for all the major awards on Friday, and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s name is on two of them: MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. Paul George is also a finalist for both. James Harden is the third MVP finalist. Kudos to George, who had a phenomenal season somewhat undone by a shoulder injury that clearly affected him down the stretch and through the first round of the playoffs, but he’s out of the MVP race. It’s between Giannis and Harden. We all know this. And though we’re all also aware that this is a “regular-season award,” what Giannis is doing in these playoffs is the final validation anyone needs to confirm that the hardware belongs to him.
Again, none of this will actually impact the winner.
Votes were cast before the playoffs started.
But what Giannis is doing is what he did all season. He’s a one-man wrecking ball around which everything the best regular-season team in the league does, on both ends, revolves. I know you can largely say the same thing about Harden. Truth is, you can largely say this about any real MVP candidate. It’s why Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant aren’t serious candidates even though they’re two of the best players in the league, because there’s the perception that the Warriors could survive, and in fact thrive, without either.
So the Rockets would be sunk without Harden, yes. The Raptors would be sunk without Kawhi Leonard. The Blazers would be sunk without Damian Lillard. The Nuggets would be sunk without Nikola Jokic. The Sixers would be sunk without Joel Embiid. And, yes, the Bucks would be sunk without Giannis. But the difference is, WITH Giannis, the Bucks have risen to heights unmatched by any of those teams, both in the regular season and so far in the playoffs.
That context is important, because while playoff performances don’t tangibly factor into the MVP vote, they can, perhaps, validate things the voters were seeing and considering all along. Like Harden’s preposterous scoring rampage always being a little fishy, for instance.
It’s not to suggest 36 points a game isn’t 36 points a game. On a lot of levels, that’s a mark completely beyond reproach, context notwithstanding. But Harden did shoot just 44 percent from the field this season. He did shoot just 36 percent from three. If there were voters who quietly thought Harden gunned his way to an inflated regular-season scoring average, the playoffs have perhaps called into question the actual value of those numbers. If people are thinking about that now, voters likely considered it in April, too.
Consider that Harden got worse in virtually every statistical category from the regular season to the playoffs. He scored less. He shot worse from the field and from three. He got to the line less frequently, made a lower percentage of his free throws, and he dished out fewer assists. In other words, at least SOME of what Harden did in the regular season appears to have been circumstantial, a slight product of an unlimited amount of shots against less-prepared teams with the added benefit of looser, more gullible officiating.
It’s enough to create at least reasonable doubt as to the actual value-to-gimmick ratio of that production. And in a race this close, that’s all you need. Just a couple of voters raising their hand in the deliberation room saying, “You know, I’m not so sure about these numbers.”
There is nothing to question about what Giannis did in the regular season, and the playoffs have merely confirmed that. He is, after all, averaging almost the exact amount of points in the postseason as he did in the regular season, just over 27 a game, and that’s with seven games against the Celtics and Raptors, the second- and third-ranked defenses in the entire playoffs. Again, that doesn’t factor into the voting, but there was a solidness to Giannis’ production all year that did factor in, and we’re seeing why as the Bucks steam toward the NBA Finals.
If we’re being honest, the only leg on which Harden’s MVP case has to stand is sheer scoring. Again, he averaged over 36 points a game this season. Nobody has done that since Michael Jordan in 1986-87. But look at little closer, and you’ll see that Giannis actually scored more than Harden on a points-per-possession basis — 1.10 to 1.07, per Synergy Sports. Put another way, had Giannis shot as often as Harden, he would’ve scored more. In fact, even when you factor in Harden’s passing, Giannis outperformed him in terms of points generated per possession when combining shots and assists — 1.38 to 1.29.
That said, this isn’t a numbers conversation, except in the sense that the numbers, certainly as the playoffs have played out, merely validate what we saw with our eyes all season long: That Giannis was the best player on the best team, and we know what we saw all season long was absolutely real because it’s still working under different, more difficult circumstances. Everyone in the world knows he is going to put his head down and drive to the bucket, and still no one can stop it.
When Harden’s step-back three was schemed for, he didn’t adjust. When he didn’t get to the foul line as much, he didn’t adjust. He just kept firing away at mediocre percentages and the points still piled up but not when the Rockets needed them most. Giannis has had his own playoff challenges, particularly in Game 1 against Boston when they threw a wall of defenders in front of him every time he looked up. But the substance of his production has, all season long, prevailed. And it’s been no different on the biggest stage.
In the end, Harden’s regular season was historic. So was Antetokounmpo’s. He’s the only player in history to average at least 27 points, 12 rebounds, 5.5 assists, one steal and one block. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the only guy to come close to those numbers, falling just short of the assist mark in 1975-76. But Kareem “only” shot 53 percent from the field. Giannis shot 58 percent.
When it comes to Giannis and Harden, when the offensive numbers are this close, don’t you have to lean toward the guy who is also up for Defensive Player of the Year? The guy who was the best defender on the best defense in the league? Again, all this has been validated in the playoffs. The Bucks are still the best defense in the postseason. Giannis is still dominating on both ends. It might not factor into the vote, but it will certainly factor into the regret if Harden is to somehow win this award. Because it’s plain as day right now. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the MVP. I suspect that will become official very soon.