towering big man Clint Capela. Harden’s P.E.R. of 30.57 also placed eighteenth all-time, but was still less than Antetokounmpo’s.

Choosing the actual M.V.P. is the most difficult part. Because Antetokounmpo and Harden play different positions, are in separate conferences, and are different players in general, it’s extremely tough to choose one thing that distinguishes one from the other. The most challenging component about this situation is that if any other player in any other season posted the same stat line of either Harden or Antetokounmpo, they would probably win M.V.P. However, the reason why I am choosing Antetokounmpo as my M.V.P. is his overall presence during games. His ability to affect possessions on both sides of the court allows him to have a larger influence on the game than any other player in the NBA. And while Harden did improve his defense this season, it simply cannot compare to that of Antetokounmpo. Nonetheless, it’s hard to go wrong with either player. Their historic seasons were a treat to watch and their unique play styles have undeniably helped shape the future of the NBA, and basketball in general.