Giannis still leads the NBA’s MVP race (for now)

By GREGORY MELICK | February 28, 2019

With about 20 games remaining for most of the teams in the NBA, the MVP discussions have begun to heat up, and three top candidates have separated themselves from the field as leading candidates for the award. The three leading the way are Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George and James Harden.

In my opinion, it is really a two horse race between Giannis and PG-13, but James Harden must be included because of his historic scoring streak of 32 straight games with at least 30 points. During the streak Harden averaged 41.1 points per game and scored 50 or more four times for the Houston Rockets.

While the streak was both historic (the second longest such streak in NBA history) and impressive, it was largely due to Chris Paul and Clint Capela being out with injuries for the majority of the streak. Harden was forced to pick up the slack from these two, while being surrounded by a team that was underwhelming aside from Harden.

Thanks in part to the great streak, Harden is averaging 36.3 points per game this season, which would be good for the seventh highest single season scoring average in NBA history if he keeps it up, behind Wilt Chamberlain’s 5 seasons between 1959-1964 and Michael Jordan’s 1986-87 season. 

As displayed last year, repeating the same type of season two years in a row will not win a player MVP two years in a row. When Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double in the 2016-17 season, it was the first time a player had done that since the 1961-62 season when Oscar Robertson did it. The feat earned him the MVP award, but the next year when he accomplished the feat once again and became the first player to do it twice, he was not even in the MVP conversation at the end of the year.

The same may become true of Westbrook’s former teammate on the Oklahoma City Thunder, Harden. Last year he won the MVP award because of his prolific scoring ability and absurdly high usage rate. This year he has done the same thing once again and has even improved on his scoring numbers, but in the end the voters are looking for something new when choosing MVP.

That brings us to the discussion between Giannis and Paul George, two players who have been stars for multiple years but have taken their play to a new level this year. 

During the offseason before the 2017-18 season, future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant issued challenges to many of the NBA’s top players. When Giannis requested a challenge for himself, Kobe replied simply with “MVP.”

It may be one year delayed, but this season Giannis is having the type of year that will allow him to meet Kobe’s challenge. He is averaging 27.2 points, 12.7 rebounds and six assists per game, and he is shooting 58 percent from the field.

More importantly, Giannis has led the Milwaukee Bucks team that was expected to be a middle-of-the-pack team in the Eastern Conference to the top of the standings. The Bucks currently have the best record in the NBA, and it is no fluke: It is because of Giannis.

Because his offense is so great, Giannis’ defense often goes underappreciated. He is leading the NBA in both Defensive Win Shares and Defensive Rating this year. While he may not win Defensive Player of the Year because it is somewhat expected that a 6’11” player with a 7’3” wingspan and the agility and athleticism of a guard would be a defensive stopper, his outstanding defensive plays will come into play in the MVP discussion.

Antetokounmpo’s main opposition to the MVP award is someone else who is a top two-way player in the league, three time All-Defensive team player Paul George. George is currently averaging 28.7 points, 8.1 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.2 steals (which leads the league) per game.

While his stats may not be as amazing as Antetokounmpo’s, George has been one of the hottest players in the NBA since the start of February. From the start of February through Feb. 22, George averaged 38.9 points, 7.9 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game. If he can maintain his hot streak, he may overtake Giannis as the favorite to win MVP.

What makes George’s season so impressive is that he is playing with Russell Westbrook. Many “experts” said that the two would not be able to thrive together, as Westbrook was seen as too ball-dominant to allow George to get the touches he needs to thrive. That was part of the reason many people expected George to go home to the Los Angeles Lakers during the offseason.

He surprised everyone by re-signing with the Thunder, and the move has paid off for him in spades. The Thunder currently sits in third place in the Western Conference, Russell Westbrook is once again averaging a triple-double (still not talked about nearly enough) and Paul George has a very serious shot at winning the MVP award if he keeps up his torrid pace.

I do not believe PG-13 has passed Giannis in the MVP race, and I do not believe he will, merely because if it comes down to a 50/50 decision I think voters will tend toward the team that exceeded expectations more — and that team is the Bucks.

It will be interesting to see how the rest of the season plays out and how it affects the MVP voting at the end of the year.

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