Last season, Giannis Antetokounmpo was certainly the leading contender for NBA MVP, but he was not the only reasonable contender: James Harden had an excellent, strong case, and would have been worthy of the honor had he won. He did not, Antetokounmpo did, and he was also highly worthy of the honor.
This year, to date, about a third into the NBA season, Antetokounmpo is the only reasonable choice. Any other answer to the question of who is the NBA MVP is wrong, whatever your criteria. There is no case to be built for anyone other than Antetokounmpo.
This isn’t to say that things can’t or won’t change — they certainly could! The Bucks could swing, Antetokounmpo could ease up, Harden or Anthony Davis or LeBron James or Luka Doncic could take it to another level, injuries can always crop up. This is not a declaration that Antetokounmpo should be given the MVP trophy right now. The season is long. We have quite a distance still to cover.
But if things go the way they are going now, he should be the second unanimous MVP in NBA history.
On offense, Antetokounmpo and Harden are a cut above
Antetokounmpo and Harden have been the best scorers in the NBA by far this season. Harden is averaging 38.5 points and 7.5 points per game. Antetokounmpo is at 31.8 and 5.4. No one else is above 30 points per game, and the next five top scorers all have lower scoring efficiencies (as measured by True Shooting percentage) than Harden and Antetokounmpo. Doncic is in the conversation because his scoring efficiency isn’t far off and he’s averaging more assists per game, but that’s it.
So between Antetokounmpo and Harden, who’s the better offensive player? In per-game numbers, it looks like The Beard. But Harden is playing near seven minutes more per game than Antetokounmpo. And it’s not like it’s because Antetokounmpo can’t stay on the court: the Bucks are so good he doesn’t need to play huge minutes.
On a per-36 minutes basis, Harden and Antetokounmpo are even in scoring. Harden gets one extra assist per 36, but cuts into that with 0.5 extra turnovers. The scoring efficiencies don’t change — they are both elite and close. It’s essentially a draw on offense, and a cut above Doncic, who is likewise a cut above the field (Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Trae Young, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns).
On defense, it’s no contest
Harden is not as bad of a defender as lowlight reels can make him out to be. Maybe he’s not good, but he’s not the worst defender in the league. (Hello, Trae Young.) But Harden is not in the same solar system as Antetokounmpo on that end.
Antetokounmpo will compete for Defensive Player of the Year. He and Davis seem to be the consensus top contenders right now. Milwaukee has the best defense in the NBA, and it’s keyed around Antetokounmpo’s prodigious talents.
Defensive rebounding is an important part of defense: Antetokounmpo is rebounding 30 percent of defensive rebound opportunities while on the court for the second straight year. He’s at 14.7 rebounds per 36 minutes — he’s ahead of Joel Embiid and Rudy Gobert in that measure, and fifth in the league (behind four centers). This is a guy also averaged 36 points and seven assists per 36 minutes and shutting down anyone you put him on.
The Bucks are amazing
You can’t knock Antetokounmpo for team quality as you have been able to with some players with gaudy numbers in the past. Milwaukee is the best team in the league. Khris Middleton will probably make the NBA All-Star Game, but no one else on the roster will. It’s a really well-built team, designed to accent Antetokounmpo’s sublimity. It should end up with the best record in the NBA.
Harden’s Rockets are quite good — Houston is certainly not holding The Beard back from MVP contention. Doncic’s Mavericks are good enough. The Lakers and Clippers are obviously good enough were Davis, James, Leonard, or George able to stack up.
The conclusion ... for now
But that’s the thing: no one can stack up to Antetokounmpo right now. He’s on another level from all other players because he has the offensive firepower of Harden and some of the best defense in the league on the best team in the league.
Things could change. If they don’t, it should be unanimous. Antetokounmpo is the best player in the league and should easily win MVP.