Greek goes for gold: Diving into Giannis Antetokounmpo's MVP candidacy
The NBA regular season may be winding down, but the MVP race is just heating up, as Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo, Houston's James Harden and Oklahoma City's Paul George close in on the sport's top individual honor.
No matter how you dissect it, this award race features three players having all-time seasons: Giannis, the dunking, shot-swatting, elastic European machine leading the burgeoning Bucks to the league's best record; Harden, the hard-charging bull with ballerina feet and an unguardable southpaw step-back; and George, the smooth, suave, silent assassin, shutting down All-Stars on one end of the floor and carrying the OKC offense on the other.
Antetokounmpo is currently the betting favorite, a massive swing from the Vegas odds just six weeks ago. But while the Rockets and Thunder toggle between smoldering hot streaks and ice-cold stretches, Giannis and the Bucks keep ticking as the NBA's metronome.
The 24-year-old three-time All-Star is now averaging 27.0 points, 12.6 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game on 58/24/72 percent shooting. He is on pace to join fellow one-name icons – Wilt, Elgin, Oscar and Kareem – as the only players to ever post a 27-12-5 stat line, except he is doing with much greater efficiency in far fewer minutes. (Antetokounmpo's 32.9 minutes per night are 32nd in the league, compared to Harden and George who rank in the top three.) Antetokounmpo has also posted a 30.1 PER this year, which would make him just the 11th player in NBA history to crack the elusive player efficiency rating benchmark. (Harden is knocking on the door at 29.9 PER as well.)
Not only does Giannis have historic statistics on his side, but he is also the heartbeat of the NBA's best team. Milwaukee (51-17) is 2.5 games clear of Toronto for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, and 4.5 games better than the West's best team, the defending champion Golden State Warriors. The Bucks' plus-9.2 point differential is miles better than the league's second-best number (Golden State at plus-5.8), and would be the 17th best mark ever. Milwaukee is more than just a typical one seed; this is a unit that holds up as one of the best teams ever.
Everyone is happy to write off the Bucks' improvement as a coaching change, while insinuating that George and especially Harden are dragging scrubs towards the top of the Western Conference. And yes, flipping the Jason Kidd/Joe Prunty tandem into Mike Budenholzer has certainly elevated the organization. But much of the credit still goes to Antetokounmpo, whose energy and selflessness allows his teammates to be their best selves.
Outside of Middleton, I don't recall anyone – including myself – singing the praises of Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon, Brook Lopez, Pat Connaughton or any of the others before the year. (Well, except for Connaughton; I've stanned for PC since his Notre Dame days.) It's not an accident that almost everyone on the team is having a career year. Antetokounmpo deserves recognition for that.
Harden's incredible offensive output – 36.0 points and 7.5 assists – is truly remarkable, and he would be the first player to ever hit those per-game numbers. George's ability to pair swarming defense with a sneakily historic 28-8-4 stat line (something only 11 players have accomplished) certainly warrants acknowledgement, especially as he wrests OKC's top option status away from known alpha dog Russell Westbrook.
But if Harden's case relies upon his extraordinary game log, Giannis checks that box too. George's candidacy is centered upon his phenomenal two-way play, but Giannis is arguably better in both areas. And he is doing so for the best team in the league, Golden State be damned. Harden and George may have superior MVP moments, but that's only because Giannis and the Bucks have so thoroughly smashed their opponents in the first 47 minutes of the game that there have been so few opportunities for memorable game winners.
There probably isn't another human on earth capable of making this type of destruction look so easy in real time:
In the end, the closeness of this race has been largely overblown.
When the best player on the best team has the elite offensive numbers to thrash any system and versatile defensive chops as a wing stopper and a rim protector, the vote is easy. Harden will likely grab his fourth top-two finish in five years and George will earn votes for the first time since his gruesome 2014 leg injury.
Because Giannis is your 2018-19 MVP.
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