Fear the Beard or Fear the Deer? Who's gonna win the MVP? I have been flip flopping back and forth for the past couple months... It has to be Giannis. But wait Harden just had back to back 50 point games!.. It has to be Giannis. But wait Harden just had 60 points and 30 games in a row with 30!.. It has to be Giannis. But wait Harden just had a 50 point triple double and is leading a team full of scrubs to a winning streak in the West!
This is what has gone through my head in this incredible race, maybe the best MVP race of all time. Both players are completely unguardable and unstoppable one on one (for very different reasons), and both players seemingly do everything possible for their teams to win.
Now we can compare the players stats and team success to see who is more deserving, but the best way to see what will actually happen with the voting is to see what has happened in history.
Basically we got the best player on the best team vs the player putting up the best stats on a very good team.
NBA MVP Voting 1980-2019
After going through the last 40 years of MVP voting since the modern Magic / Bird era started, there has been quite a clear pattern with only 1 or 2 special exceptions. The general consensus is that the MVP will be the best player on either the best or 2nd best team in the league, or the best team in the conference.
In 39 years of voting, a whopping 27 winners have been the best player on the best team in the league. Another 7 times the MVP was on the team with the 2nd best record or the best record in their conference (with the 3rd best record in the league).
Then only 2 times was an MVP from the team with the 2nd best record in the conference: Lebron James in 2012 and Steve Nash in 2006. Only once has an MVP finished with the 3rd best record in the conference – Michael Jordan’s ridiculous 1988 campaign. And finally only twice has the MVP finished outside the top 3 in their conference, Moses Malone in 1982 and the historical triple double year from Russell Westbrook in 2017 when the Thunder only finished 6th in the West.
MVP Winners 1980-2019:
Team with the Best Record or Tied Best Record in the league – 27 times
Team with the 2nd Best Record in the league or Conference Champ – 7 times
Team with the 2nd Best Record in the Conference – 2 times (Nash 2006, Lebron 2012)
Team with the 3rd Best Record in the Conference – 1 time (Jordan 1988)
Team with worse than the 3rd Best Record in the Conference – 2 times (Moses 1982, Westbrook 2017)
Let’s take a look at this in a bit more detail:
(* Black Bold is League Best Record, Red Bold is 2nd Best Record, Blue Bold is other)
1980-84 – 76ers Celtics Rivalry
1980 Kareem Abdul Jabbar Lakers (60-22 League Best Record)
1981 Julius Erving 76ers (62-20 Tied League Best Record)
1982 Moses Malone Rockets (Tied 4th Best Record in the West)
1983 Moses Malone 76ers (65-17 League Best Record)
1984 Larry Bird Celtics (62-20 League Best Record)
So out of 5 winners here, 4 had the best record or tied best record in the league and only Moses Malone's great 1982 season where he averaged a monster 31 points (by far a career high) and 15 rebounds broke the trend.
1985-89 – Bird and Magic Years
1985 Larry Bird Celtics (63-19 League Best Record)
1986 Larry Bird Celtics (67-15 League Best Record)
1987 Magic Johnson Lakers (65-17 League Best Record)
1988 Michael Jordan Bulls (50-32 3rd Best Conference Record)
1989 Magic Johnson Lakers (57-25 League Best Record)
Again out of 5 winners here, 4 of them had the best record in the league, with Magic and Bird each picking up 2 MVP’s. The outlier here is Michael Jordan in 1988 where he had a historical all around season winning the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year Award. MJ averaged 35 points a game, 6 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 3.2 steals (Career High) and 1.6 blocks (Career High), leading a very average Bulls team to an impressive 50 wins for the 1st time in 15 years.
Jordan had captured the imagination of all the fans around the world and was clearly the best player in the league even though his Bulls were not yet great. You could see how respected he was when he came 2nd to Magic in MVP voting the year before despite the Bulls having a below .500 record 40-42. So in 1988 when the Bulls managed to win 50 games and secure a top 3 seed, voters jumped at the chance to reward Jordan with his 1st MVP.
Clearly this was a special case to vote Michael Jordan, clearly the best player in the league offensively AND defensively as the MVP despite not having a top 2 record.
1990-94 – Air Jordan Time
1990 Magic Johnson Lakers (63-19 League Best Record)
1991 Michael Jordan Bulls (61-21 League Best Record)
1992 Michael Jordan Bulls (67-15 League Best Record)
1993 Charles Barkley Suns (62-20 League Best Record)
1994 Hakeem Olajuwon Rockets (2nd Best Record in the League)
Once Again out of 5 MVPs, 4 of them had the best record in the league. Even though Jordan was clearly the best player in the league, the voters rewarded Charles Barkley in 1993 for leading his new team the Phoenix Suns to the best record in the league. In 1994 the year Jordan left to play Baseball, Olajuwon had one of the greatest seasons ever, repeating Jordan’s feat in 1988 by winning the MVP and DPOY award.
Olajuwon was clearly the only All Star on his Houston Rockets team and the only team with a better record than Houston was the Seattle Supersonics lead by a young Shawn Kemp (18ppg) and Gary Payton (16.5 ppg) who were both not putting up the stats required to win the MVP. So here Olajuwon, who ended up leading the Rockets to the title, was the easy choice.
1995-1999 Jordan Return and Mailman
1995 David Robinson Spurs (62-20 League Best Record)
1996 Michael Jordan Bulls (72-10 League Best Record)
1997 Karl Malone Jazz (64-18 West Champs 2nd Best Record in the League)
1998 Michael Jordan Bulls (62-20 Tied League Best Record)
1999 Karl Malone Jazz (37-13 Tied League Best Record)
Yet again during this 5 year stretch after Jordan’s return, 4 of the winners had the league's best record or tied for the best record and only once in 1997 did Malone win the award with only the 2nd best record in the league and best record in the West. Looking at the numbers it is hard to see why Malone won it this year over Jordan, as the Bulls had won a whopping 69 games, 1 year after setting the record with 72.
It seems this was more of a lifetime achievement award as Malone had been so consistently excellent for more than a decade leading Utah to the top of the conference almost every year. And a franchise record 64 wins is nothing to sneeze at with Malone averaging an impressive 27.5 pts on 55% shooting, 10 rebounds and a career best at the time 4.5 assists.
And Jordan had a bit of a down year by his standards, averaging his lowest points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks and FG% in a decade so it was the perfect chance for Malone to come in and steal one of Jordan’s MVP’s.
2000-2004 Lakers and Spurs Dominance
2000 Shaquille O’Neal Lakers (67-15 League Best Record)
2001 Allen Iverson 76ers (56-26 East Champs and 2nd Best League Record)
2002 Tim Duncan Spurs (58-24 2nd Best Record in the League)
2003 Tim Duncan Spurs (60-22 League Best Record)
2004 Kevin Garnett Wolves (58-24 West Champs and 2nd Best League Record)
Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan were both easy choices in 2000 and 2002 since they had their best seasons and their teams had the league’s best record. And this time 3 players won with their team having the second best record in the league, Allen Iverson, Duncan again and Kevin Garnett.
When A.I won in 2001 he averaged 31 points a game leading his unfancied Sixers Team to the best record in the East (and to the NBA Finals) with his best teammates being Eric Snow and Aaron Mckie! When Duncan won in 2002 the only team with a better record was the Sacramento Kings but their best player Chris Webber only played 54 games, so naturally the best player on the next best team would be the favourite. And finally when KG won in 2004, he took the no name Timberwolves to the best record in the West and the only team with a better record was the Pacers, but voters were not exactly going to give an MVP to Jermaine O’Neal, Indiana’s best player.
2005-2009 Nash, Dirk, Kobe and the arrival of Lebron
2005 Steve Nash Suns (62-20 League Best Record)
2006 Steve Nash Suns (54-28 2nd in West, 4th Best Record in the League)
2007 Dirk Nowitzki Mavericks (67-15 League Best Record)
2008 Kobe Bryant Lakers (57-23 West Champs, 2nd Best Record in the League)
2009 Lebron James Cavs (66-16 League Best Record)
3 of the Winners here again had the league’s best record with Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni revolutionizing the game with the fast paced Phoenix Suns leading them to the best record in 2005 helping Nash edge Shaq in a close (and controversial) vote. Dirk Nowitzki and Lebron James won their 1st MVP’s leading their teams to historically great records of 67-15 and 66-16 respectively, so again these MVP’s were easy choices.
But in 2006 Nash’s Suns finished 2nd place in the West but it was a big surprise as Suns leading scorer Amare Stoudemire went down with an injury. Nash had to lead his team without his fellow All Star and leading scorer which clearly influenced the voting. Dirk probably should have won it again that year but an old rule meant that the Mavs were only the 4th seed in the West despite having the 2nd best record. Voters were clearly torn with 1st place votes also going to Dirk, Lebron, Kobe and even Chauncey Billups (imagine Billups as a league MVP!).
Finally in 2008 Kobe’s Lakers had the 2nd best record in the league but the Celtics, the only team with the better record had 3 Stars who had just joined together and KG’s numbers were down a lot so he was not a worthy MVP. Chris Paul ended up being Kobe’s biggest challenger but the fact the Lakers finished with a better record and Kobe had never won an MVP despite being recognized as the game’s greatest player helped to sway the voters.
2010-2014 Lebron Dominance
2010 Lebron James Cavs (61-21 League Best Record)
2011 Derrick Rose Bulls (62-20 League Best Record)
2012 Lebron James Heat (46-20, 2nd Best Record in East)
2013 Lebron James Heat (66-16 League Best Record)
2014 Kevin Durant Thunder (59-23, 2nd Best Record in the League, 2nd in West)
These years were owned by Lebron James and you could make a strong argument that he should have won in 2011 over Derrick Rose which would have meant 5 MVP’s in a row! But once again Rose’s team had the league’s best record and this was enough to influence the voters even though Lebron was clearly the better player with the better stats.
Lebron’s Heat only had the 2nd best record in the East in the lockout shortened 2012 season, but that year Rose was injured so the Bulls (who finished above the Heat) did not have a strong candidate. Out West, the Spurs had the league’s best record but were playing team ball and the voters were not going to give the award to a 35 year old Tim Duncan averaging 15 points a game or Tony Parker who was averaging just 18ppg.
Similarly in 2014 when Kevin Durant won, the only team with a better record was the Spurs but again their leading scorer Tony Parker was only averaging 16.7 ppg, not nearly enough to be put in the MVP conversation.
2015 to 2018 Curry Time and New Era of 3s and Triple Doubles
2015 Stephen Curry Warriors (67-15 League Best Record)
2016 Stephen Curry Warriors (73-9 League Best Record)
2017 Russell Westbrook Thunder (47-35 6th Best Record in the West)
2018 James Harden Rockets (65-17 League Best Record)
No arguments in 2015 and 2016 when the Warriors were dominating the league and Steph Curry was clearly the best player on the team as Kevin Durant had not arrived yet. To show the importance of winning, it is not a coincidence that when the Warriors set the All Time record with 73 wins, Steph was rewarded with the only unanimous MVP win in history.
Similarly in 2018, the Rockets had a historically good season with 65 wins and James Harden - the best player on the best team yet again wins the MVP comfortably.
The one outlier has been Russell Westbrook’s historic triple double 2017 season. In 2016 before the league went through a 3 point and offensive explosion, triple doubles were still relatively rare, with 10 a season considered an amazing feat. Then Kevin Durant left the Thunder for the Warriors and Mike D’Antoni joined the Rockets and the rest is history.
When Oscar Robertson averaged a triple double for a whole season more than 50 years ago, experts agreed that it would never happen again. Not only did Russ manage to do it, he would end up breaking Oscar Robertson’s single season record with a ridiculous 42 triple doubles, finishing the season with unheard of averages of 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists. This wasn’t just a Jason Kidd style triple double 15,10,10 or even a Magic style triple double 20,10,10; this was a full on 31 point triple double average Big O style. And he lead the league in scoring shooting a Career Best 34.3% from 3 (on a career best 2.5 makes per game) as well as a Career Best 84.5% from the free throw line, while ranking at the top of the league in clutch stats and clutch shots.
Clearly it took something extraordinary for him to win the MVP, and KD joining Steph in the team with the best record also helped to neutralize two of the leading candidates for the award. They weren’t gonna give it to KD after joining 2 time MVP Curry, and they weren’t gonna give it to Steph 3 years in a row when the Warriors added the 2nd best player in the world and won 6 games less than the year before.
And this is not a modern way of thinking, because even way back in 1962, Wilt Chamberlain averaged an unreal 50 pts and 25 rebounds a game, while Oscar Robertson averaged 31 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.5 assists - his only triple double season, yet neither of them won the MVP award! Bill Russell won it averaging a paltry 18.9 ppg on 45% shooting! Wilt's team the Warriors actually had a very good 49-31 record (2nd in East) while The Big O also finished 2nd in the West. But Russell's Celtics won 60 games and that is how much winning means in the context of Most Valuable Player.
So with the Rockets currently in 3rd place in the West, this strongly suggests Giannis Antetokounmpo will win his 1st MVP. But can James Harden be one of the exceptions like Jordan or Westbrook? With a ridiculous nine 50 Point Games and a 30 game streak scoring 30 or more points while leading the injury ravaged Rockets back from 14th in the West, there could be a chance.
So let’s compare what The Beard and The Greek Freak have achieved this season to see whether Harden has any chance to overcome the significant odds that are stacked against him.
As talented and unstoppable as Giannis is offensively, this category is not really close. There is only one word to describe James Harden’s offensive season this year: Historical. The Beard is averaging a mind boggling 36.4 points per game, more than 8 full points ahead of second place Paul George!
He produced the longest 30 point streak of the last 50 years at 32 games and he has scored 30 points at least once against ALL 29 other teams, proving that he can navigate through any type of defense to get what he wants. Harden scored more than 50 points 9 times (50, 50, 54, 57, 57, 58, 58, 61, 61 – 6 times over 57!) and for comparison only Devin Booker had more than one 50 point game this year.
And he has completely disregarded the mid range game, averaging a whopping 13 3 point attempts and 13 free throws a game! His step back 3 pointer is the new signature move of the NBA and if he has that going then other teams do not have a chance. And force him to drive and he is one of the best finishers with a deadly floater in the lane as well as an uncanny ability to draw fouls and get to the line, where he is shooting a career high 88% (at 13 attempts a game that is incredible and will help your team immensely to win games).
Now for passing, Giannis is no slouch in that department either, averaging over 6 assists per game but Harden has amazing vision, maybe the best ever for a shooting guard. He has an amazing ability to thread the needle and spot the smallest of gaps, and nobody can draw the defense and then kick to either open shooters or lob to their big men better than James. His scoring is up this year due to the injuries suffered by the Rockets, so naturally his assists are a bit down, but make no mistake James Harden could average 10 assists in his sleep.
If Harden wins Offense easily then Giannis wins Defense even more easily. He averages over 12 rebounds a game, easily the highest for a non Center in the league and he averages 1.5 blocks and 1.3 steals a game. He is maybe the only guy in the whole NBA that can legitimately guard 1 though 5. In advanced metrics Giannis also leads the whole NBA in Defensive Win Shares and the Milwaukee Bucks lead the whole NBA in defensive FG% and point differential. In all honesty Giannis has a strong claim to win both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year Awards a la Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon.
James Harden is nowhere near as good as a defender but make no mistake he has improved this part of his game significantly. His post defense is one of the best in the league and he is 2nd in the league in steals at 2.1 per game (behind Paul George), 3rd in deflections (behind Paul George and Robert Covington) and even 2nd amongst all guards in the NBA in blocks at 0.8 per game (behind only Jrue Holiday).
But even with these massive improvements, James Harden is nowhere near the defender Giannis is.
The advanced stats also say it is too close to call. It is a virtual tie in PER (Player Efficiency Rating) and Win Shares with both players leading the NBA in these categories. Giannis is more efficient with a higher True Shooting % while Harden leads in VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) and EWA (Estimated Wins added). All in all it is impossible to split these two when it comes to advanced stats.
This is pretty straight forward with the Bucks having the league’s best record virtually since Day 1 and the Rockets with the 5th best record in the league and 3rd in the West.
A closer look would make Harden’s case look better as the Rockets started an abysmal 11-14 and were second last in the conference in mid December and then disaster struck when CP3 got injured. But Harden would lead the Rockets to win after win even after fellow top players Clint Capela and Eric Gordon went down with injuries forcing Harden to lead a bunch of cast offs and D-leaguers.
So just to get from 11-14 and 14th place to 3rd place now is a remarkable achievement. All in all the Rockets had the best record in the West since the bad start, and the 2nd best record in the whole league, behind who else but Giannis and the Bucks. But the MVP is a full season award and Giannis and the Bucks have been great every month of the year while the Rockets were terrible for the first 2 months of the season.
Another point that not many people are talking about is that the Rockets were coming into this season off a 65 win season and the Bucks were coming off a 44 win 7th place finish last year (16th best record in the league!). That is a huge drop for the Rockets and a huge jump for the Bucks (16th to 1st!), I mean how many people can legitimately say they thought the Bucks would be the best team in the league with a better record than the Warriors? Sure a lot of credit deserves to go to Mike Budenholzer for reinventing the Bucks offense, but you have to give huge credit to Giannis for leading this remarkable turnaround.
Wow Moments / Best Games and Best Performances
This category is not really close with James Harden having historical performances on a weekly and sometimes nightly basis, including 9 50+ point games compared to 1 for Giannis. Harden had two 50 point triple doubles, two 57 point games against the Grizzlies, two 58 point games against the Nets and Heat, 54,13 and 8 against the Wizards and finally two 61 point games against the Spurs and Knicks!
And The Beard has many more 40 point triple doubles as well as some memorable end of game moments, none bigger than a 3 at Golden State to win the game at the buzzer in OT, capping a 44 pt, 10 reb, 15 ast masterpiece. And it’s not just points rebounds and assists, as the Beard has had some eye popping all around games including a game with 4 blocks and 6 steals and 3 blocks and 6 steals, narrowly missing a historical 5 x 5 game both times.
All in all Harden had 4 of the top 10 performances, and 8 out of the top 20 this season according to Espn’s best game rating. Compare this to just 1 top 20 game from Giannis, (the 52 point Career High Night) and this category is not really close.
So clearly James Harden has the advantage offensively, Giannis defensively, while the advanced and miscellaneous stats are too close to give anybody a clear edge. Now of course the MVP should be focused more on offense rather than defense (they have a DPOY for that) so this does give James Harden a slight advantage. And the stats and wow performances are clearly in favour of Harden.
But as I went through in the first part of the article, team performance is of upmost importance. Basically if you had the best record in the league and your best player was far and away the best player on the team while putting up great stats, then the MVP is a guarantee.
Harden is putting up ridiculous video game numbers, but remember two of the greatest individual seasons ever, Wilt's 50 average and the Big O's Triple Double season were still not enough to beat out Bill Russell.
Westbrook broke the 28 year streak of the MVP finishing in the Top 2 of the conference but his season was historical and the best team had two MVP's canceling each other out.
Harden's scoring this season has also been historical, but it is not quite as historical as Westbrook's Triple Double season. And remember in that season there was no Giannis DOING EVERYTHING for a team with the BEST RECORD. And let's not forget Giannis is also having an historical statistical season averaging over 26 points, 12 rebounds and 6 assists - numbers that have only been achieved once in history by Oscar Robertson in 1962.
So the Final decision and it was quite clear in the end is:
2019 MVP Winner: Giannis Antetokounmpo
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