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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.

Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Giannis Antetokounmpo

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?

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