With the midpoint of the NBA season upon us, the NBA Most Valuable Player race appears to be set between Houston Rockets guard James Harden and Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo. A case can be made for both, but an objective look at the MVP battle can uncover some unanswered questions.
Harden leads the league in scoring with 36.5 points per game while averaging 8.1 assists a game, the same average he had last season when he won the 2018 NBA MVP. The biggest knock on Harden throughout his career has been his defense, but this year he has shown vast improvement on that side of the floor.
Harden leads the NBA in deflections with 3.8 per game and has nearly the same defensive plus-minus (+0.7) as last year’s Defensive Player of the Year, Kawhi Leonard (+0.8). If Harden were to win the league MVP this year, he would be the 12th player in NBA history to win MVP in back-to-back seasons, joining the likes of Michael Jordan, Bill Russell and Lebron James.
Contributors to Harden’s surging scoring numbers include him averaging at least 10 free throws a game and yielding the highest usage rate in the league, where he is involved in around 75 percent of Houston’s offense. His league lead in field goal attempts and free throw attempts translate to him having full control of the offense, and opposing coaches have still struggled to game plan against him.
Harden’s patented step-back dribble moves and slick footwork enable him to succeed in one-on-one situations and either make a three-pointer or blow by his defender to draw a foul. In a season where Houston has faced prolonged injuries to all-star guard Chris Paul and 2017 Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon, they sit around the sixth seed in the Western conference with a 30-22 record.
Meanwhile, in the Eastern conference, the Milwaukee Bucks hold the best record in the entire NBA at 40-13 and are second in the league in points scored per game, behind the juggernaut Golden State Warriors. Antetokounmpo is averaging 27 points, 5.9 assists and 12.4 rebounds per game, with his biggest weakness being his outside shooting. However, Antetokounmpo has been heavily training his three-point shot, and the hard work appears to be paying off.
Against the Washington Wizards on Feb. 6, Antetokounmpo made all three of his three-point attempts. If Antetokounmpo can see a more consistent outside shooting clip, that could open up even more opportunities for him to use his superior length and explosiveness to drive defenses crazy.
As the season progresses, there can always be new additions to the MVP race.
Oklahoma City Thunder Paul George leads the league in steals and is top four in scoring. Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid is not only a top three rebounder, but his top five scoring status is awfully impressive for a big man in today’s game.
However, as it rests now, the race between Harden and Antetokounmpo still consists of some unanswered questions. Can Harden keep up his high usage rate and scoring clip or will he run out of gas?
Will Antetokounmpo develop a consistent enough outside jump shot to make him more of an offensive threat?
The second half of the season can certainly provide answers to some key questions.