Giannis or Harden? MVP race is all a matter of philosophy

Yahoo Sports

The ballots haven’t been sent out yet and the NBA season is still games from the finish, but minds have likely been made up regarding the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award, a battle that technically highlights the exploits of Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden.

The result will speak more to the voters’ sensibilities than the quality of the so-called finalists.

A philosophical war is being waged as Antetokounmpo and Harden have impressive MVP cases — which will lose a bit of steam because the league won’t announce the winner until late June, when the arguments will be smothered by the playoffs.

Every year, the award’s criteria seemingly change. Very few times has the result been cut and dried, and this season the main candidates are as disparate as any two favorites the league has seen.

Harden is the impressive offensive machine, playing with complete freedom in a system that’s tailored to him in an offensive era. Antetokounmpo is the more complete player on the better team — period.

The MVP race is down to Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. James Harden. (Getty)
The MVP race is down to Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. James Harden. (Getty)

Each man excels best in the box he’s placed in, with very little argument against him. A vote for one will be an endorsement of specific values rather than an indictment of the other’s perceived flaws — perhaps this year more than any other.

Harden is obliterating traditional NBA norms, with outlandish 3-point attempts and a seemingly endless reservoir of energy to carry the Rockets from a brutal Game 7 hangover to months in which opposing defenses are left hugging the commode.

His Chamberlain-esque production is matched only by the discussion of how he achieves his 50-point feats: by dribbling the basketball into dust and forcing the hands of officials for fouls, while bending the “two steps and a gather” rules and pushing the boundaries of traveling.

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo illustration)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo illustration)

Antetokounmpo is playing beyond his gifts as an incomplete product who has mastered the angles with long-armed drives to the basket, not planting himself into the paint but reaching to the rim in ways that cannot be duplicated — which obscures his lack of jump shot.

He’s the most impactful defensive player in basketball by the numbers (plus-minus, defensive win shares, etc), leading the Bucks to the league’s best record with a handful left to play. The roster — built around his unique and unconventional gifts — complements Antetokounmpo as much as he completes it.

The beauty is in the ambiguity because the league offers no clear definition for how a voter should cast his or her vote for an award that carries so much historical weight. It’s left up to each individual voter and that has led to some fascinating results.

Is it about the best player? Or the one whose team can’t be without him? Or the one whose stats are so gaudy, all other factors need not matter?

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook is about to average a triple-double for a third straight season, but unlike in 2017, the media won’t reward him with the MVP simply because he compiled double-digit statistics in rebounds and assists.

Has the triple-double desensitized to voters? Perhaps, but the narrative that drove Westbrook’s campaign over Harden in 2017 doesn’t feel the same, especially with the benefit of time. Since the playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1984, Westbrook was the only winner who didn’t play for a team that won at least 50 games, with the Thunder going 47-35.

Yet Westbrook’s name is nowhere to be found this year despite the standard set by voters.

The Thunder are 44-33 and likely to match their 2017 record, and Harden could rightfully feel robbed of an MVP because of some arbitrary numbers.

Should Harden repeat, it’s likely because he’ll receive extra credit for helping the Rockets recover from an 11-14 start for a 50-win season.

For this voter, 50 games is the starting point for considered candidates, although it isn’t the same for all.

When Steve Nash won back-to-back MVPs in 2005 and ’06, it wasn’t because anyone believed he was the best player in basketball or even that his Phoenix Suns were true title contenders. In hindsight (and even then), Shaquille O’Neal believes he was robbed of a second MVP in 2005, and Kobe Bryant’s insane scoring bursts on an underwhelming Lakers team went unrewarded in ’06.

At the time, though, Nash was the headliner for a new style the rough-and-tumble NBA was slow to embrace, with the “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns catching the league by surprise with their pace, space and shooting. It was a delightful diversion from games routinely decided in the 80s.

So when young star Amare Stoudemire missed the entire 2005-06 season because of injury and Phoenix kept it moving with Nash scoring more and the Suns shooting more threes and playing at an even faster pace, it was hard to take the award from Nash — even though it’s not supposed to belong to anyone when the season tips off.

LeBron James was coming off two straight MVPs in Cleveland entering the 2010-11 season, but heading to Miami in the wake of the television disaster known as “The Decision” turned off many voters before the season tipped off.

LeBron James should probably have a couple more MVP awards. (AP)
LeBron James should probably have a couple more MVP awards. (AP)

Add to it, Derrick Rose was carrying a Bulls team that didn’t feel as talented while saying very little made him an easy alternative.

History hasn’t shined on Rose’s award because of his injuries and other off-the-court factors, but the logic in keeping James off many ballots seems childish with distance. But Rose was electrifying, surprising, and the best player on the best regular-season team that year, a narrative the voters chose as the main criteria for the award.

In these cases, the statistics and effect don’t always match up, so when looking at O’Neal’s less-than-godly numbers in 2005 (22.9 points and 10.4 rebounds per game), it doesn’t equal the crowing he’s done in hindsight — although we remember the change he had on the Miami Heat when he arrived from Los Angeles.

Michael Jordan found himself third in the voting in 1990, when he led the Bulls to their best season ever at the time and eventually taking them within a game of the NBA Finals. Greatest player ever, 26 years old … and third behind Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley.

Years later, Jordan was the victim of voter fatigue when Karl Malone — yes, the Karl Malone he pantsed in the NBA Finals — stole the award over him in 1997, when he led the Bulls to 69 wins.

Best player on the best team didn’t apply that year.

The title of best player seems up for grabs this year because James hasn’t been able to muster the level of contention that accompanies his impressive statistics. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant can have their individual argument for the mythical title, although they’re being penalized by their partnership in the Bay Area and, on a lighter scale, the Warriors’ struggles in going for a third straight ring.

Sometimes, the award reflects history (Jordan, James) and the consistency of the game’s greatest players. Other times, the award illustrates the movement of the time and not necessarily statistics but perceived effect.

This season, we’ll know it’s less about the best player and more about the best argument for our precedent.

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