When the Houston Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks face off tonight, the two leading candidates for MVP this season will take centre stage.
Ahead of the game, we asked our NBA.com Staff who their pick would be for MVP to this point of the season: James Harden or Giannis Antetokounmpo?
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): It's incredibly close - so much so that my answer might be different by the season's end - but my gut right now says Giannis Antetokounmpo.
While Harden is having one of the best scoring seasons of all-time, Giannis is having one of the most dominant. According to Basketball-Reference, Oscar Robertson, Russell Westbrook and Larry Bird are the only players who have ever put up comparable numbers, only Giannis is doing it in significantly fewer minutes (only 32.9 per game).
With the Bucks built entirely around him, Giannis' growth into a modern day version of Shaquille O'Neal has propelled them to one of the best offences in the league.
The Rockets have a slightly better offensive rating than the Bucks on the season, which is a testament to how incredible Harden has been, but Giannis is also a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.
His two-way dominance on a team that has the best record in the league by a decent margin gives Giannis the slight edge over Harden for me heading into tonight's game.
Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13): Giannis Antetokounmpo has been marvelous and it's likely he wins at least one MVP at some point. I just don't think it should be this season.
James Harden is my MVP pick.
By now, everyone knows of the ridiculous tear he went on in January and how he led the Rockets to a 12-5 record when Chris Paul missed 17 straight games spanning December and January. He's averaging roughly 8 million points per game and doing it on a team that once again looks like the biggest threat to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference.
What I'd like to do is debunk two myths that get in the way of Harden's MVP push: that he is 1) an inefficient chucker and 2) responsible for Houston's slow start.
Yes, Harden's shooting 44 percent overall, which isn't great. But given over half of his shots come from beyond the arc, that simply can't be taken at face value. Harden's effective FG percentage is better than two-thirds of MVP winners. If you use true shooting percentage, which takes into account his ability to draw fouls, he's been more efficient than 53 of 63 previous MVP winners.
That's not an inefficient chucker. It's falling prey to an outdated way that we collectively evaluate what is or isn't good (the lesson here, kids: field goal percentage in 2019 is antiquated).
As for that slow start, I've seen many try to pin blame on Harden for that as well. "Why should he get credit for digging Houston out of the hole when he dug the whole to begin with?"
When Houston was 11-14 and in 14th in the West, Harden was casually averaging a league-best 30.0 PPG to go along with 8.3 APG. Over that stretch, here's how his teammates performed. Two words: not great! Those shooting percentages relative to other MVPs I mentioned before for Harden? Almost identical in that 11-14 period as they are for the season.
That's my defence of Harden.
Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21): The narrow margin between these two in the MVP race make this an extremely difficult decision, but Giannis Antetokounmpo gets my vote.
Milwaukee's superstar is putting forth a remarkable season in which he leads his team in scoring (27.4 ppg), rebounding (12.6 rpg) and assists (6.0) per game - his scoring and rebounding averages place him in the league's top five, while his assist average is good for 18th in the NBA.
And he's only 24-years-old.
The next logical step in Giannis' meteoric rise to superstardom would be this masterful season ending with the Bucks making a deep postseason run and his hoisting the MVP trophy at the NBA Awards show in June. History would support that as well.
Seven of the last 10 MVP awards have gone to the best player on the team that owns the league's best record, and while that distinction does not necessarily mean "Most Valuable," it's hard to argue that this Bucks team would be anywhere near where it is without its MVP.
That itself is worthy of my vote.