Season-long Kia MVP chase won't be swayed by just one game

Harden vs. Antetokoumpo matchup is important -- within proper context

Tonight on TNT: Rockets vs. Bucks, 8 ET

In a perfect world — or at least, a perfect NBA postseason-awards evaluation world — Giannis Antetokounmpo and reigning Kia MVP James Harden would go head-to-head in The Finals. They and their respective teams, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Houston Rockets, would put on full display their skills, their competitiveness and their impact, not just on random nights in random basketball games but in snagging a championship.

They would demonstrate, in a word, their value. To their teams and to winning, relative to all the league’s other players watching from home.

It could happen. The Bucks and the Rockets conceivably could meet in The Finals to set up this dream MVP showdown. A long shot though, right? Besides, in the current “imperfect” system, ballots are due by the end of the regular season.

So as far as having the two leading candidates for the NBA’s premier individual award on the court together, we must settle for the Rockets’ sole regular-season visit to Milwaukee tonight.

And let’s be honest, an award that exists to honor a player’s value over 82 games will not and should not be determined by the outcome or stats in a single clash. Still, voters likely will be watching in search of subtlety, nuance and that 1.2 percent sliver of additional data in trying to make an informed selection.

When these teams last met on Jan. 9 in Houston, Antetokounmpo had 27 points on 8-of-16 shooting, 21 rebounds, five assists and three turnovers in a 116-109 win. Harden finished with 42 points on 13-of-30 with 11 boards, six assists and nine turnovers.

At this stage of the season, what we’re realistically talking about is the More Valuable Player because this is looking like a two-man race. Others have had marvelous seasons and three of them in various combinations will wind up on voters’ MVP ballot.

But Antetokounmpo and Harden appear to have distanced themselves from the competition, owing to their individual excellence, their teams’ fortunes, some raw statistics and a bunch of intangibles in play since October.

That is a rough definition of “valuable,” the key to this award and a word that can be so amorphous at times like this. In 2016-17, when trying to choose between Harden and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook in a similar dual-favorites MVP race, a panel of NBA insiders were asked on NBA.com to specify their voting criteria.

The result? A hodge-podge of standards and measures. All of them legitimate, by the way.

“I’ve said all along that there’s a complicated matrix of factors that go into making this vote,” our man Sekou Smith said. Colleague John Schuhmann put it this way: “My vote went to the individual who had the biggest effect on why a good team was good.” Others cited a gut-instinct reaction or just overall value.

My definition of MVP attempted to illustrate how tricky the term can be. It is “the best player on the team with the best record,” I wrote then. “Unless it’s the star who has done something statistically and artistically masterful over the 82-game, regular-season canvas. Unless it’s the guy most responsible for boosting his team the furthest beyond so-called experts’ preseason predictions. Unless it’s the player who doesn’t benefit from playing alongside other All-Stars or award winners, and therefore has to carry the heaviest load for six months. Unless it’s the fellow who so elevates his teammates and coaching staff that they do get recognized with honors and awards of their own. Unless it’s the performer without whom his team would fall the most in the standings, as determined by, uh, our imaginations.”

It’s some blend, in other words, of analytics and eye test. And thanks to the eye-of-the-beholder notion of “valuable,” it is the source of endless debates and thus, unintended ingenuity by the NBA and other leagues.

Some sports opt for a “Player of the Year” award, which tends to focus more on the individual, stripping away some of the team component. If that were the case in the NBA, Harden might be the easier choice. He is on pace to become the first player in NBA history to average at least 35 points and seven assists in a season (Nate Archibald, in his famous 1972-73 season, led the league in both categories with 34 ppg and 11.4 apg.) He has scored 50 points or more eight times, twice topping 60.

His “iso” offensive style isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing. Harden has improved in both effort and effectiveness on defense, but he set an extremely low bar at that end for much of his career. He carried Houston through a spate of injuries, notably to backcourt mate Chris Paul and big man Chris Capela, and has helped the Rockets to an NBA-best 14-3 mark since the 2019 NBA All-Star.

Antetokounmpo’s stats — 27.4 ppg, 12.6 rpg and 6.0 apg — bolster his case as well, as those numbers were previously matched across the board only by Hall of Famer (and Bucks legend) Oscar Robertson. He’s the league leader in unassisted dunks and sports a career-best field goal percentage this season (58.2 percent).

In terms of team, Antetokounmpo has missed three games to knee soreness (or precautions thereof) since the All-Star break, and the Bucks are 12-5. He is a committed defender with his length, mobility and pterodactyl wingspan.

Milwaukee has been a wire-to-wire top team, with a league-best 55-19 record — a gain of 11 victories from 2017-18. Clinching the East’s No. 1 seed might be their primary impediment to winning 60 games. Houston, down from 65-17 to 47-27, already has lost 10 more games than in 2017-18.

Without their stars? Milwaukee is 4-3 when Antetokounmpo sits, while Houston is 2-2 without Harden.

As far as the load each has carried, Harden’s most renowned teammate is Paul, a perennial All-Star and likely Hall of Famer. But he has played 50 of the 74 games so far, with Capela at 59 and Eric Gordon 60.

Antetokounmpo’s crew has been healthier — the other four starters (Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon) have missed a total of 15 games, though Brogdon remains out. Then again, the gap from Kia MVP candidate to next-best player is more precipitous on the Bucks. Middleton, a first-time All-Star this season, was chosen at least in part as a reserve by East coaches as a nod to the team’s record.

The home stretch of this season might tilt a few ballots, but it’s important not to weight them too much. Milwaukee has a four-game cushion (and tiebreaker) over the Toronto Raptors. It might rest up and lick its wounds before the postseason. Houston may opt to chase Denver for the No. 2 seed if its mathematically possible.

Neither top candidate sounds focused on the MVP trophy, though both surely would be thrilled to win it.

“My thought process on all of that is just to get better,” Antetokounmpo said recently. “That’s never going to change. I don’t care if we’re playing in The Finals or me being the MVP or whatever. It’s never going to change. It’s always about getting better. It’s worked so far.”

Harden told Smith recently: “I’m 10 years in now. The only thing I can really do now is enjoy it, have fun with it and just try to take it game for game and be the best that I can be.”

So where is this all headed? Probably toward a too-close-to-call situation with more than the usual suspense. A straw poll by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this weekend of 25 likely voters found 13 votes for Antetokounmpo, 10 for Harden and two undecideds.

Since the actual ballot goes five deep, the point system attached to it could produce one of the narrowest margins in recent memory.

Which probably would be about right.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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