Former ESPN writer and founder of The Ringer Bill Simmons once proposed injecting excitement into the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award discussion by handing out trophies of various weights depending on the quality of the race and the player’s performance. The greater the player’s season and the tougher the competition, the bigger and heavier the trophy — from a one-pounder for the weakest victory to a 40-pounder for a pantheon-level performance.
This year’s race may not quite deserve a 40-pounder, but it has been wildly entertaining. In one corner, you have Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, a 7-foot cheat code with the athleticism of a guard and the wingspan of Mr. Fantastic. In the other corner, you have Houston Rockets guard James Harden, a one-man band who earned his coveted first MVP award last season with incredible statistical production and hasn’t slowed down since. Some people look for different traits from an MVP candidate, so with the NBA regular season winding down, let’s break down the case for each of these amazing players.
A quick glance at the per game numbers suggests that there’s no contest here — Harden should be the MVP. After working perfectly alongside the newly acquired Chris Paul to help the Rockets earn the No. 1 seed last season, Harden has had to take on much more of the load this season with major contributors such as Paul and center Clint Capela missing time with injuries, and that shows in his mind-boggling numbers. Harden is averaging 36.4 points, 6.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game, according to Basketball Reference. If the season ended today, Harden would finish with the seventh-highest individual scoring season of all time.
Antetokounmpo’s statistics, while impressive, do not stack up to Harden’s: He averages 9 points fewer at 27.4, and while he does boast a decided edge in rebounding at 12.5, his six assists also lag behind Harden. But let’s take a closer look at some other numbers that turn the tables on this debate.
A large part of Harden’s eye-popping totals come from his 40.66% usage rate, which would place second all-time behind only Russell Westbrook’s 2017 MVP campaign. Harden’s ability to consistently produce when the focus rests entirely on him is impressive in its own right, but it does explain the historic nature of his numbers. Antetokounmpo has a similarly massive impact on the game, but does so with a usage rate of 32.1, meaning he needs fewer opportunities to influence the game.
Antetokounmpo’s edge in efficiency is reflected in both players’ shooting percentages. Harden’s 43.8% mark from the field pales in comparison to Antetokounmpo’s uber-efficient 58%. In addition, despite Harden’s ability to score 3-pointers, Antetokounmpo holds a decisive advantage in effective field goal percentage, which adjusts for the fact that threes are worth more than twos, as well as true shooting percentage, which takes free throws into account.
Looking at per-36 minute numbers emphasizes Harden’s reliance on massive opportunity. Harden plays four minutes more per game than his competitor, so this adjustment gives a clearer picture of what each is accomplishing during his time on the court. Antetokounmpo’s numbers jump to 30/13.7/6.6, while Harden’s “drop” to 35.3/6.3/7.3.
This is a great MVP race, so I can certainly see why Harden would garner votes. The two are in a dead heat in multiple measures of overall impact, with nearly identical player efficiency ratings and win shares. But if you look at the standings, you see the best reason for picking Antetokounmpo and the factor that separates him from Harden for me.
The Bucks have the best record in the NBA at 57-20 and are on pace to win over 60 games. The Rockets, meanwhile, are 49-28 and hold the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference. More importantly, the Bucks’ plus-9.3 point differential, which is often a better reflection of a team’s performance, is by far the best in the league. There were times this season when the Bucks graded as one of the top teams of all time statistically.
Antetokounmpo’s fingerprints are all over the Bucks’ success: Milwaukee’s net rating drops from a fantastic 12.7 with Antetokounmpo to a pedestrian 3.7 without the Greek Freak, according to NBA.com, whereas Houston only drops 2 points in net rating from 4.7 to 2.7 when Harden departs. Per 100 possessions, Antetokounmpo owns an offensive rating of 121 (which should ideally be higher) and a defensive rating of 99 (which should ideally be lower), both of which outstrip Harden’s marks of 118 and 108, respectively.
Antetokounmpo turns a good team into a great one when he’s on the court, and Harden keeps a squad with underwhelming talent afloat. Both are valiant causes, but I side with the guy who leads the best team, and that’s Antetokounmpo. He deserves to be rewarded for winning, which is the whole point of playing.
The great part about having such a neck-and-neck race is that this could all change even in the final eight or so games. With the talent Antetokounmpo and Harden possess, it’s certainly possible for either to separate himself. That’s what’s cool about this era of the NBA; there are so many talented and charismatic stars to capture our imagination. Let’s just hope this level of intrigue persists into the postseason.
Aidan Berg is a sophomore writing about sports. He is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Berg is the Word,” runs every other Tuesday.