• Gabe Bottazzi

The Beard vs. The Greek Freak: Who Deserves This Season’s MVP?

Updated: Apr 2, 2019

With the 2019 NBA regular season almost at its completion, there have been countless extraordinary performances made by the game’s elite making for high-level, entertaining basketball. The league’s most coveted individual award, the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award is normally given to the best player on the best team in the NBA. Last year, James Harden garnered the award and rightfully so after his consistent dynamic play throughout the 2018 regular season. He led the league in scoring at 30 points per game while being the main catalyst for his Houston Rockets that finished with the best record in the Western Conference (67-15). For this year’s NBA campaign, the team with the best overall record is the Milwaukee Bucks who have taken the league by surprise with their utter dominance as their record currently stands at 57-20. LeBron’s sudden move to Hollywood opened the floodgates for other teams in the East to finally make their mark as the Bucks and Raptors have been neck and neck all season fighting for the top spot. Milwaukee has displayed basketball excellence with a balanced team of go to scorers, playmakers, role players, and lockdown defenders led by their rising superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo. He is slowly but surely making a name for himself as one of the best players in the world while his skill set on the court is improving by the game.

Looking at the outlook of how the Western Conference is shaping up, The Golden State Warriors have been atop the standings for the majority of the season with the Denver Nuggets surprisingly on their tails at the number two spot. James Harden and the Houston Rockets are a few games back of Denver resting at the third spot in the West. In a highly competitive and elite Western Conference, it is impressive how well Houston has been playing despite the adversity they have faced dealing with various injuries, a slow start to the season, and even suspensions. If it were not for James Harden’s out of this world play on the court, The Rockets would most likely be in the bottom tier of the conference. With that being said, the race to the MVP has become an apparent two-man race with Giannis and Harden making strong cases for themselves to earn the reward. James Harden of course looking to be the first back-to-back MVP since Stephen Curry achieved that feat a few years back.

Giannis “ The Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo has taken the reigns as the best player in the Eastern Conference with brute force and unparalleled athleticism causing mayhem for any defender that has the misfortune of being in his path. He is for certain a top MVP candidate due to his impact on the court being unprecedented leading to several victories for his team. Each season he has been in the NBA, Giannis has drastically improved on various facets of his game, which is quite evident this season with averages of 27 points, 13 rebounds, and 6 assists per game. A player has not achieved astounding stats like these since the great Oscar Robertson in the 1970’s. The one area of his game that has been questioned is his mid range and perimeter shooting, but as the season has taken its course, it has been noticeable that his shot is becoming a more integral part of his offensive arsenal. It is astounding to witness his shooting percentages rising each month of the season. This is a direct result of his relentless work ethic and passion to succeed in the NBA. He plays with sheer ferocity and a persistent motor that has made him a tough cover for many of his opponents. Giannis also leads the NBA in dunks, which exemplifies his aggressive mentality to always attack the rim for easy points.

Giannis utilizes his athleticism and newfound strength to his advantage that is something he did not always possess when he came into the league as a skinny 19-year-old rookie from Greece. His style of play reminds many of a young LeBron James when he was just a journeyman in the NBA. Possessing freakish athleticism with a chiseled body that emulates athletes that play football. It took LeBron sometime to develop a consistent jump shot, but when he was able to knock down jumpers in rhythm, he became virtually unstoppable. They are both alike in that play the game with an unselfish mentality and as a result have made their teammates better players. Giannis receives a lot of attention from primary defenders on opposing teams, so when they double team him, he usually makes the smart basketball play to kick it out to one of his many shooters on his team for a perimeter shot. Another facet of Giannis’s game that does not receive enough praise is his constant effort on the defensive side of the court. He is averaging almost 2 blocks and 1 steal per game, which showcases his tenacious effort as he utilizes his extensive wingspan to his advantage. The Greek Freak perceptive alertness on the defensive end has resulted in him placing 2nd in the NBA in defensive rating and number one in the NBA in defensive win shares. The famous saying “defense wins championships” holds true to the Bucks who have sculpted themselves into a legitimate contender.

The Bucks are not a one-man team with players that have come into their own since joining the Bucks. Eric Bledsoe was already an established point guard when he left the Phoenix Suns to join Milwaukee, but once he became a starter he has flourished in the role as a dependable scoring option and playmaker. Malcolm Brogdon is a former Rookie of the Year that has gone under the radar as a consistent two-way, two-guard who shoots a high percentage from the perimeter and the free throw line. Khris Middelton has turned himself to prolific sidekick of the Greek Freak becoming a walking bucket and reliable second option for the Bucks as he is the first player to ever make an NBA All Star Team coming all the way from playing the NBA’s G League. With players of this high caliber, the Bucks have turned into formidable adversaries for opposing teams in the league. Not only do they own the best record in the NBA, but also they are the only team to be top 5 in the league in offensive and defensive rating. The Bucks possess the best road record in the association while having the biggest point differential. They have been playing at a consistent high level all season as Coach Budenholzer has his players buying into his system resulting in the most wins Milwaukee has had in over 30 years.

Over the years, the NBA has taken a softer approach to the physicality of the game of basketball. It is quite evident that referees have been more whistle-happy and prone to calling fouls, technical fouls, and flagrant fouls than year’s pasts. Many players in the NBA enjoy taking advantage of this as they have become known throughout the league for being able to “sell” a call to earn their trips to the free throw line. No player has done this with such notoriety as the reigning NBA MVP, James Harden. He shoots on average at least 11 free throws per game and he has had many games this season in which he has shot over 20 free throws in a single game. It definitely helps to be a great free throw shooter for the amount of time he spends at the charity stripe as Harden shoots 88%. Of course the insurmountable historic accolades James Harden has accomplished through out the course of the season from the 32 consecutive 30 point games, the countless triple doubles, and the eight 50 point games are absolutely astounding. He is putting up numbers that are only seen in the popular videogame NBA2K, in mycareer mode.

Harden has had to put the Houston Rockets on his back for an assortment of games during this regular season as a result of fellow star players, Chris Paul and Clint Capela being out for extended periods of time. He virtually is the entire offense of the team as he leads the NBA in usage rate. Harden is not only responsible for a massive scoring load as he averages a league best 36 points a game, but also is the main distributor, dishing out over 7 assists a game. His offensive arsenal is unlike any player we have seen in recent memory. From his prolific and go to step back three point shot, to his soft touch floater in the lane, Harden has many ways to leave his defenders in the dust. His handle of the basketball is second to none, being able to get wherever he wants on the basketball court makes him pretty much un-guardable, even against the game’s elite. It’s astonishing to see the development of James Harden’s game as he started out as a productive 6th man for the Oklahoma City Thunder when aligned with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. He was the third option on that team which made the NBA Finals in 2012, but eventually lost to LeBron’s Miami Heat.

The following season, Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets and through hard work and dedication he was able to establish himself as the franchise player for his new team. Each year since he got there, Harden’s numbers have improved as he has molded himself into one of the game’s greatest players. This NBA season is no exception, as he has put on an offensive clinic that the game has not seen since the likes of Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan were gracing the hardwood. For the month of January, James Harden had a sensational stat line of averages of 43 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists. He has literally been on such a tear, that sports media outlets are giving him constant coverage just to witness his greatness and see what he will do next. This season alone, Harden has five games in which he has had 50-point triple doubles, which is unheard of and has rarely ever been accomplished in the NBA. Harden’s offensive spectacle is truly spectacular and has made for entertaining basketball, however, his play on the court is still far from perfect.

James Harden is similar to Kobe Bryant in that he is a volume shooter that can have nights where he takes up to 40 shots in a game. For someone that scores as much as he does, he does not really shoot a great percentage from the field as he is shooting 44% on this season as well as only 38% from the three point line. When looking back at some of his 50-point games, while it’s great to amass that historic point mark, it’s the fashion on how you reach that plateau. Harden has had stat lines in which he has taking almost 20 three point attempts, while only making only 6 or 7 of those. Within Coach Mike D’Antoni’s system in Houston, Harden has the ultimate green light where there are no repercussions for taking the quality and quantity of shots he does on a nightly basis. Many of his 50 points this season, while impressive are not statistically efficient as he has some of those games where he shot less than 40 % from three point range and less than 45% from the field. Harden has been notorious around the association for being able to sell foul calls in a variety of ways from flopping, to reacting to making any sort of contact with the defender. So a large percentage of those big-time performances stem from his great free throw shooting and having a talent of drawing fouls to sink between 15-20 free throws in a game.

Another thing to consider when dissecting Harden’s game is the fact that he can be turnover prone. He has a tendency to at times force the issue especially with the ball being in his hands the majority of the time on the offensive end. He averages a league leading 5 turnovers per game, which at times could be the difference between a win and a loss depending when the turnovers occur. While James Harden has made strides on the defensive end of the court where he averages 2 steals a game, he is still somewhat of a liability on defense. There are moments throughout games that are evident where he seems to take plays off on defense and let his opposition blow by him for an easy layup or uncontested jump shot. The fact that he is responsible for so much on the offensive end seems to be the reason why Harden could be using the defensive end to try to maintain his energy, but that should not really be an excuse. It was evident in last year’s NBA playoffs during Harden’s MVP campaign that he seemed to have gassed out in the postseason. Logging all those minutes in the regular season seemed to have taken a toll on Harden, as he was not as dynamic in the playoffs where it matters the most. They failed to make the NBA Finals last season even after being up 3-2 in the Western Conference Finals against the defending champion Warriors. Many are skeptical if history will repeat it self as if James Harden’s historic run will cause him to run out of gas in the playoffs where he is going to be required to be sensational every game in order for the Rockets to reach the Finals for the first time since 1995.

These two players have become household names in the world of sports and have helped to transcend the NBA to new heights. Both have improved each season since joining the league and have elevated their teams to legitimate contenders for the NBA championship. The Most Valuable Player is the most prestigious NBA award rewarded to the player that is so great; he makes his teammates better while resulting in many wins. Both players have valid arguments for the coveted award, but based on how the season has turned out, Giannis Antetokounmpo truly deserves to win his first MVP. He has been consistent all season and is putting up historic numbers in his own right. Giannis has made Milwaukee relevant a potential destination for big-time free agents in the off-season. The Bucks have increased their wins from last year by 13 and have the best record in the NBA for the first time in over 40 years. This is all thanks to the play of Giannis, whose efficient play on both ends of the floor has led to the Bucks dominating their opponents. What’s crazy is Giannis is only 24 years of age and in just his fifth NBA season. The fact that he is so young and has such a high ceiling, exemplifies how Giannis can really become the face of the NBA once LeBron James retires from basketball. There is so much room for growth and while James Harden is playing at such a crazy level, Giannis has been so consistent and has not gone through any sort of slump. He’s a hard worker that is obsessed with getting better and when the NBA Awards are rewarded after a NBA champion is crowded, “The Greek Freak” should be the player to be hoisting up the MVP Award and rightfully so.

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