Moore’s NBA MVP Vote: The Deciding Factor in James Harden vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo
USA Today Sports. Pictured: James Harden,
- It's a razor-thin race between James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo for 2018-19 NBA MVP, but Matt Moore has settled on a winner.
- He weighs both players' cases, what it really means to be league MVP and narrows in on the deciding factor between the two.
You have to decide what matters.
I could build a case for any top-tier player to win MVP. I could extrapolate Basketball Reference to show how no one has done what that player has done, or how the only players who have are legends. I could build you a narrative, weave you a tapestry to decide it.
But to decide who should be crowned 2018-19 NBA MVP between James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo, you have to decide what really matters in this sport. You can’t just have a working definition of valuable — you have to go beyond that and ask yourself what great players owe to their teams, and what they are in pursuit of.
The answer is subjective, and you can reach either conclusion and be no more or less wrong. These two players have had simply legendary seasons that will not be forgotten, and both are worthy of winning it.
That one will win the award will not be cheating the other out of it — the winner will have simply garnered more votes from a voting base that is going to tear itself to pieces trying to decide between the two.
I suppose you’d like to get on with it. Very well.
Let’s decide who should be MVP.
The Numbers: James Harden vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo
No surprise, Harden makes his bread here.
The case for Harden, as I outlined here, is most broadly built on the back of his statistical profile: It’s otherworldly production under an absurd usage rate balanced by a remarkable efficiency given the drain usage plays on such metrics, and it’s an extremely compelling argument.
No other player has done what these two have done this season.
Harden is scoring the second-most points per game in the past 50 years and, when we adjust for pace, the most points per 100 possessions … ever.
The list of all-time scoring greats above 36 points since 1969 is as follows: Jordan and Harden. That’s it. To do so while averaging seven assists per game leading an elite offense with good (but not great) shooting efficiency really truly is an extraordinary accomplishment.
Honestly, that stands on its own and might transcend the award itself.
Giannis’ numbers are similarly unreplicable. If you judge him on only points, rebounds, assists and field goal percentage, the list is just him and Kareem.
That Giannis is not all-time in a single category but instead so prolific across all these categories perfectly contrasts him and Harden: Harden is doing one thing better than almost anyone alive ever has outside of two people — Wilt Chamberlain, in a far weaker era of competition, and Jordan — while Giannis is contributing across the board in ways we haven’t seen since the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.
There are also some really interesting discussion points with the per-100-possessions numbers. Harden’s scoring is obviously, as previously stated, the best ever since possession data became available. Giannis is second this season, however, at 38.0. The gap also narrows considerably in assists.
These numbers are important to consider because the big dings on Antetokounmpo’s statistical profile is impacted by the fact he simply plays only 32 minutes per game because the Bucks are so often absolutely demolishing teams. Harden deserves credit for lifting the load every night at 37 minutes, but there’s something to be said for the efficiency with which Antetokounmpo comes in, wrecks everything and then coasts out victories.
The fact that Antetokounmpo has better shooting figures is also notable. But that comes with a ton of needed context.
For starters, it’s massively impressive that Antetokounmpo has a better effective field goal percentage because eFG% factors in the impact of shooting 3s vs. 2s. Giannis has been so effective inside as to balance out the massive advantage Harden has in taking so many perimeter shots. The same is true for True Shooting percentage, given that Antetokounmpo is 15 percentage points worse from the stripe.
Harden’s usage is a monster drain on this, however. He has the best effective field goal percentage of any player with a usage rate above 35% behind himself, last year. Antetokounmpo, meanwhile, has the best effective field goal percentage for a player with a usage rate above 30% outside of Steph Curry several times, LeBron James in 2014 and Shaquille O’Neal twice.
So there are arguments and counterarguments, on and on.
What Does Most Valuable Really Mean?
Most valuable, as far as I define it, is most impactful.
That means you need to evaluate how the team performs with each player on the floor. And it’s where the numbers start to tilt dramatically in Antetokounmpo’s favor:
These numbers require way more context to truly understand them. They’re also the numbers that most often draw criticism.
A few quick reasons I think these numbers are important:
- The point of professional sports is: A) Money and B) winning, in that order. As far as the games go, winning is what matters.
- You win by outscoring your opponent. The more you outscore your opponent by, the more you beat them by, thus winning more thoroughly.
- Plus-minus is, at its heart, a metric used to evaluate how much you won by. Did you squeak past? Or did you bludgeon them so badly they will never look in your direction again?
- Offensive, defensive and net ratings evaluate how the offense and defense performed, then by how much a team beat their opponent with a player on the floor, adjusted for pace. So if you play faster, you have more possessions. And if you play slower, you have fewer possessions. So a slow-paced, grind-it-out, six-point game might be the same as a faster 12 point win. This metric is literally the most accurate definition of how much the team beat the other team when a player is on the floor.
In 2017 — the one and only time I got an official vote — I voted for James Harden over Russell Westbrook and Kawhi Leonard.
A huge factor in that decision wasn’t just Harden’s unreal statistical production, but how the Rockets were dominant with Harden on the floor while the Thunder were mediocre with Westbrook on-court. Harden’s season was the synthesis of production crossed with impact, while Leonard’s was defined by impact and Westbrook’s was defined by production.
You’re seeing the same effect this season with Antetokounmpo. When he’s on the floor, putting up that unreal production (even if less prolific than Harden’s), the Bucks kill teams. They demolish them. They absolutely pummel them like Thanos beating the nanotech off Tony Stark.
When Harden is on-court, the Rockets win and win by a decent amount.
I’m not particularly driven by the off-court numbers, and they favor Antetokounmpo here, too. I care about how your team performed when you were on the floor.
The reason they matter in this context is because of the endless teammates debate.
The easiest way to get around these numbers is to say “Ah, ah, ah! Giannis has better teammates! Harden had Melo and MCW to start the year and then Clint Capela and Chris Paul were hurt!” And all this is true, and a good reason to excuse the Rockets’ early struggles, which Harden was a part of when evaluating Harden’s season.
However, consider the following two points:
1. When I really started diving into these issues, I realized that if you reward a player for having bad teammates you, by extension, have to then punish a player for having great teammates. And that feels inherently wrong and against the spirit of the game.
The whole point of a great player should be to lift his guys up. If that’s scoring and being ruthless and driving them, great. If it’s being an awesome distributor and teammate, all the better. Your performance should raise the bar no matter what kind of teammates you have, and too often our evaluation of “good” and “bad” teammates is reflected by how the team performs … which the star player directly impacts.
2. The argument this Rockets team was not as good as last year’s team, at least until the All-Star break, is completely valid. But that’s also built on how they performed when Harden was on-court this season.
No one was saying Capela-Paul-P.J. Tucker-Eric Gordon was a bad group of guys in the Western Conference Finals last season, nor were they saying that the Bucks had an All-Star super-loaded team when they were a first-round out — or even in preseason when hopes had Milwaukee at 50 wins, not 60.
A few more points:
- Capela and Paul were around, for the most part, in the front part of the season when the Rockets started 11-14. The Rockets took off when they were hurt, which is surely a testament to Harden’s scoring exploits. But Harden wasn’t lifting those guys up to start the season, either.
- The Rockets have been killer with both versions of this team: Before Capela and Paul got hurt, and after. They didn’t have the whole squad until after the All-Star break, sure, but they had pieces.
- Finally, even in the best stretch of the season for Harden in this category — since the All-Star break (which has been about only seven weeks) — Harden’s Net Rating is still +11.3, which is stellar, don’t get me wrong. But it’s still behind Antetokounmpo’s mark for the entire season.
The big takeaway from these numbers is that when Antetokounmpo has been on the floor this season, the Bucks have been world-destroyers. When Harden has been on the floor this season, the Rockets have been a good team — and that includes early when they were a bad team, the middle when they were hurt/mediocre and the end of the year when they were great.
Harden deserves as much credit for the finish to the season as he does blame for the start, but both sides must have representation in the discussion.
It might be tough to hold Harden to the standard of trying to raise first a flawed roster and later an injured corps to greatness, but guess what?
That’s the burden you have to carry to win Most Valuable Player.
The Deciding Factor Between the Two
A central argument I made in Giannis’ case was that how specific things Antetokounmpo has done this season have led to the Bucks’ dominance: They’re the second-best 3-point scoring team behind Houston in part because of the gravity that he draws, and they’re the best defensive team in the league in large part because of his physical omnipresence and playmaking.
The Rockets are going to have a top-10 offense of all time. Harden, no doubt, is the biggest reason why. I’d put him at 70% of the reason for that — and that’s with Mike D’Antoni as coach and Chris Paul and Clint Capela on board for most of the season. He’s been that incredible. Yet their margin of victory is less than half of that of Milwaukee because of their defense. The Rockets compromised on that in a way that they didn’t last season.
Meanwhile, Giannis is arguably the Defensive Player of the Year while doing all that stuff on offense. I don’t believe that you have to be a good defensive player to win MVP; we have a million examples of worthy winners who defy that. But when your defense costs you wins, even if you wind up with 50-plus, that matters.
This is the most core and important question between these two for me: Did they do everything they could, and did they do what they did in the best possible performance, to make their team the best they could?
I can definitively say the answer is yes for Antetokounmpo. He can’t shoot, but he got to the rack over and over and set up teammates for 3-pointers anyway. Their offense was elite, just not historic. He led the league’s best defense.
With Harden, he did so much to carry them, but he did so at the cost of assists to set up teammates and defense, despite having the best on-ball defensive season of his career. (Again, this thing is razor-thin close.)
In 2017 and 2018, Harden was a maestro. He ruled the world like Neo in “The Matrix,” like he had his own personal cheat code. And he did so while playing the best defense he played since leaving Oklahoma City. In 2019, he took his own game to the height of what it could be, but I’m not sure that pursuit made his team the best it could be.
Maybe it really was his teammates. Maybe there was no other way. But there’s at least some doubt there.
There is none with Giannis Antetokounmpo.
That might be unfairly judging Harden against his past performances in different seasons with different circumstances, but there has to be some answer to the question: “Why were the Rockets not elite this year?”
It’s not just injuries, because every team has injuries, even if Houston’s were more severe. It could have been injuries, but the context of the season says differently.
So Who Should Win MVP: Harden or Antetokounmpo?
I’ve got one final chart for you.
The NBA MVP Award is for the entire regular season.
Not for when your team is healthy. Not for when things are going well. Not for when you figure out your roster. Not for when you play your best basketball.
It’s for the entire season.
You can look at this and rightly say: “OK, sure the Bucks have been better than the Rockets in each 10-game split, but what about Harden and Giannis?” Except to make that argument suggests that you believe a player’s performance does not impact his team’s.
Were these numbers close?
If Antetokounmpo were ahead by two or three points while averaging 24 points, 9 rebounds and 3 assists? No question, it’s James Harden who is MVP. But Antetokounmpo isn’t, and those numbers aren’t. Those numbers are massively ahead, split by split, and Antetokounmpo is averaging 27-13-6 while leading the best defense in the league.
Harden’s highs have been higher — this might have been the second-best offensive season we’ve ever seen behind Steph Curry’s 2015-16 season when he hit 402 3-pointers.
But Giannis Antetokounmpo has been the most impactful player in the 2018-19 season.
And that’s why Giannis Antetokounmpo is your NBA Most Valuable Player.