This NBA season’s battle for the most valuable player award has been a two-horse race between Milwaukee Bucks star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and reigning MVP James Harden of the Houston Rockets. Although Harden is the favorite, the award could go to either worthy candidate based on changing criteria in the past few years.

The arguments for each player’s case are clear. Antetokounmpo has led the Bucks to the best record in the NBA, much to the shock of the rest of the league. Meanwhile, Harden has put up gaudy numbers to keep the Rockets afloat in a tougher Western Conference, made more difficult when co-star teammates Chris Paul and Clint Capela were injured.

With each side having a clear reason for believing their player should win MVP, the issue lies with a lack of a clear and consistent criteria for winning the award. The award is not given to the consensus best player in the league, otherwise LeBron James would have likely won at least six out of the last eight awards, as opposed to just two in 2012 and 2013 within that eight year span.

Despite team wins and losses being important, the award is not necessarily given to the star player of the best team. The accolade has aligned with the player whose team had the best regular season record only five out of the last eight years. The last two seasons in particular have highlighted how the barometers for voters change each year, with Russell Westbrook winning in 2017 despite his team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, being the sixth seed in the west. Even Harden won the award last year, despite James posting historic numbers and leading a mediocre Cavaliers team to 50 wins.

2016-17 MVP Race

Points per game Rebounds per game Assists per game Team Record (Seed)
Russell Westbrook (MVP winner) 31.6 10.7 10.4 47-35 (6th)
James Harden (MVP runner-up) 29.1 8.1 11.2 55-27 (3rd)

Westbrook was statistically superior to Harden, as he was the first player to average a triple-double in 55 years. Westbrook and the Thunder had also just lost star Kevin Durant in free agency. He benefited from a narrative that he was more valuable to his depleted Thunder team, than Harden was to a star-filled Rockets team. Interestingly enough, this notion of Westbrook’s value seemed to be affirmed when Westbrook’s Thunder played Harden’s Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, with Houston winning in four of five games.

The 2017-18 race however, was decided by a starkly different set of criteria.

2017-18 MVP Race

Points per game Rebounds per game Assists per game Team Record (Seed)
James Harden (MVP winner) 30.4 5.4 8.8 67-15 (1st)
LeBron James (MVP runner-up) 27.5 8.6 9.1 50-32 (4th)

 

Last season, James played all 82 games for the Cavaliers team, which had just traded Kyrie Irving, and put up superior numbers to Harden outside of scoring. Although James had a marked advantage in efficiency in terms of field goal percentage, shooting percentage, compared to Harden’s 45 percent rate. However, Harden led the Rockets to a 65-17 record, which seemed to push voters in his favor. Once again, Harden clearly had a superior supporting cast to James, but this time, unlike 2016-17, his superior record was enough to give him the edge.

2018-19 MVP Race

Points per game Rebounds per game Assists per game Team Record (Seed)
Giannis Antetokuonmpo 27.4 12.5 6.0 58-20 (1st)
James Harden 36.5 6.5 7.5 49-28 (4th)

 

This season, Harden is on the other side of the argument compared to the past two seasons. He is now hoping his statistical superiority will be enough to overcome Antetokounmpo leading the Bucks to a far better record.

However, if there is one takeaway to understand the past two races, it seems to be the importance of the narrative each contender crafts. Westbrook benefited heavily by breaking a historical statistical threshold with his triple-double average, while keeping the Thunder afloat after Durant left for Golden State.

Last season, Harden benefited from a dominant team record and likely some sympathy from voters after finishing as the runner-up in the voting two of the previous three seasons. While it may be frustrating to some voters that there is not a clear set of guidelines for deciding the MVP, taking the importance of the story behind each candidate maintains the intrigue of the award, and makes the selection more of an art than a science.

Antetokounmpo should be this season’s MVP because he has the more compelling narrative. The Bucks have exceeded expectations in an overwhelming manner. They are 58-20 when their preseason over/under win total is at 48.5. Antetokounmpo also does not have a high-caliber teammate like Harden does in Paul. Meanwhile, the Rockets returned a relatively similar roster to last season’s dominant team and had a preseason over/under win total of 56.5, which they will not reach.

In Harden’s defense, stars Capela and Paul have missed significant time, but Antetokounmpo has blown away expectations in such a pronounced and unforeseen manner that should be enough for him to win his first MVP.

Stats are from ESPN.com

Over/Under win totals from https://www.nbcsports.com/washington/wizards/2018-19-nba-overunder-win-totals-las-vegas-have-wizards-lower-some-many-expect

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