By, matt | April 12, 2019, 1:59 a.m.
With the regular season coming to a close, it’s time for everyone’s favorite pastime of reading inconsequential takes of pundits and bloggers who don't have an actual vote in the end of year awards… with that said, here’s my take on this year’s MVP race, dominated by two frontrunners from October to April, as well as my quick picks for the other (much less interesting) individual awards.
The Case For Harden
James Harden and his beard put together an instant classic of a season, solidifying his case for a back-to-back MVP nod. He was undeniably the biggest factor in turning the once 11-14 Rockets around to finish 4th in the West and from that point until the end of the season, he averaged 38.9 PPG, 7.2 APG, 6.9 RPG, and 2 SPG. He also made 5.1 3PG at over 36% and 10.5 FTG at just under 90%. And as if these counting stats aren’t face-melting enough, the advanced stats paint more of the same picture: he led the league in VORP (9.3), plus/minus (11.7), offensive plus/minus (10.6), win shares (13.9), and offensive win shares (10.5) and carried the largest load offensively, with a 40.7% usage rate… sheeeesh
Offensively, Harden has basically broken the game of basketball. On this side of the ball, the dude has no weakness and that’s not hyperbole. His isos are cold-blooded… this year he iso’d over 16 times per game, averaging 1.1 points per possession with an EFG% of 51%. And he can kill you any which way he wants… his ball handling is the best in the league (if not ever) and he’ll dribble defenders to sleep until he either blows by them or drills a step back jumper in their face. His PnR game is just as devastating… once Capella comes up to set a monster screen, defenses have to pick their poison. If they switch, Harden identifies the mismatch, pulls the ball back up top and it's death by iso. If the defender goes over the screen, Harden makes a beeline towards the rim, drawing in defenders, and then it’s death by floater, eurostep, dunk, kick out, or really whichever way he wants.
The relentless pressure this puts on a defense can’t be understated. It’s not like he’s scoring 30 a game and just gets his points and gets out. His ball dominance and IQ forces the defense to expend so much mental and physical energy every second he’s on the floor ‘cause he can just destroy you in every way imaginable. And there’s something to be said about defenders being cruelly sucked into guarding him 1 on 1… it's like Harden gets pleasure out of humiliating his man and will repeatedly put them on a stage that they desperately want to just jump off of.
And we also can’t talk Harden without addressing his notorious mastery of drawing fouls. On the dribble, if you guard him too closely, he’ll sweep the ball under your arms, draw contact, and go to the line. On his jumper, if you leave your feet, he’ll lunge into you, draw contact, and go to the line. On the drive, if you’re not 100% vertical, he’ll use his 6’5”, 220lb frame to barrel into your chest and arms, draw contact, and go to the line for an and-one. Defenders have resorted to just putting their hands straight up in the air, out of fear of fouling, and pray that he misses. So when I say he’s broken the game of basketball, what I mean is that he’s elite enough to drop 30 any given night without going to the line once, but he’s smart and crafty enough to use the rules of the game to his advantage and drop 40 or 50 and put the opposing team in foul trouble as he earns 10 free points in foul shots.
(I would actually recommend you don’t watch this…)
What’s even more impressive about this season is how Harden was able to do all of this with such little help around him. CP3 only played 60 games this year and it’s apparent Father Time is starting to knock on his door… he doesn’t have quite the same chops defensively and looks like he's slowing down a bit in general. And the Rockets’ next best player after him is Clint Capela. Capela’s a stud for sure and really compliments Harden’s game in the PnR, but it’s not like Harden has like a Khris Middleton or a Pascal Siakam to take some of the offensive load off his back. Defenses knew he
was the offense this year and gameplanned around him
. And he was still
able to put up monster numbers and carry his team to fourth in the West… and this is after the aforementioned 11-14 start, when everyone was readily writing them off as a team that might miss the playoffs. These are the sort of things that stick with voters. Yeah, the numbers are ridiculous and the wins are great, but the fact that the second leading scorer on the team averaged 20 fewer points per game than Harden really helps solidify his MVP case.
The Case for Giannis
Giannis Antetokounmpo, aka The Greek Freak, is indeed a freak, and coincidentally holds the record for the surname with the most consonants in NBA history… I’m not 100% sure this is true but after hearing Marv Albert have a stroke every time he tries to say it, I think it’s a safe bet.
Like Harden, Giannis’ stats this year were ridiculous. He put up 27.4 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 6 APG, 1.3 SPG, and 1.5 BPG. Harden has a big edge in scoring, yeah, but Giannis averaged almost twice as many boards and more than twice as many blocks… and these are stats that personify grit and toughness. He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty and do whatever it takes to get his team the W, as seen in his league-leading 17.5 PPG in the paint... which is somewhat of a rare trait among superstars today. And while the advanced stats are a little kinder to Harden in most categories this year, Giannis still holds his own, leading the league in defensive plus/minus (5.0) and defensive win shares (5.4), and ranking second in VORP (7.3), overall plus/minus (10.5), and win shares (13.8 -- only 0.1 behind Harden). So to me, these stats are almost a wash… Both Giannis and Harden score a ton and rack up assists, rebounds, steals, win shares, great plus/minus numbers, etc, etc… but more importantly, these aren’t just empty stats. Both guys had the highest usage rates on their respective teams by a huge margin but not at the cost of winning, which definitely can’t be said about every high-usage guy in the league.
Where the Greek Freak really makes his case for MVP tho, is in his all-around dominance. In transition, he really lives up to the moniker... I mean it takes him like 3 strides to get from half court to the rim. When he picks up speed you either have to get out of his way or risk being posterized:
And the Bucks took full advantage of this, playing at the 5th highest pace in the league, this year. When Giannis grabs one of his 10 defensive rebounds per game, it's off to the races… there are times when he’ll have multiple defenders in front of him to start the break but next thing you know, he’s stuffing the ball down the rim with the same defenders two paces behind him. It can be really demoralizing for opposing teams ‘cause I mean, how do you stop that? If you get in his way, he’s gonna either Euro step around you (and probably dunk on you) or end up shooting free throws.
And when you really think about this, it’s fuckin crazy because you have a 7-footer who runs the break like a guard, can post up, play the wing, slash, run the half court offense… I mean he just imposes his will on every facet of the game, and on both
sides of the ball.
And speaking of defense, he’s as positionless there as he is on offense. Jason Kidd was kind of a shitty coach, but he did have the right idea in trying to craft an all-switch team. And while he’s more or less a distant memory now, Giannis still embodies his ideal player; he can legit match up against any player 1-5 for entire possessions at a time. He’ll use his 7’3” wingspan to disrupt passing lanes out on the wing and swat anyone’s shot who ventures into his paint…
(And these are all weakside blocks too…)
The defensive counting and advanced stats alone make him a compelling DPOY candidate (spoiler: he’s my pick) and if he’s able to come away with both awards, he’d be the first to do so since MJ in ‘88. In MVP discussions, defense is often times an afterthought and only really brought up in “tiebreaker” situations... But to me, MVP candidates should be penalized for having glaring holes in their game, and the fact that Giannis is a legit DPOY frontrunner, while Harden plays defense at 50%, shouldn’t be an afterthought.
Now, Giannis’ offensive game is an interesting area for discussion, as a lot of pundits attribute his much improved half court game to the Bucks’ newly revised offensive system. Coach Bud and the Bucks’ front office have
definitely crafted the ideal team around Giannis and their philosophy is super simple: surround Freak with 4 shooters. That’s it. With 4 players that space the floor, Giannis has room to operate and options to kick out to. The two ideal scenarios in this offense are: 1) Giannis drives by his defender and dunks. 2) Giannis drives by his defender, forces help D, and kicks out to one of the four shooters for a trey. The strategy has done wonders for his game, as previously clogged lanes that magnified his one real weakness (his jumpshot) have transformed into a spread 5 set, giving Giannis enough room to do his thing. Yeah, the offense Bud put together plays to Giannis’ strengths and the argument could even be made that the offense was crafted to mask his shitty jumper... but I don’t think Giannis should be penalized for this. If anything, the new system makes him even more valuable to his team, as he’s generally more responsible for each offensive possession... his usage rate, points, and assists are all up from last year, which indicate he carried even more of the offensive load this season.
And I don’t think it’s left-field to have a COTY and MVP candidate on the same team in a given season. If a coach and player exemplify a perfect symbiotic relationship, why should that hurt either one’s case for an end of year award? MJ, Kobe, and Shaq played under Phil, Duncan played under Pop, Steph plays under Kerr, LeBron played under Spo… these guys were all fortunate enough to play for coaches who crafted successful offensive systems around them and still took home the MVP trophy multiple times throughout their careers (except Shaq who only won once… another story...). So why should an effective offensive system implemented by coach Bud negatively impact Giannis’ chances of winning MVP? Why should Giannis be penalized for finally being able to play under a competent coach?
Ok, so let’s compare the two frontrunners and get on with the verdict…
Again, looking at the numbers, it’s a wash. Harden’s offensive numbers are a little better but Giannis’ all-around numbers even things up. The advanced stats show more of the same, with neither guy really making a huge impression over the other.
Team success has always been a consideration in MVP talks (except for Westbrook’s triple-double season 2 years ago… another story...), but to me, the team success factor doesn’t tilt in either player’s favor this year. Yeah, Giannis’ Bucks finished with the best record in the league and landed the top spot in the (LeBron-less) East, but Harden’s Rockets are in the tougher conference and finished fourth after overcoming an 11-14 start. Harden also worked with less this year with CP3 missing significant time and played on a generally worse roster. Feels like another wash.
If we look at intangibles, I see yet another wash… Harden’s isos emasculate his defenders on a nightly basis and his sheer offensive presence puts immense pressure on the defense from tip off to final buzzer. Giannis’ physicality and intensity results in the seas opening up every time he makes a move towards the basket and his 7’3” wingspan makes guys second-guess coming into the paint, attributing to the Bucks’ league-leading defensive rating. Still a tie game.
Individual weaknesses are really the only area where we see any significant separation. Giannis can’t shoot. He has ugly ass jumpshot form that makes people cringe every time he pulls up and defenses encourage him to shoot by giving him enough room to park his BMW supercar between himself and the defender. Defenses don’t respect his shot enough to even go over screens, which can make the Bucks’ offense stagnant at times. And while Giannis’ EFG% was a hair under 60% this year, his 3P% was just over 25% and he was taking around 3 per game… not great.
Harden, on the other hand, can shoot but he certainly can’t defend… or at least isn’t willing to. On that end of the floor, he looks lackadaisical, apathetic, and disinterested. He’s slow to rotate, prone to blow-bys, and dies on every screen and a deeper dive into the defensive stats don’t help his case either… while he’s 1st in offensive plus/minus, he’s 51st in defensive plus/minus at 1.1. He’s also 21st in defensive win shares, and to be honest, I’m surprised he’s even that high on the list. And if you’re not an analytics guy, the eye test won’t lie... the Rockets have to hide him on the weakest player and even then, he consistently gets lost on screens and blown by on a regular basis. And this is nothing new -- it’s been his achilles heel his entire career:
It’s true that a lot of this is due to the offensive burden he carries and him having to conserve energy on defense. And to be fair, this might not entirely be his fault -- it’s very possible D’Antoni wants
him to conserve energy and is willing to rely on CP3, PJ Tucker, and Capela to clean up any defensive mistakes. And to be ever fairer, putting together an offensive season like Harden did this year would be good enough to take home the MVP trophy like 8 times out of 10, poor defense and all.
It’s tough to make an argument here one way or the other, as Giannis and Harden’s respective weaknesses didn’t manifest into a ton of losses or team chemistry issues or anything like that. But I will say that there is
a big difference between a weakness caused by lack of skill and a weakness caused by lack of effort. Giannis can’t shoot. He’s improved a little
over the years, but not substantially. But he does try -- he’s taken more 3s this season than any year prior and he’s a known gym rat who puts up thousands of shots after practice throughout the season. Harden doesn’t play defense. And the difference here is that any 6’8” 220 lb athletic, smart NBA player should be able to become a decent
defender if they put forth a certain level of effort. But like I said before, he’s just disinterested on that side of the ball. Yeah, it could be because he knows he can go down and score the next time he gets the ball or it could be a request of the coaching staff to conserve energy… But to me, in an MVP race this close, at the end of the day, you have to make an impact on every
facet of the game. And I’d rather give the award to the player who impacts every facet of the game at an A level, than to a player who impacts one facet at an A+ level.
Giannis for MVP.
Other awardsDefensive Player of the Year:
Rudy GobertRookie of the Year:
Trae YoungRunner up:
Luka Doncic6th Man of the Year:
Montrezl HarrellRunner up:
Lou WilliamsMost Improved Player:
De’Aaron FoxRunner up:
Pascal SiakamCoach of the Year:
Mike BudenholzerRunner up: