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The NBA never has defined the qualifications for the Most Valuable Player award, leaving it to each and every one of us to come up with our own definition. Players are no different, but there is a twist.
While they consider some of the same factors everyone else does—team record, individual stats, etc.—there’s one they alone have access to: what it feels like to compete against an MVP-level player. For them, it outweighs all the others.
In short: They know one when they play one.
“It’s just a feel thing, really,” said Warriors guard Steph Curry, winner of back-to-back MVP awards and the first-ever unanimous selection in 2016. “Every year, the conversations [in the media] carry weight. Narratives take place in October, November and December, and [the media] has to feed those narratives. Voters get fatigue. But if you’re watching and living in this every day, it’s pretty clear. You know who should hold that trophy.”
Among more than a dozen players asked, all but one had the race coming down to Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and the reigning MVP, Houston Rockets guard James Harden. Not every player made a definitive choice, but among those who did, Harden was the landslide winner.
In a league of otherworldly athletes, Antetokounmpo may be the most otherworldly. At 6’11” with a 7’3″ wingspan and a 40-inch vertical, he can go from three-point arc to three-point arc in two dribbles. His combined averages in the basic categories—points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks—are unparalleled. And his Milwaukee Bucks have the best record in the league.
For all of those reasons, Antetokounmpo’s peers admire both what he’s done and what he has the chance to become. But when it comes to what holds the most value for them, it’s the ability to take control of a game when the outcome hangs in the balance—the player that elicits the loudest, most sincere “Oh, no!” if he gets the ball with the game on the line.
For them, that’s Harden.
The Rockets star is averaging an absurd 36.3 points per game—a total no player has surpassed since Michael Jordan in 1986-87—but his sheer volume of points isn’t what impresses fellow players the most. It’s the fact that there seems to be no way to prevent him from getting them whenever he wants. No one wants to see Giannis with the ball within eight feet of the basket; no one wants to see Harden with the ball, period. They respect the Greek Freak; they fear The Beard.
The early narratives this season favored LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Antetokounmpo. Sports Illustrated made Giannis the preseason favorite on a list of 18 and asked, “Is Giannis the Best Player in the East now that LeBron is Gone?” Bleacher Report predicted last July the race would be between Giannis and LeBron and a month into the season cited odds that had Giannis leading LeBron for the honor. In December, HoopsHype had Giannis leading Davis and Kevin Durant. In February, The Action Network polled 21 likely voters: 13 chose Giannis, seven chose Harden and one chose Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George.
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Whoever voted for George has a compatriot in Portland Trail Blazers swingman Evan Turner. As Curry suggested, George is Turner’s choice because of how it feels to be charged with the task of stopping him.
“When he has the ball, it’s: ‘Oh my God, send help!'” Turner said of George. “He’s been on a different level. Giannis has had a great year and is doing great things for the Bucks, and I don’t ever want to take that away from him. But the guy who has been unreal is Paul George.”
But for the bulk of the players B/R spoke with, that person is Harden. Not only for what he is, but for what Antetokounmpo isn’t quite yet.
It’s not that Antetokounmpo isn’t a formidable opponent. His speed, length, hops and handle make him capable of maneuvering over or around almost anyone, often culminating with a ferocious dunk. All of that, combined with his work ethic, makes him a defensive riddle to solve as well. But players know defense requires a team effort to succeed, and offensive proficiency can be as much of a reflection of a team’s system. They place the most value on the ability to score whenever and however a team needs to win. For all of Antetokounmpo’s talent, that’s where they see him falling short.
“Late game, Giannis doesn’t have the ball in his hands to win,” Magic guard Evan Fournier said. “For an MVP, that’s kind of hard.”
That ability to score with the game on the line is why Fournier believes Curry and teammate Kevin Durant should be in the running every year. He also considers the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors to be the best team in the league, not the Bucks, despite their league-leading record.
“If we’re talking best player on best team, I’d go with Steph,” Fournier said. “It should really be between Steph and KD, but they’re never going to get the credit they deserve because they’re on the same team. If it’s between [Antetokounmpo and Harden], you have to go with James.”
Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins and Blazers guard and Steph’s brother, Seth Curry, made the lone cases for Antetokounmpo, but they did it in the abstract way more often heard from fans or media members. Cousins valued Antetokounmpo’s consistency over Harden being great “in spurts.”
“[Harden]’s been on one hell of a spurt of late, but if we start giving it based on spurts…”
Seth Curry, meanwhile, saw the Bucks’ league-leading record as the biggest reason to back Antetokounmpo.
“Giannis has got his team to that No. 1 position, so he’s very valuable,” he said. “Pure stats, it’s James. If it’s close, you have to give it to the best record.”
Clippers forward Danilo Gallinari was quick to give the nod to Harden. Again, it was Harden’s ability to get a basket whenever needed that mattered most.
“They’re different players,” Gallinari said. “James is an amazing scorer. He can score in every way imaginable. He doesn’t have weaknesses. To have the Rockets doing so well in the West, I would vote for him.”
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Detroit Pistons big man Jon Leuer didn’t see a tiebreaker as necessary, either. Harden’s heroics, surrounded by a roster churned both by the acquisition and then release of 10-time All-Star Carmelo Anthony as well as a slew of injuries, was enough. Nor did he discount Harden’s league-leading point production because head coach Mike D’Antoni gives him the greenest of lights to shoot.
“To me, it’s Harden,” Leuer said. “People say his numbers are inflated because of D’Antoni’s system, and he dribbles the air out of the ball, but carrying his team every night no matter who is out there, you can’t go against that. The team thing does factor in, which is why Giannis has to be considered. But the knock was the Rockets were a lower seed, and now they’re one of the top four in the West. I just don’t see how it’s not James.”
Denver Nuggets center Mason Plumlee shared the same perspective.
“It doesn’t matter who is in or out,” he said. “If they’re picking up and playing a guy on a 10-day or what, James makes his team better every night.”
If Steph Curry disagrees with his brother by favoring Harden, as he does this year, it’s also because he understands firsthand the unique position Harden has occupied this season as a reigning MVP.
“There’s a little more pressure,” Steph Curry said. “You’re not surprising anyone.”
In that, Curry gets to what may be driving the players’ support of Harden: He has had the more extraordinary season because he has surprised everyone, rising above last year’s MVP performance. It’s the same way they’re surprised by what the Bucks have done. Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo has been what those damn early-season narratives projected him to be.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @RicBucher.