The 2018-2019 NBA regular season came to a dramatic close last night, and the race for the MVP award is tighter than ever. Unlike previous years, NBA analysts, players and fans alike are still engaged in a heated debate over who should take home the hardware this June. Almost everyone can agree that there are two front-runners for the award this season: the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Houston Rockets’ James Harden. Though official selections are due Friday night, the winners won’t be announced until the playoffs end in June — still, it’s safe to say it’ll be one of these two players.
On one side, Antetokounmpo, or the Greek Freak, has dominated the league with his consistent and all-around play. After a disappointing first-round exit in last year’s playoffs, the forward entered this season more determined than ever. He is unlike any player the league has seen before, an ultra-athletic slasher with a 7-foot-3-inch wingspan who can dish out passes with ease and bully even the most dominant centers in the paint. The Greek Freak is just a jump shot away from being completely unstoppable. He averages 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.5 blocks while shooting around 58% from the floor, according to Basketball Reference. He leads his team in almost every statistical category while playing only 33 minutes per game. But what really separates the power forward from Harden is his effort on both sides of the ball.
Stern senior Jay Sanghvi believes Antetokounmpo deserves the award over Harden because of his immense impact on the Bucks team.
“He’s still very much a team player which I love,” Shangvi said. “He does more than just put up shots like Harden and to be the powerhouse in the east with only one major star is something else.”
On a Bucks team devoid of any other superstar, Antetokounmpo has taken the team from seventh seed last year to the top spot in a crowded eastern conference this year. His completely team-oriented brand of play has produced an astounding number of wins and is his strongest case to win the award.
On the other hand, Harden’s record-breaking season has many NBA viewers convinced that he deserves to eclipse Antetokounmpo’s rise to stardom. The reigning MVP from the 2017-2018 season, Harden seemed to have hit the height of his play last season. The first month of the season seemed to confirm this assumption as the former MVP’s numbers dipped while the Rockets struggled to win consistently. But then, just as the team’s roster was hit with an injury crisis and a playoff spot was falling out of reach, Harden caught fire and went on a historic run that will be remembered for years to come. Taking the phrase “putting the team on your back” to a whole new level, he broke the 50-point threshold nine times this season, became the first player in NBA history to score more than 30 points against all 29 teams in the league, and produced the second-longest scoring streak ever with 30 or more points in 32 consecutive games, second to only Wilt Chamberlain. He is averaging 36 points, 7.5 assists, 6.5 rebounds, 2.0 steals, while making 4.8 three-pointers a game, according to Basketball Reference. At the same time, Harden has elevated the Rockets to fourth place in the Western Conference. Not to mention the slew of jaw-dropping individual moments Harden has produced this season alone that would fill up any other player’s entire career highlight reel. Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni has built the entire team’s offense around Harden for a good reason.
Both players are extremely deserving of the award. However, the decision will come down to what the voters value most. The case for Antetokounmpo revolves around his team’s success and his key role in it, while the one for Harden relies on his unprecedented statistics. Regardless of who you think should win, it is important to note the cultural significance of the Greek Freak’s play.
Stern first-year Ryan Whelan noted how this season marked an important point in the 24-year-old’s career.
“[Antetokounmpo] is now starting to be considered to be on LeBron or [Durant’s] level which another European player has never done,” Whelan said.
The new era of foreign-born NBA players, which includes Antetokounmpo and Rookie of the Year front-runner Luka Dončić, is certainly making the game more competitive and more exciting than ever before for fans all over the world.
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