James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo Define MVP Debate

The NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award has always been hard to pin down. What does “valuable” even mean? It’s oft-debated and rarely identified, in part because even the concept of “value” is transient.

Google defines it as “the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something.”

But there you see the problem, right? Held by whom? Who decides the importance or usefulness?

And even that can change. If you’re in a desert and you see an oasis, something to hold the water would be just dandy. If you’re in a lake, that same container doesn’t have the same worth because it doesn’t have the same usefulness.

Broadly speaking, the “value” debate comes down to two camps. First, there are the “best player on the best team” proponents. Then there are the “best player” advocates.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden take this debate to a different level because they represent both camps.

Best Player on the Best Team

Mar 17, 2019; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) dunks during the first quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The “Greek Freak” plays for the Milwaukee Bucks, owners of the league’s best record, and he is easily the best player on that team. Some will argue he’s the best player in the league too.

They do have some ground to make that argument. He is only the second player in NBA history to notch 25 points, 12 rebounds and 6 assists per game (with Oscar Robertson being the first), according to Basketball-Reference.com.

Antetokounmpo is destroying the dunk record, with 250 unassisted dunks and counting, per NBA.com. And he plays both sides of the court. He, Anthony Davis and Paul George are the only three players in the league with an Offensive Real Plus-Minus and a Defensive Real Plus-Minus over 2.5, per ESPN.

And, the Bucks are sitting on top of the NBA right now with a 48-22 record, two full games ahead of the Toronto Raptors. If you’re a more of a net rating junkie, Milwaukee is plus-8.7, nearly three points better than the Golden State Warriors. So no matter how you fry your cheese curds, they’re the best team.

Freak is not just the best player on the Bucks, he’s the reason for their success. If you’re talking about value as the “usefulness of a thing,” then we’re talking pretty doggone useful right here.

Milwaukee has outscored its opponents by 538 points when he is on the court this season. It has outscored opponents by a meager 68 when he has sat.

Best player on the best team goes to Giannis.

Best Player

Mar 17, 2019; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) dunks during the first quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

But there is also a valid argument for James Harden as just a better player, period. He is leading the league in total points by a mile. With 2,456, he has 541 more than second-place Paul George. For perspective, that’s how many points separate George from No. 33 Nikola Jokic.

Harden is actually scoring 47.6 points per 100 possessions, which is, as near as we can tell, the highest in history. Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50 points per game, but that was with a pace around 130 and while playing almost every minute of every game. Reddit user “Pistons” estimates he averaged 38.0 points per 100 possessions.

And while Oscar Robertson is the only one to touch Freak’s box score numbers, no one has breathed near Harden’s, who is the only player in history to average 35 points and 7 assists. He’s also one of only four players (Wilt Chamberlain, Rick Barry and Elgin Baylor being the others) to average 35 points and 6 boards.

And the only other player to ever average 35 points and 2 steals is Michael Jordan.

So when you put that collection of numbers together, it’s just…silly.

And, he’s doing all that with a very efficient 61.0 true shooting percentage. Look, when your season comps consist only of the greatest players in history, you might be ARE having one of the greatest seasons in history.

And if you’re having one of the greatest seasons in history, you have a good case for the best player in the NBA that season, especially when it’s not a flash in the pan.

This is the fourth time in five seasons that Harden will be top-two in MVP voting. He won last year.

He’s scored over 1,700 more points than anyone in the league over that span, and twice as many as all but 32 players.

People criticize his free throws, but he’d be leading the NBA in scoring even if there were no free throws.

And, while Harden was justifiably criticized for his defense in some previous seasons, he’s gradually improved to being a positive on that end as well. He’s not as good as Giannis, but better than you might think.

According to Synergy, Harden has defended 800 possessions, giving up 0.856 points per, which puts him in the 83rd percentile. (Compare that with Giannis’ 729 possessions at 0.875 points per possession and 78th percentile.)

Harden is also second in steals per game (just .02 behind Paul George for first), leads the league in deflections and is seventh in defensive loose balls recovered. With 52 blocks, he’s also tied for third among guards.

I’m not arguing the Beard is better than the Freak on defense. I’m arguing that the gap between them isn’t what some might suggest. And, dare I say it, Harden might even be a good defender (gasp).

Maybe he is a two-way player too.

Both guys have a great argument for MVP, and both are deserving winners. It might just come down to which notion of value you prefer, mixed with a healthy dose of subjectivity since Antetokounmpo and Harden more than fit either definition.