NBA Column: The Freak versus The Beard

Brooklyn Nets center Jarrett Allen (31) attempts to block Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, April 1, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Michael Owens)

With just a few games remaining in the regular season, the NBA MVP discussion has turned into a two-horse race. One horse is a 24-year-old, 6-foot-11 freak of nature who does everything on the court besides make 3-point shots. The second horse is the reigning MVP and has single-handedly provided all of his team’s offense day in and day out. Let’s take a closer look at each player’s 2018-19 resume and make a verdict on which player should be crowned most valuable.

The case for Giannis Antetokounmpo

Antetokounmpo is this year’s “best player on the best team” MVP candidate. He is, without a doubt, the best player on the Bucks, who have the league’s best record at 57-20. He is going to get votes from those who choose not to overthink it. The Greek Freak is averaging 27.4 points, 12.5 rebounds and six assists per game with incredible efficiency, averaging just 3.8 turnovers per game and shooting 58 percent from the floor. No other player has averaged at least 27 points, 12 rebounds and six assists for a season since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62.

He is also dominating the paint like no other player since Shaquille O’Neal, shooting a staggering 73.2 percent from five feet or closer to the basket. He makes 8.2 of his 10 baskets per game from that area of the floor, but unlike Shaq, he doesn’t do it by using overpowering strength to get to the rim. Antetokounmpo’s game is all about using his superb agility and dexterity as a 6’11” behemoth to get by bigger, slower players.

While I’m sure Antetokounmpo’s strengths would translate to any other system, the other players on the Bucks help open up The Freak’s game to make him unstoppable. Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez are all lethal 3-point threats. When Antetokounmpo has the ball in his hands and four guys are spacing the floor, opposing defenses are forced to pick their poison. Nobody can guard The Freak one-on-one, but if you send a double team, a help defender or stick somebody in the paint, then the defense is forced to leave a shooter open on the perimeter. As one of Antetokounmpo’s many strengths, he is an unselfish and gifted passer who’s adept at finding and hitting open teammates.

On the other side of the floor, Antetokounmpo is just as dominant. Not only is he the best player on the league’s best team, but he’s also the best defender on the league’s best defense. The Bucks lead the league in defensive rating with 104.5, and Antetokounmpo leads the league in defensive box plus-minus.

Though a player with Antetokounmpo’s combination of size, speed and leaping ability can defend well in any system, the Bucks’ system also allows him to truly thrive on this end of the court. With Lopez and/or Nikola Mirotic on the floor, Antetokounmpo isn’t glued to the paint as the team’s big man. With the long, quick and proven perimeter defenders of Bledsoe, Brogdon and Middleton, Antetokounmpo doesn’t have to worry as much about closing out on shooters. Instead, he is given complete defensive freedom to use his long arms and great instincts to get into passing lanes to steal passes and block shot attempts within the arc.

Antetokounmpo checks all of the boxes for an NBA MVP. He’s the best player on the best team, he’s recording historically great stats and he dominates on both sides of the floor. But there’s another candidate that scores like nobody we have ever seen before.

The case for James Harden

The Rockets followed up a Western Conference Finals appearance last postseason with a disappointing start to this season. They started 11-14, and with Chris Paul going down with an injury, things were looking bleak in Houston. That’s when Harden dialed in and entered the mindset that this offense is going to start and end with him. With Harden’s season averages up to a staggering 36.4 points, 6.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game, the Rockets now find themselves as the No. 3 team in the West, going 38-14 since that bad start to the season.

The last time we saw anybody score more than 36 points per game for a season was when Michael Jordan did it in 1986-87. Before that, Wilt Chamberlain was the last to eclipse this mark in 1963-64. This isn’t bad company for the reigning MVP. The Beard is scoring like this in a way we have never seen, averaging 18.2 points per game while in isolation. The next highest in the league belongs to LeBron James with 4.5 points per game in the iso. Harden also separates himself from the rest of the league with his high usage rating, which is 41.0. The next highest is Russell Westbrook with 33.5.

Typically, high usage rate and isolation-type players are frowned on, but Harden makes it work. He sports the second-highest player efficiency rating (PER) in the league, sitting just behind our other candidate, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Without the threat of a legitimate second scoring option, Harden is forced to take the reins on offense and do everything himself. In January, Harden went on to score 304 straight unassisted points. Chris Paul is 33 years old and scoring a career low in points per game. Clint Capela’s offense is limited to dives to the rim in the pick-and-roll, which is something that he needs Harden for. Nevertheless, the team is successful simply because they have Harden scoring whenever he wants.

The verdict

This is the tightest MVP race that I’ve ever seen; I really wish that I could pick both of them. If Harden’s unprecedented combination of usage and efficiency to have the most impressive scoring season in decades isn’t rewarded with an MVP, I think we will look back and say “How did that happen?” On the other hand, Antetokounmpo fits the mold as a cookie-cutter NBA MVP, and seems like the correct choice on the surface.

My final decision is James Harden by just a (beard) hair. Harden scores nine more points than Antetokounmpo, has a slight edge in the playmaking department and has a more complete offensive game due to his superior outside shot. Harden attempts a league, leading 13.4 threes per game and makes them 36.2 percent of the time. That’s good for just under five threes per game. Antetokounmpo is a non-threat behind the arc, shooting just 24.5 percent on 2.7 attempts per game.

Antetokounmpo is a beneficiary of the system that he’s in, while Harden is forced to do more with less. As a result, Harden has played 443 more minutes than Antetokounmpo this season, and takes 7.6 more shots per game. However, Harden nearly mirrors Antetokounmpo’s efficiency even with the higher volume, with a PER of 30.48 compared to The Freak’s 30.68. If you were to take both players off of their respective teams, which team do you think would get worse? Harden is the Rockets’ entire offense and thrives no matter who is on the floor, while Antetokounmpo’s success is at least slightly dependent on the team he has around him. Because of that, Harden should be the 2018-19 NBA MVP.


Sean Janos is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at sean.janos@uconn.edu.