The 2018-19 NBA season featured truly spectacular performances from some of the biggest stars in the game. A number of pages in the NBA record book were rewritten this season, but now comes the challenge of determining which player deserves to capture the MVP award. The voters are poised to have a painstaking time choosing between the Houston Rockets guard James Harden and Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Harden’s claim to the MVP is staked to his historically prolific scoring ability that allowed him to average 36.1 PPG. To put this achievement in context, 36.1 PPG is the highest mark over a full season since Michael Jordan averaged 37.1 PPG in 1986-87.
Harden single-handedly carried the Rockets’ offense this season as they dealt with significant injuries to stars Chris Paul and Clint Capela. Out of the Rockets’ 14 games in January, Paul missed 12 and Capela missed eight games. Yet, Harden averaged an otherworldly 43.6 PPG during this stretch as the Rockets went 8-6 and kept their playoff hopes afloat. Since the duo has returned from injury, the Rockets have performed significantly better and now hold the third seed in the Western Conference playoffs, with hope still alive of capturing the second seed.
Additionally, Harden is averaging 7.6 APG, 6.6 RPG, two steals per game and 0.7 blocks per game. These numbers demonstrate the depth of his playmaking abilities that allow him to be more than merely a scorer. In fact, Harden is leading the NBA in real plus/minus with 7.58, with an astounding 7.57 coming from his offensive plus/minus. Yet, it is important to note that he has very little effect on the defensive end of the floor as his defensive plus/minus is only 0.01.
Harden’s game is juxtaposed by the incredibly well-rounded play of Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo. This season, Antetokounmpo is averaging 27.7 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 5.9 APG, 1.3 steals per game and 1.5 blocks per game. While none of these individual numbers necessarily jump off the page, no one has ever matched Antetokounmpo’s production across all five of these categories in a single season. Antetokounmpo is also third in the NBA with a real plus/minus of 6.65, trailing only Harden’s 7.58 and Paul George’s 7.37.
A hallmark of Antetokounmpo’s game is his versatility as he combines his tremendous six-foot, 11-inch frame with uncanny ball-handling skills for a player of his size. Antetokounmpo is a threat as a point guard orchestrating the offense, while he also serves as a force in the paint.
Similarly, Antetokounmpo’s defensive abilities are elite, as he can ably guard all positions on the court. Antetokounmpo is a stout on-ball defender because of his unique size and strength. Furthermore, Antetokounmpo has recorded several highlight-worthy blocks this season, most recently against star center Joel Embiid. These moments add credence to Antetokounmpo’s campaign for defensive player of the year.
Antetokounmpo’s ability to elevate his game this season has coincided with the Milwaukee Bucks’ emergence as a team that has claimed the best record in the NBA, which is currently 60-21. Unquestionably, Antetokounmpo is the driving force of the Milwaukee team by serving as the anchor on the only team that ranks in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
The MVP decision will inevitably come down to whether the voters opt for Harden’s historic offensive production or Antetokounmpo’s status as the best current two-way player in the league who also led his team to the league’s best record. There is obviously no wrong answer, but Harden’s case is more resonant because of his unparalleled production and his ability to carry the Houston Rockets through turmoil this season. If Harden prevails, this accomplishment would give him two consecutive MVP awards.