Last September, James Harden blew off some steam about the 2019 MVP award he lost to Giannis Antetokounmpo. “But they [the media] for sure got some teams they locked in on,” Harden told GQ. “We all know. That’s just what it is.”
It was one stop of Harden’s offseason-long venting tour about last season’s race. His gripe, best as I understand it, is that his historic season was ignored because the parameters of last year’s MVP debate were decided early in the season. None of Harden’s second-half exploits mattered because Antetokounmpo was the early favorite and did nothing to lose his status.
Suppose Harden has a point that’s not colored by sour grapes. Suppose he is genuinely upset that the MVP discussion coalesces too quickly rather than letting things play out.
If so, I have some bad news for The Beard. The parameters of the 2019-20 NBA MVP race have already been decided, and the tropes should be familiar to all.
With apologies to LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, and others, there are only two real Most Valuable Player candidates this season. One may average 40 points a game. The other is on pace to post the highest player efficiency rating in league history. The league’s pecking order changed so drastically this summer, yet the conversation around the MVP is exactly the same: Harden, or Antetokounmpo?
All of the same themes we hollered about for months are there again. Both are leading teams to the top of their respective conferences. Both are thriving despite losing critical sidekicks in the offseason and key supporting teammates to injury in-season. One raises his team from awful to good; the other from functional to great. One plays both ends of the floor; the other doesn’t. One is unschemeable; the other has an obvious weakness nobody addresses. One plays a style we’ve never seen; the other performs an exceedingly familiar role more effectively than anyone before him.
Remarkably, both are even better versions of themselves. Harden got off to a ghastly three-point shooting start, but has made up for it by getting to the line even more, and not as often by the cheap means his reputation suggests. Harden is drawing a shooting foul on 29.2 percent of his two-point attempts this year, his highest mark since 2012-13. Meanwhile, he’s only drawing a foul on 7.4 percent of his three-point attempts, which is high for a normal person, but actually his lowest mark since 2015-16.
Harden still holds the ball plenty and will still bait defenders into a cheap foul, but he’s been more decisive once he makes his move this year. He’s driving through defenders more once he gets the advantage, rather than jumping into them. This layup against Brooklyn’s Jarrett Allen is a textbook example: rather than breaking off his straight-line drive to go straight into Allen once he got the step, Harden kept Allen on his hip with a more normal path to the basket.
The difference is subtle, but significant. Because of that, more of his drawn fouls look legitimate. This looks more like a player trying to score normally that got slapped on the arm, not one trying to hack the rulebook.
Harden will always draw cheapies that’ll infuriate purists, just as he’s created tons of legitimate fouls in the past. But the more he drives to actually score, the more he’s ended up drawing fouls as a byproduct. It’s a lot easier for officials to blow the whistle when he’s actually impeded instead of having to decide if he’s faking it.
Harden has also benefited from the Rockets going from slowpokes to speed demons by swapping out Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook. That has an obvious effect on Harden’s production when the two share the floor, because more possessions means more chances to score. Yet Harden has been lights out when Westbrook is off the floor, scoring an ungodly 57 points per 100 possessions in the time Westbrook sits. Without Westbrook in the game to muck up space and steal shots, Harden can be the best version of his 2019 self. This sequence is unguardable.
At the same time, Harden is playing faster even when Westbrook is on the bench. Lineups with Harden and without Westbrook are averaging 100.45 possessions per game this year. That’s significantly less than the nearly 109 possessions per game the Rockets average with Harden and Westbrook sharing the floor, but it’s also higher than the 96.2 possessions per game the Rockets averaged last season when Harden played without Paul. He’s attacking in secondary transition more often, which allows him to collect more cheap points he didn’t get last season.
That’s why 40 a game is attainable for Harden, especially now that his jump shot is coming around.
But before you give him this year’s MVP, consider that Antetokounmpo’s game has also taken a jump this season. In fact, I’d argue Antetokounmpo has made more material additions to his game than Harden, even after winning MVP last season.
The most obvious: Antetokounmpo (kinda) has a perimeter game now. His three-point shooting, which perked up near the end of last season, is still adequate on more volume this year. Antetokounmpo is launching more than four threes a game this year while hitting 32 percent, which isn’t great, but is much better than the 26 percent he nailed on only 2.8 threes a game last year. He’s releasing the ball more on the way up than at the top of his jump this year, which means his motion and follow through are more fluid rather than disjointed.
Yet Antetokounmpo has also become an even more diverse driver to the basket, a scary-as-shit thought. In anticipation of teams learning to sit on his Eurosteps across the lane last year, Antetokounmpo has varied up his post-gather steps. He’s going the same way with his final large steps more often, rather than always across his body.
The end result; more shots converted at the rim and (somehow) more fouls drawn. Antetokounmpo is shooting 78 percent in the restricted area this year while drawing 11.7 fouls per 100 possessions and 6.87 two-point shooting fouls per 100. All of those marks are better than what he posted last season, when he led the league in all three categories. He has somehow become even better at the skills that he already performed better than arguably any player of his type in league history, despite not having Malcolm Brogdon as a teammate anymore and seeing Khris Middleton go down due to injury. Discount his candidacy at your own peril.
If there’s one a difference in this year’s two-man MVP chase, it’s Harden not playing catch-up. Unlike last season, when his Rockets dropped to 14th in the West in November before surging late, Harden’s gigantic early-season numbers have sliced precious early attention away from Antetokounmpo. Perhaps we’re in for a role reversal this year, with Antetokounmpo’s more consistent brilliance working against him in comparison to Harden’s novelty.
If so, Harden will benefit from the very narrative force he constantly decries. Wonder if he’ll complain about it again. Gonna guess no.
Regardless, this two-man MVP race will be a joy to watch all season long. Instead of rehashing the same arguments from last year, let’s just sit back and enjoy the battle this time.
The stats in this piece do not include Monday night’s games.