This could be the tightest NBA MVP race in years. Antetokounmpo has a classic case: best player on the best regular-season team. But Harden produced unprecedented numbers when his team needed him most.
How is anyone supposed to decide? Our NBA experts weigh in on the biggest questions shaping the MVP debate, including what matters most in the voting, the surprising challenges and the best arguments for each player. Plus, they make their picks with less than a week to go in the season.
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1. Rank the following in order of how important they should be to the MVP vote:
D. Historic precedent
Kevin Pelton, ESPN: Individual production, then team success, and that's it. I include team success only to the extent that all individual production matters in terms of driving team success. But it's far from the only factor, and as star players play relatively fewer minutes, I think the rest of the roster and the coaching staff have never been relatively more important in determining how many games a team wins.
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN: Individual production, team success, durability, narrative and then historic precedent. Narrative is tricky and has gotten a bad rap with the rise of social media and hot takery in recent years. But a superstar's season tells a story, and the award exists in some part to measure the power of that story.
Chris Herring, FiveThirtyEight: Individual production, team success, historic precedent and then narrative. But as we know, there is no official set of guidelines for the vote, which is part of the reason there are such heated debates surrounding it every year.
Tim Bontemps, ESPN: Chris is right: The fact that there is no set criteria drives the conversation. But I would say individual production, team success and narrative are the only things that matter. I include narrative only because if you're going to be the most valuable player in the league, you are going to have an outsized influence by default. That inevitably creates a narrative.
Tim MacMahon, ESPN: It depends on what we count as historic precedent. When a guy goes on a run unmatched in the modern era, that means something. It goes hand in hand with individual production at the top, and then come team success and narrative.
2. Make your MVP case for or against Giannis Antetokounmpo
Arnovitz: Giannis has been not only the most productive two-way player in the league this season but also the single most versatile performer on each end of the floor. Whether you're measuring traditional stats, poring over granular data (defensive performance against drives and at the rim) or measuring efficiency, you'll find Antetokounmpo near the top of every leaderboard. His team, of which he's the indisputable leader, has compiled the league's best record. But more, the collective character of that team has revealed itself as, in large part, an expression of his personality and work ethic.
Pelton: For the sake of argument, I'll make the case against. Antetokounmpo has averaged just 33 minutes per game and has missed eight games, which means he will undoubtedly finish with fewer minutes played than any MVP in a non-lockout season since Bill Walton in 1977-78. Add the fact that Antetokounmpo plays a position with higher replacement level than perimeter spots, and the Bucks would likely see a smaller drop-off replacing him than the Rockets would with James Harden or the Thunder would withPaul George.
Herring: Giannis has the most traditional MVP argument: He has been the best player on what has clearly been the NBA's best, most dominant regular-season team. He has put up huge, career-best numbers that would be even better if Milwaukee didn't blow clubs out so often, leading him to frequently sitting fourth quarters. The 24-year-old is highly impactful on both ends and should have a chance to win both the MVP and Defensive Player of the Yearawards, a feat that has been accomplished only twice in a season.
MacMahon: I can't stand when people -- fans, homer broadcasters, whoever -- try to poke holes in a guy's MVP case. Both of these guys are absolutely deserving. Antetokounmpo is the league's best all-around player and the lone superstar on a team that has the NBA's best record. He dominates in every phase of the game except shooting -- and even his jumper is coming along.
Bontemps: Giannis was my pick before this season, and he remains my pick. The Bucks have been a historically great team by virtually every metric. While Mike Budenholzer was an inspired choice as coach, the biggest reason Milwaukee has been the league's best team is that -- in my opinion -- Antetokounmpo has become the best player in the world. His two-way dominance has led the Bucks to being the only team to sit in the top five in offensive and defensive efficiency.
3. Make your MVP case for or against James Harden
MacMahon: Well, he's having arguably the best offensive season of all time for a team that he carried into the top half of the West playoff pack. It's by far the most efficient season by a player who averaged more than 35 points per game, as Harden's true shooting percentage (61.2) is 5 full percentage points better than Michael Jordan's in 1986-87. Harden will end up with close to 200 more assists than in any of the other nine seasons in which a player scored so much. And you can't use defense against him anymore, considering he ranks among the league leaders in steals and deflections, and he's an elite post defender.
Herring: No other player has been in the same stratosphere this season from a scoring standpoint. Even those who dislike Harden's offensive style can't deny the obvious: The Rockets needed him to play this way -- and be this good -- because they were riddled with injuries to Chris Paul, Clint Capela and Eric Gordon. Houston got off to a horrendous start and was tied for last place in the West two weeks into the season. The team now finds itself third and remains arguably Golden State's biggest threat. Much of that stems from Harden, who has logged seven of the NBA's 10 highest-scoring performances this season.
Bontemps: The relentlessness with which Harden takes it to his opponents each night and the sheer volume of his production. Harden is going to have a chance to catch Kobe Bryant for the most points in a season in the past 30 years. He'll finish the season with more than 1,000 3-point attempts -- which is just an absurd thing to think about. He has improved one of his biggest prior weaknesses -- his shooting from floater range -- and turned it into a strength, and his step-back jumper has become an iconic shot. The total offensive package he brings to the table is incredibly impressive.
Arnovitz: Harden's offensive achievements this season are overwhelming. Looking at value over replacement player, Harden's current campaign is one of the 20 most prolific of all time, and the Rockets have three games to play. Also, Harden isn't merely a chucker. He's one of the top rebounders at his position and distributes the ball.
Pelton: Nobody in NBA history has done what Harden is doing this season. The tradeoff between usage and efficiency is a fundamental tenet of basketball analytics. A player taking on as heavy a load as Harden has -- a usage rate of more than 40 percent of the Rockets' plays, second highest since individual turnovers were first tracked in 1977-78 -- isn't supposed to score with solidly above-average efficiency. Harden's true shooting percentage is 9.4 percent better than league average. To find the next-highest usage rate with similar efficiency, you have to go down the list to Harden in 2017-18, when his usage was a relatively normal 36 percent.
4. What part of picking an MVP this season do you find most challenging?
Bontemps: It isn't actually deciding between Harden and Antetokounmpo. (I think Antetokounmpo has a slim but clear edge.) Instead, it's simply not being able to pick Harden, as he would be an easy winner in most seasons. Also, consider this: Harden will have finished first or second in MVP voting four times in the past five seasons. That is a remarkable achievement and proof of this being one of the most impressive stretches in NBA history.
MacMahon: Deciding whether to place more value on Harden's historic accomplishments or Antetokounmpo's role in leading the Bucks to the league's best record. The MVP has clearly become a two-horse race -- Paul George dropped out as the Oklahoma City Thunder fell apart after the All-Star break -- but picking between Harden and Antetokounmpo is a matter of preference.
Pelton: To go back to my Giannis answer, valuing playing time. On the one hand, it seems unfair to hold it against Antetokounmpo that the Bucks have been so good that they haven't needed him to play 37 minutes a game and can rest him down the stretch while still almost certainly getting home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. On the other, the Rockets absolutely have needed Harden to play all those minutes, and it seems like he deserves credit for that. I'm not sure how to square that circle.
Herring: In the past, Harden's defense has been ripped to shreds, whereas Giannis has long (and rightfully) been seen as one of the best defenders in the game. But you can craft an argument around basic stats to suggest that Harden has been very good in his role on that end this season. Along with the steals and deflections, he has been posted up 100 times more than any other NBA player, according to Second Spectrum, an indication that clubs seek to test him down low after forcing a switch. But he's also incredibly strong, and he has been one of the league's most efficient post defenders. No, Harden isn't a DPOY candidate like Giannis. But he has been good enough on D that his play on that end can bolster, rather than hurt, his argument.
Arnovitz: The proliferation of quality data has been helpful in learning more about a player's comprehensive contributions on the court. At the same time, there's so much information available that paralysis by analysis can set in. For example, those deflection numbers cited by Mike D'Antoni (Harden ranks 12th in deflections per 36 minutes) ... is this a meaningful stat? Kelly Oubre Jr. leads the league in deflections per 36 minutes, but he ranks last among defenders who have guarded 175 direct drives this season, per Second Spectrum data.
5. What is your biggest takeaway from this year's MVP debate?
Herring: That in a race this close, we should probably make full use of the next week before settling on a decision. Both players have been fantastic and deserving. Who knows? We might see something before the final game that sways us once and for all.
Arnovitz: That quantifying defensive performance will always be difficult, to say nothing of determining how much of a player's overall value consists of defense. The answer is greater than 0 percent but almost certainly below 50. Where a voter, fan, player or anyone else assigns that value will influence how he or she perceives the MVP vote.
Pelton: That Russell Westbrook's win in 2016-17 wasn't so much a referendum on whether team record was still a driving factor in the MVP discussion as an outlier driven by Westbrook's triple-double averages. Even as voters become more familiar with advanced statistics, the best player on the best team is still hard to beat.
Bontemps: Westbrook was certainly an outlier. Over the vast majority of NBA history, the best player on the best team has won this award (including Harden last season). That trend is likely to continue this season ... which will stick in the craw of Houston fans after seeing Westbrook eke out a win over Harden two years ago, but such is life.
MacMahon: Maybe it's just because I cover Houston a lot, but the Rockets seem to care about campaigning much more than the Bucks do. Perhaps that's because Harden has had a couple of runner-up finishes when the Rockets felt he got robbed, and now he has a chance to join an exclusive club of back-to-back MVPs.
Bonus: Who will and should win the MVP award?
Arnovitz: Giannis should win and, due to team success, likely will win.
MacMahon: It's a coin flip, but I'd guess Giannis wins in a close vote.
Herring: If I had to guess, I'd say Giannis will win, in part because his team fits a new, exciting narrative (which I personally put the least weight on).
I don't feel strongly enough to say who I think should win. But I do think Harden deserves some credit for what he has managed to do on defense, as he has put up better-than-expected metrics despite having gone one-on-one more than any other NBA team. Being productive at all on defense after being responsible for that much on offense is pretty insane.
Bontemps: Giannis. He has had a late headwind, the Bucks are going to have the NBA's best record, and he has the narrative of being both a fresh face and a dominant two-way force. There isn't a wrong choice here, but I believe he'll win it.
Pelton: I'm picking Harden, but I think Giannis will likely win a narrow vote. While we're here, there's still a surprisingly strong statistical case for Paul George to be in the discussion with the two front-runners, despite his post-All-Star shooting slump and Oklahoma City's slide down the standings. George remains the leader in ESPN's real plus-minus, and his box-score stats are competitive with those of Harden and Antetokounmpo.
Giannis vs. Harden: Who is the MVP?
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best player on the best team. James Harden is putting up mind-boggling scoring and efficiency numbers. Who is the MVP?
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