With the NBA regular season seemingly over with, due to the Covid-19 pandemic (you may have heard of it), it seems remiss of me to wait any longer before casting my votes on my imaginary NBA ballot. GIVE ME MY BALLOT, NBA! COWARDS!
As well as nominating my winner, and acknowledging those in the conversation, we’ll also go back through my preseason and mid-season predictions, so we can see just how off the mark I was (which might go someway to explaining why I don’t have a ballot. Sorry for venting, NBA).
Today, let’s have a look at the cream of the crop and crown our NBA Most Valuable Player.
Most Valuable Player
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)
Pre-season prediction: Steph Curry (Golden State Warriors)
Mid-season prediction: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)
In the mix: LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, James Harden, Luka Doncic
So, let's address the elephant in the room: that pre-season prediction of Steph Curry as the league MVP. Yeah.....that didn't work out so well, did it! Injury restricted to Steph to a mere 5 games, and with his absence went any hope of a narrative driven MVP campaign or an in any way competent Warriors season. Still, all's well that ends with a #1 overall pick.
For only the 2nd time since 2015, James Harden will not score a top two finish in the MVP award. But make no mistake, The Beard has had a wonderful season. His 34.4 points per game lead the NBA, earning Harden his 3rd straight scoring title. Whilst his scoring did drop away a touch from last season, that can mainly be attributed to Russell Westbrook's breakout once the Rockets went all in on small ball, as well as an inexplicable slump though January. Up to the end of December, Harden was averaging 38.2 points per outing which, had he been able to maintain it, would have been the 4th highest average in league history, trailing only Wilt Chamberlain's run from 1961 to 1963. Harden contributed in other areas as well: 7.4 assists, 6.4 rebounds, 4.4 three pointers (at a 35.2% clip) and he continued to dominate the charity stripe, canning 10.2 free throws a game at his usual stellar clip. He also led the league in VORP for the 2nd season in a row, and Win Shares for the 4th straight campaign.
Harden also averaged 1.7 steals. For all of his (usually) well earned brickbats at the defensive end of the floor, Harden is actually a fairly solid on ball defender when he chooses to be. He has elite footwork at both ends of the floor and great hands. He's not the fastest laterally, but he's not slow either. If he put in more effort, he'd be a genuine two way threat. One area where Harden does receive defensive bouquets is in the post, where his strength helps him hold ground against much bigger opponents. Coach Mike D'Antoni lent into that once the team traded Clint Capela, using Harden as much as PJ Tucker to guard the opposition big man.
Harden has without a doubt maintained his All NBA levels of excellence this season. The fact that he's 3rd on my ballot is testament to the dominance of our other two place getters.
LeBron James, even at age 35, might still be the best basketballer on the planet. Over the course of an 82 game season, he has to pick and choose his moments more than he did as a younger man, but in a seven game series – hell, in a single elimination game – would you take anybody over LeBron James?
In fairness, LeBron has stepped up to the plate on both ends of the court far more than he did through last seasons working holiday, playing some stellar defense and importantly only missing three games.
LeBron James Defense Highlights this season so far. pic.twitter.com/XnkfkNDeWu— Lake Show (@LakeShowFamily) November 6, 2019
Perhaps revitalised by the presence of Anthony Davis – who, with apologies to Dwyane Wade, is the best teammate LeBron has ever stood next to – James has led Los Angeles to a 49-14 record, on pace for 64 wins in a complete season. Extrapolating records from this truncated season out over 82 games is a risky science, but assuming that winning percentage stays as it is, that's an 8 game lead over their stablemate LA Clippers. Historically – with Russell Westbrook being the obvious outlier – being the best player on the best conferences best team is a surefire way to thrust yourself into the MVP debate.
Statistically speaking LeBron's season has been outstanding. In a Wilt Chamberain-esque twist, James led the NBA in assists (10.6 per game) for the first time in his storied career, seemingly just to show us all that he could. He also gave the Lakers 25.7 points, 7.9 boards, 1.2 steals and 2.2 makes from behind the arc every night.
Only five players aged 35 or over have averaged 20+ points, 5+ boards and 5+ assists over a season; the other four are in the Hall of Fame. James has the highest scoring, assists and Effective FG% of that group.
The man sitting at the top of the mountain, however, is Giannis Antetokounmpo. He will become the 12th man to win back to back NBA MVP awards – the other 11 are all either in the Hall of Fame, or mortal locks to make it once eligible.
The Greek Freek has increased his dominance at both ends of the floor. He remains the unholy spawn of a Swiss Army Knife, a power saw and a kraken on defense, and he's increased his offensive usage to Harden type levels, whilst maintaining Harden like efficiencies. Just imagine when Giannis actually learns how to play basketball!
James Harden addresses the comments Giannis made during the All-Star draft about assists: "I average more assists him than him, I think....I don't see what the joke is."— Alykhan Bijani (@Rockets_Insider) February 28, 2020
Later: "But I wish I could just run and be 7 feet and just dunk." https://t.co/vRKMXpr3Wp pic.twitter.com/ecOzFoDsiQ
Milwaukee were on track for a league leading 67 wins when the league shut down and were, despite LeBron's late season run, the favourites for the title.
Statistically, the numbers are obscene: 29.6 points, 13.7 boards, 5.8 assists, a steal and a block per game (The only reason that his steal and block numbers are down is because teams actively direct their attacks away from Giannis, these days. Rudy Gobert is the only other current NBA player that inspires that level of fear). His PER of 31.6 is equal to that of Steph Curry in his unanimous MVP season, and trails only LeBron in 2007, Jordan in 1988 and Wilt in 1962 and 63 in the all time stakes.
For sure, Giannis is blessed with the rarest of physical gifts, but his ability to improve year upon year is remarkable. He's even started to shoot threes, making (by far) a career high 1.5 a game. Sure, he's making them at 30%, but if that goes up to, say, 33%?
For all of his athleticism, Antetokounmpo's greatest strength might be his versatility. The ability to run the point, play as a low post big, act as a roll man or facilitate from the elbows means that Mike Budenholzer can get incredibly creative with his lineups. And forget about it on defense. There literally isn't a player in the league that Giannis can't at least hold his own against. From the wizardry of Harden, to the brute strength of Joel Embiid, to the move upon move upon move of Kyrie Irving to the bullocking drives of LeBron or Kahwi: Giannis can stop them all.