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James Harden or Giannis Antetokounmpo? The 2019 NBA MVP debate is impossible to resolve

Who deserves to win MVP this season? It depends on your criteria.

The Milwaukee Bucks are hosting the Houston Rockets Tuesday night, which gives us the rare treat of watching the leading Most Valuable Player candidates square off in a much-anticipated showdown. Thank you, schedule gods, for making this happen.

In their own ways, Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden have been equally dominant. Antetokounmpo serves as the linchpin on both ends of the floor of the best team in the league, while Harden is pure offensive firepower distilled for the modern age. Each would make a worthy MVP.

In early March, I devoted an entire Sunday Shootaround to assessing Harden’s candidacy. My conclusion then was that while Harden’s season was undeniably amazing, the MVP was still Antetokounmpo’s to lose more than Harden’s to win.

Then Harden went into overdrive, with a 57-point outburst against Memphis followed by 61 against the Spurs two nights later. For the first time, really, I’m on the fence.

At the end of the day, the MVP debate is a contest about value and each voter interprets that word differently. These are my parameters.

The numbers, unfortunately, offer little clarity.

Let’s do the Player A, Player B thing, using publicly available all-in-one metrics without context. Please note that this is a terrible way to pick an MVP, but we’re doing this for illustrative purposes. (Numbers via Basketball-Reference.)

  • Player A: 30.7 PER; 13.4 Win Shares; .293 WS/48; 7.2 VORP
  • Player B: 30.4 PER; 13.3 Win Shares; .245 WS/48; 8.8 VORP

Those numbers without context don’t do a lot for the imagination, but what they tell us is that both players have been statistically dominant. It’s also worth mentioning that the analytics people who work in front offices tend to scoff at the publicly available all-in-1 metrics as being insufficient at best and misleading at worst.

What those numbers often provide are clues, and the sheer mass of metrics tend to point the arrow in one obvious direction during an MVP debate. No luck here. There’s not much separation at all.

Player A is Antetokounmpo, by the way, and Harden is Player B. That becomes obvious when we look at their traditional numbers.

  • Antetokounmpo: 27.4 ppg; 12.6 rpg; 6 apg; .644 True Shooting Percentage
  • Harden: 36.4 ppg; 6.4 rpg; 7.5 apg; .613 True Shooting Percentage

When both players’ numbers are so overwhelming, it’s hard to make a case that either’s stat line stands out from the other.

Of interest is that while Harden’s scoring is off the charts, Antetokounmpo’s shooting efficiency is even better than Harden’s despite being a subpar 3-point shooter and a below-average free throw shooter. Harden may have broken math this season, but Antetokounmpo has proven to be the exception to the accepted parameters of modern offense: shoot lots of 3’s, layups/dunks, and free throws. Antetokounmpo truly excels at only one of those facets, which makes his efficiency all the more remarkable.

So, we’re back to that value proposition. What’s important to you?

The subjective measure of objective team success.

The Bucks are the best regular-season team in the league, and it’s not really close. They have the best record, the best defense, the third-best offense, and the best point differential. Milwaukee is so good that they’ve been routinely blowing teams out all season. As NBC Sports’ Tom Haberstroh pointed out, the Bucks have 42 wins of 10 points or more, by far the most in the league.

The sheer amount of blowouts have limited Antetokounmpo’s minutes. He averages under 33 a night, or exactly 400 fewer than Harden has played this season. Given Harden’s 37-minute a night workload, that comes out to almost 11 fewer games. Wild.

It seems counterintuitive to blame Antetokounmpo for being part of a superior team. He’s the reason the Bucks are so good, after all.

Just as it’s not fair to penalize Antetokounmpo for playing on a superior team, it’s also not kosher to knock Harden simply for playing on an inferior one. After a dreadful start, the Rockets are on track to win 52 games and secure a top-3 seed in the West. That’s an excellent season worthy of an MVP candidate. Surely Harden deserves credit for having to work harder to earn positive team results, and for maintaining that pace throughout the season.

There’s a tricky question here: where would these teams be without their superstar? Take Harden out of the equation and the Rockets would be scuffling to make the postseason. Remove Antetokounmpo, and the Bucks are a 45-win team.

It’s far more illustrative to consider what they are, rather than what they are not. The Rockets are a good team, made dangerous by Harden. The Bucks are a decent team that’s become a great one as Antetokounmpo continues to evolve.

The hardest thing to do in this league is win games consistently and no one has done that better than Milwaukee. That also has to factor into the equation.

How much does defense matter?

We have all heard that Harden has improved on the defensive end. Sure, he has lapses, but he’s been more engaged on that end, and the Rockets will tell you that his ability to hold his own defending post-ups is a vital component of their switch-everything scheme.

Harden also leads the league in steals, an important stat for a player who is often at a disadvantage defensively. He plays the scheme, does asked of him, and contributes on that end. Of course, Harden isn’t in the game for his defense.

When Harden’s on the floor, the Rockets give up 110.7 points per 100 possessions, for a defense that ranks 21st in the league. When he’s on the bench, Houston’s defense ramps up considerably, allowing just 103.9 points per 100 possessions. That’s a significant swing, but also indicative of a team designed to maximize Harden’s offensive game and minimize the damage when he’s on the bench.

Harden’s defense doesn’t disqualify him for the MVP the way it may have a few years ago, but he sure as hell isn’t Antetokounmpo on that end of the floor. The Bucks have the league’s top-ranked defense and Antetokounmpo plays a major role. He’s fifth in rebounding, 13th in blocks, and the Bucks give up 1.7 more points per 100 possessions with him on the bench.

Like Harden’s steals, Antetokounmpo’s blocks provide direct impact, but they are a byproduct of a scheme designed to push teams away from the basket. Good luck venturing into a packed paint with Antetokounmpo lurking. His presence serves as a deterrent, and opponents attempt a little more than a quarter of their shots from within six feet, the lowest percentage in the league.

Consider it from this perspective: The Rockets have attempted to scheme around Harden’s limitations as a defender, while the Bucks are successful, in large part, because their defense emphasizes Antetokounmpo’s abilities.

Who really defined the season?

The popular case for Harden is that he set the standard for play in 2018-19. When you think of this season years from now, Harden’s scoring binges will stand out as significant moments in time.

There’s merit for this argument. Indeed, “defining the season” was part of the rationale I chose for using my official MVP vote on Russell Westbrook over Harden two years ago.

Harden has defined the season in the sense that his exploits have become must-watch theater. There is nothing quite like an elite scorer in complete command of a situation, and Harden has done that time and again. He has taken the modern rules and bent them in such a way that it’s as if he’s playing a complete different game than everyone else.

And yet, the Bucks have also defined the season by the simple fact that they’ve been better than everyone else. Even the most optimistic Bucks supporter couldn’t have seen this coming when the season began. They’re on pace to shatter their preseason over/under of 48.5 wins by more than a dozen games.

While some of that credit must be given to new coach Mike Budenholzer and his schemes, those schemes have been allowed to flourish because Antetokounmpo is such a dominant player. Does anything define a season more than the cold gray agate of the standings?

It’s frankly a testament to Harden’s campaign that we’re even having this discussion this late in the season. Antetokounmpo has done everything right to earn the award and there are no real cracks in his case. And yet, there is still some doubt.

Given all that we’ve seen, there’s no harm in letting this play out just a little bit longer.