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2019 NBA MVP race: The case for Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden to be co-MVPs

The Greek Freak and the Beard had two of the greatest seasons in NBA history. Was one really better than the other?

Getty Images/USA Today/Pete Rogers Illustrations

On Sunday, November 11th, 2018, the Houston Rockets began the day 4-7. This was actually an improvement: the Rockets began the season 1-5, losing to the Clippers twice, Utah once, and Portland once (and, beating the Lakers once, ooooooooo). From October 17th (Houston’s first game of the season) through November 11th, only a single player in a Rockets uniform had a positive plus-minus: Isaiah Hartenstein. He averaged 7.8 minutes across those first eleven games; basically, he didn’t play enough to suck as much as the rest of the Rockets.

Due to suspensions and injuries, several Rockets players didn’t suit up for all eleven of those games. James Harden only played in 8 of 11, but he averaged 26+ points per game, with 5+ rebounds, 7+ assists, and 2+ steals per game in those eight games. (He also averaged 5 turnovers per game and had a negative-4 plus-minus rating.) Again, Harden only played in 8 of those games, and the Rockets were 3-5. Chris Paul played in 9 of those games and the Rockets were 4-5 in games he played, and Carmelo Anthony played in 10 games with a 4-6 record, while Eric Gordon, who averaged the third most shots on the team during that stretch, was shooting less than 40% from the field, and less than 30% from three.

On the morning of November 11th, the Rockets had a .364 winning percentage, “good” for 22nd in the NBA. Houston played the Pacers that day, and James Harden had his first 40 point game of the season (and, he attempted 18 three-pointers, also the most of the young season). The Rockets beat the Pacers that day. From that game to the end of the season, the Rockets had the second best record in the entire NBA, 49-22 (three more wins than third place), a .690 winning percentage, nearly double that of their first eleven games. They went from being out of the playoffs entirely to the 4th seed in the postseason.

The only team with a better winning percentage or more victories during that time was the Milwaukee Bucks.

On Sunday, November 11th, the Milwaukee Bucks were 9-3 (they lost to Boston, Portland, and, hello, the Clippers), and the 11 players who averaged 5+ minutes per game over their first 12 games of the season ALL had a positive plus-minus. Giannis averaged 25+ PPG, 13+ RPG, 5+ APG, 1+ SPG, and 1+ block per game, while turning the ball over nearly five times per game (and, he had a positive 9.7 plus-minus).

The Bucks ended the regular season with the best overall record in the NBA (60-22) and earned themselves homecourt throughout the entire NBA playoffs. If the Bucks and the Golden State Warriors meet in the playoffs, the Warriors will have to win at least once on the road (they split the season series, actually, each team winning in the other’s arena). By my count, this season’s Bucks team is one of less than 80 teams in NBA history to win at least 60 games. The last team to do this was, you guessed it, the Houston Rockets last year, and the NBA MVP of last year, James Harden.

Disregard everything but the overall record and you’d probably say that Giannis Antetokounmpo is this season’s Most Valuable Player. He’s the best player on the best team, and he’s inarguably one of the five best players in the entire NBA. That was Harden’s argument for MVP last year, and it won him the honor. Will it be enough for Giannis this year?

If not, why not?

Giannis’ overall stats for the season are 27 PPG/12 RPG/5 APG on 58% shooting.

Harden’s overall stats for the season are 36 PPG/6 RPG/7 APG on 44% shooting (37% from three).

Harden forced himself into the MVP conversation because of how poorly Houston started and how well they ended, but also because of how well he played individually. Harden scored 2,818 points this NBA season. That’s nearly 700 points more than the player with the second most points, Paul George and his adorable 2,159 points (just kidding, 2100+ points in a season has occurred less than 200 times across NBA history; Kemba Walker also scored 2100+ this year, betcha didn’t know that, didja?). So, is 2,800 points in a single season a big deal?

Turns out, it’s a pretty big goddamn deal. 2,800+ points in a single season has occurred exactly ten times, including Harden this year, Wilt (obviously) did it four times, Michael (obviously) did it twice, and Kareem, Kobe, and Bob McAdoo each did it once. Harden is also the ONLY player in NBA history to average 36 PPG, 7 APG, and 6 RPG. Only he, Wilt, MJ, and Elgin Baylor have averaged 36 points per game in a single season (Wilt did it five times, GET REAL). Jordan did it in the 1986-87 season when he became the only other person, aside from Wilt, to score three thousand points in a season (the Bulls were 40-42 that year, hahaaaa). By the way, MJ did NOT win the MVP that year, though he obviously won the scoring title. No, Magic Johnson was the Most Valuable Player that season, as he led the Lakers to the only 60+ win record that year, and the #1 overall seed in the playoffs. The Lakers won the NBA Finals, and Magic was the Finals MVP.

So, Harden had an okay season this year.

However, Giannis is one of only five players in NBA history to average 27/12/5 for a season, the others being Wilt Chamberlain (twice), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, and Elgin Baylor. (By the way, Giannis will be going into the Hall of Fame, in case you were curious.) Giannis actually averaged 5.9 assists per game, not just a flat five. The reason I didn’t say that earlier is because I wanted you to see the list of players who averaged at least a flat five APG. Giannis is the ONLY player to average 5.9 assists per game, while also averaging 27 PPG and 12 RPG. Again: Giannis Antetokounmpo is the ONLY PLAYER IN NBA HISTORY TO AVERAGE 27-12-6(ish).

The last player to average 36+ PPG in a season did NOT win the MVP; the guy who led his team to 60+ victories that season received the award instead.

The last player to lead his team to 60+ wins in a season received the MVP (again, Harden last year).

Both Harden and Giannis had unique seasons this year: they are the ONLY players in history to achieve those numbers (again, Harden went 36-7-6, and Giannis went 27-12-5.9).

The Bucks, in an easier conference, had three more wins than the Warriors this season; the Rockets, in the tougher conference that also includes the Warriors, had four fewer. (The Rockets were 3-1 against the Dubs this season, betcha didn’t know that, either!)

Before this season began, I held a conviction deep in my basketball heart that 3,000 points in a season automatically made you the MVP. This conviction was rooted in error because not even Jordan won the MVP when he actually scored three god damn thousand points. One could argue that Harden had the best offensive season in thirty years. One could also argue that Giannis had one of the best overall seasons in NBA history.

Harden averaged 37+ PPG from that fateful 40 point game on November 11th. Had he averaged that for a season, he’d have scored over 3,000 points. And, if the Rockets had played .690 basketball all season, they’d have won as many games as Golden State. Do those first eleven games of the season affect our consideration of Harden for MVP so much that we can disregard the following 71?

One player was magnificent the entire season, from start to finish, and was the best player on the best team. The other player was even more magnificent, but for one-eighth less of the season than the other. Harden mattered more in a more condensed time-frame, but Giannis mattered the entire time.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t generally advocate splitting the baby. I like that we have to make tough, impossible decisions. Those choices are a projection of ourselves, even if we can’t necessarily define or explain why we made the choice. In politics, we Americans prefer to filter our choices into a binary of Democrat or Republican through a crucible of campaigning and debates, until we arrive at just two candidates, and only one winner. Those two final people define the parties more than the parties define the people, and thus our politics evolve and grow and change, along with ourselves. A parliamentary system of multiple parties and multiple choices make our decisions easier, because we can retreat into strict party adherence, rather than allegiance to an idea, or a feeling. A binary system allows us to change by discarding the less utile of our preferences, and distilling the moment into the necessities of Now. We can only nominate one person; we can only elect one candidate.

Basketball isn’t politics, though the Twittersphere insists the NBA behave like Washington, D.C. In basketball, we have two conferences, and we can only have one Champion. We don’t choose the Champ, we merely witness their ascension. But, we do have choices: who are the best 15 players, who’s the best coach, who’s the best bench player, who are the best defenders, and who’s the MVP. Those choices reflect the particular moment, and they enunciate how we feel. We’re living in strange, but inclusive times. Perhaps it’s time for us to change, and realize that strict adherence to the traditional rules isn’t always necessarily the correct choice. Sometimes, more than one thing matters. Sometimes, “most” doesn’t mean “only.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo has earned this season’s NBA MVP Award.

James Harden has earned this season’s NBA MVP Award.

We should acknowledge those two very simple facts and choose co-MVPs for this season. We can even explain it away as one for each conference.

Harden and Giannis are the most valuable players in the NBA this season. To choose one over the other is to choose strict adherence to the rules over allegiance to the truth. It’s foolish and beneath us. Both players had seasons for the ages, and both players made history, and both players earned the award. When Alexander the Great saw the Gordian Knot, he resolved the issue by cutting it with his sword, rather than unknotting it. He cut it into two pieces. One resolution, two halves of the same question: co-MVPs. So, let’s cut to the chase, and split the award. After all, rules are meant to be broken, aren’t they?

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