Consistent brilliance delivers.
Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo was the league’s most consistently brilliant performer from the first whistle of training camp to the final buzzer of the 2018-19 regular season.
The product of “The Greek Freak” and his brilliant consistency was a league-best 60-win season that delivered the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs to the Bucks.
Whether that is enough to deliver Antetokounmpo his first Kia MVP remains to be seen. But it was enough to secure the No. 1 spot on the final Kia Race to the MVP Ladder of this season.
Antetokounmpo edged out reigning Kia MVP James Harden in an epic duel and photo-finish, on the strength of Antetokounmpo’s versatility and dominance on both ends of the floor for what turned out to be the NBA’s best team.
But make no mistake, Harden’s case for the top spot is every bit as compelling as Antetokounmpo’s.
Harden’s encore season was nothing short of epic, a scoring spectacular that forced his name into conversations and statistical categories populated by the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
* His 32 consecutive games of scoring 30 or more points is the second-longest streak of all time to Wilt Chamberlain, who dropped 30 or more 65 straight times in ’61-62. (The Rockets went 21-11 during Harden’s 30-point tear as it helped resuscitate their season during an injury-riddled stretch.)
* Harden also became the first player in NBA history to score 30 or more points against all 29 other teams in the same season, the first player to accomplish that feat since Jordan scored 30 or more against all 22 other teams in ’86-87. Bird also did likewise in his ’84-85 MVP season, making them the only players to accomplish that feat since the NBA-ABA merger.
In his bid to become the 12th player in NBA history to win back-to-back MVPs, Harden operated with a usage rating (39.3%) that ranks second all-time to Russell Westbrook’s (40.0%) during his Kia MVP season (2016-17).
So how, you might ask, did Antetokounmpo rise to the top of my ballot considering all Harden accomplished?
A more traditional argument -- the undisputed best player having a transcendent season for the league’s best team -- is what fueled Antetokounmpo’s campaign.
Sure, there’s a historical context for what he did this season as well. Even though he’s far from a traditional, dominant low-post big man, Antetokounmpo controls games in the manner that Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did during MVP-winning seasons during their Hall of Fame careers. (O’Neal said so himself this season.)
Compare Antetokounmpo’s raw numbers this season (27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.3 steals per game) to Olajuwon’s during his ‘93-94 MVP season (27.3 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 3.6 apg, 3.7 bpg and 1.6 spg) or O’Neal’s ’99-00 MVP season (29.7 ppg, 13.6 rpg, 3.8 apg, 3 bpg and 0.5 spg) or Abdul-Jabbar’s ‘75-76 MVP season (27.7 ppg, 16.9 rpg, 5 apg, 4.1 bpg and 1.5 spg) for some context on just how historically dominant he has been.
Antetokounmpo could conceivably win MVP, Kia Defensive Player of the Year and Kia Most Improved Player awards all in the same season.
That’s how good and impactful his performance has been for a Bucks teams that reached new heights under first-year coach Mike Budenholzer.
The fact that he’s doing this – being a top three scorer behind Harden and Paul George, without the aid of anything close to a competent 3-point shot in a the 3-point era -- makes it even more remarkable.
The most frightening part of the rest of the league? That he’s already reached this level at 24, with a decade or more of continued improvement and sustained dominance surely ahead.
Consistent brilliance, it’s what delivered the Bucks to the top of the standings and Antetokounmpo to the top of the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder this season.
It’s also what will keep them both in that mix for years to come.
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The top five in the final edition of the 2018-19 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:
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1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Last week: No. 1
Season stats: 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.3 blocks
In a season filled with drama and turmoil elsewhere, Antetokounmpo starred in the season’s best feel-good story as he and the Bucks ascended to the top of the NBA in Budenholzer’s first season at the helm. "The Greek Freak" and his rise prompted the Bucks’ front office to go all-in on the season, making moves to push forward in an Eastern Conference playoff chase lacking LeBron James for the first time in nearly a decade. Antetokounmpo’s magical all-around work puts him in a category that barely a handful of players in the league can even come close to be included in. Folks in Milwaukee haven’t seen a player of this caliber in the hometown team’s inform since Abdul-Jabbar was collecting MVP hardware and winning a championship along side Oscar Robertson. No offense to Khris Middleton, himself an All-Star this season, but Antetokounmpo doesn’t have the luxury of playing alongside another player of his caliber the way fellow top-five MVP candidates James Harden, Paul George and Stephen Curry do each night.
2. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Last week: No. 2
Season stats: 36.1 points, 7.5 assists, 6.5 rebounds, 2.1 steals
After a rough start to to the season, Harden has led the Rockets on a tear through the West standings and his own personal assault on the NBA's scoring records. The reigning Kia MVP finished his second straight season with a scoring average north of 30 points (his 36.1 ppg is the highest in the league since Bryant's 35.4 ppg in '05-06). Harden has piled up point-rebound-assist numbers this season that no player in league history ever has. The historical nature of the season he crafted has been as impressive as it was unprecedented. And the criticisms of his defensive work, long the area of his game most poked at, isn’t the weakness it’s been in the past. Harden won’t show up on any Kia DPOY ballots, but he’s vastly improved that part of his game. Were it not for Antetokounmpo's season for the ages, Harden would sit atop this list once again.
3. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder
Last week: No. 3
Season stats: 28.0 points 8.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 2.2 steals
George turned in his finest NBA season after a career-altering free-agent decision to stick with the Thunder last summer instead of looking elsewhere (namely Los Angeles). If he needed validation for his choice, George can just run down the list of accomplishments he piled up this season. He finished second in the scoring chase to Harden, led the league in steals, earned a starting nod in the All-Star Game and will likely finish in the top three of the voting for Kia DPOY. He did all of this sharing the load with Russell Westbrook, who averaged a triple-double for the third straight season. Were it not for a nagging shoulder injury that slowed he and the Thunder down late in the season, George might have challenged Harden and Antetokounmpo for one of the top two spots here. But his season-long roll has cemented him as one of the top two-way players in the league.
4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Last week: No. 4
Season stats: 27.3 points, 5.3 assists, 5.2 rebounds, 1.3 steals
Curry actually saw an uptick in his scoring this season. And although though he didn’t perform at the 50-40-90 shooting level he did during his last Kia MVP season, he’s still tooling around in that neighborhood. The fact that he’s capable of doing that and leading the two-time reigning NBA champions in scoring while a scoring machine like Kevin Durant is on the roster tells you just how potent Curry’s game has become. Curry has persevered through all of the drama that accompanied this season in Oakland (from the Durant-Draymond dust-up early on to the integration of DeMarcus Cousins into the mix), serving as the calming influence during a campaign that proved to be every bit as tough as Warriors coach Steve Ker warned it would be. There’s a reason you rarely see the same group push through the league the way the Warriors have the past five seasons. It takes special, transcendent talents to lead that sort of charge. It takes a player like Curry, who no matter what happens this summer, will remain that figure for the Warriors.
5. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Last week: No. 6
Season stats: 20.1 points, 10.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.4steals
Jokic has improved so much and so rapidly over the course of his four NBA seasons that he’s shocked its ecosystem. Anyone outside of the Nuggets who claims to have seen this type of season coming from "The Joker” is peddling fake news. Jokic has been a revelation the past two seasons, cashing in on the opportunities his undeniable talent created for him during some transition seasons in Denver. He’s as gifted and skilled a passer as there is in the league right now, regardless of position. He’s a nightly triple-double threat and is improving as a defender (which is perhaps his lone, glaring weakness). It’s rare for a big man in today’s NBA to facilitate for his team the way Jokic does. But kudos to Nuggets coach Mike Malone for constructing an attack that played to strengths of his best and most versatile player. It turned out that what worked best for Jokic is what worked best for the Nuggets, who climbed their way to No. 2 in the West after missing out on the playoffs a year ago on the final night of the regular season. Jokic is a good bet for a first-team All-NBA nod to top it all off.
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The Next Five
6. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
7. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
8. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
9. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors
10. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
And five more: Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics; Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz; Blake Griffin, Detroit Pistons; LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers, Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
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