The challenge in judging this year’s crop of Most Valuable Player candidates is that the players in question have such vastly disparate cases. More so than in almost any other year, selecting a single most deserving player is almost entirely a matter of personal taste.
A voter who values single-handed, precedent-shattering production might favor James Harden, while one who prefers team success and all-around dominance would likely lean toward Giannis Antetokounmpo. Harden dragged an entire team out of the depths of the Western Conference standings with superhuman scoring efforts; Antetokounmpo, meanwhile, has kept the Bucks at the top of the NBA for the entire season.
Each has thrived in an entirely different context and won on wholly different terms, yet both have equally valid claims to the Maurice Podoloff trophy. Let’s take them case by case:
Harden will finish in the top two in voting for a third consecutive year (and fourth out of the last five) — a remarkable testament to his consistent brilliance, which might somehow still be taken for granted. The reigning MVP has made incremental year-to-year improvements in virtually every season of his career, constantly finding new ways to refine his skill set and push the boundaries of strategy and rules alike. He is one of the most prodigious and ingenious perimeter scorers of all time, a fact that all but ensures the Rockets a top-five offense.
While Giannis is the piece that unlocks his team’s system, Harden is the system. It’s no secret to opposing defenses that most everything Houston does will run through Harden, and yet he finds ways to generate efficient looks on nearly every possession nonetheless. His attempts come at a higher degree of difficulty than nearly any other star’s, and yet he perennially grades out as one of the most efficient scorers in the NBA. His shot selection defies convention, but him making highly contested attempts at an elite rate is the lifeblood of the Rockets’ offense. His ability to score efficiently under such heavy offensive responsibility is truly unparalleled; no player in NBA history with a usage rate over 35 has posted a true shooting percentage higher than Harden’s this season — except Harden last season.
He has been exceptional in clutch situations (the last five minutes of a game and the margin within five points) and remains one of the best pick-and-roll passers in league history. Role players like Clint Capela and P.J. Tucker are only as good on offense as Harden and Chris Paul make them, and those two set up roll men and shooters as well as any guard in basketball. With Paul fully reintegrated, the Rockets have a chance to climb as high as the third seed in the West — an unthinkable prospect two months ago. That Houston would fall short of another opportunity to challenge the Warriors seemed a foregone conclusion when piece after piece of their infrastructure was removed. Thanks to Harden, they may get that chance after all.
The Bucks’ success in the wake of Mike Budenholzer’s arrival shouldn’t obscure how dominant Antetokounmpo has been individually. Milwaukee’s system, which is predicated on him consistently compromising the defense and creating for himself or teammates, crumbles without his supreme talent and versatility on both ends of the floor. All season Giannis has provided, leading the Bucks to a likely top-two finish in both offensive and defensive efficiency. As is the case with Harden, Milwaukee’s scheme is built almost entirely around Giannis, who covers every conceivable gap on defense and provides the inexorable driving force behind the second-ranked offense in the league.
He makes up for a profound weakness — his broken jumper — with the overwhelming strength of getting to the basket at will. His combination of volume, efficiency and the manner in which he generates shots inside is every bit as unprecedented as Harden’s weaponizing of the step-back 3. Despite his virtual inability to score from outside the paint, Antetokounmpo still ranks among the top scorers in the NBA and outpaces all high-usage players in overall efficiency — Harden included. Giannis can hardly be held at fault for Milwaukee’s offense being more balanced than Houston’s, or for the Bucks being so dominant as to avoid late-game comebacks and full-season turnarounds altogether.
Defensively, he is miles ahead of where Harden is, has been or will ever be. Giannis is one of the rare few in the NBA that can credibly defend all five positions on any given night and has a strong case for Defensive Player of the Year. He’ll smother opposing wings and is constantly engaged away from the ball, making sharp rotations to protect the rim or jump passing lanes. Opponents shoot just 53 percent at the rim against Giannis, and most don’t even bother challenging him. Harden, meanwhile, is a liability in nearly all non-post-up situations.
The Rockets switch because they can and because it better prepares them to handle Golden State, but also because of Harden’s inability to execute most traditional defensive schemes. His quick hands and strength in the post are an important part of Houston’s defense, but Harden remains a poor defender in space and relatively inattentive away from the ball.
Whether than two-way impact and team success compensates for Harden’s offensive indomitability and superhuman workload is a question for the voters, who will have an immensely difficult decision on their hands.