What I’m Hearing: HoopsHype’s Alex Kennedy spoke with a couple of NBA executives who explained to him how the Milwaukee Bucks are pushing all the right buttons to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo in the organization for a long time.
Last season’s NBA Most Valuable Player will be in the building Tuesday night as James Harden and the Houston Rockets make their annual Milwaukee visit for a at Fiserv Forum with the Bucks.
This year’s MVP will be there, too.
Harden and Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo have spent most of the season as the top candidates for MVP, and one of them almost assuredly will take home the honor. There’s plenty of debate as to which one is worthier, but with apologies to Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George, almost no one would inject another candidate into the discussion. There just isn’t much of a case to be made.
The Journal Sentinel recently took an informal straw poll of 25 media members outside Milwaukee who cover the NBA and were among the 100 voters for last season’s league awards. Each was prompted to provide their MVP with 13 choosing Antetokounmpo, 10 voting for Harden and two saying the race was too close to call at this point.
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That sample, while interesting, may not necessarily be indicative of how the actual vote will go. Most indicated they are very much on the fence, only leaning in a particular direction and willing to go the other way upon deeper consideration or new developments over the final eight games of the season. Some may not be part of this year’s voting bloc — a group that has not yet been assembled by the NBA — due to personal preference or job change.
While the debate reaches a fever pitch over the final two weeks of the regular season, Antetokounmpo is content to ignore the noise. He hasn’t discussed the MVP or publicly campaigned for the award.
“I’m definitely trying to avoid it, I don’t want to think about it,” Antetokounmpo said. “I just want to do my job. We’ve got eight games left. Trying to get better, trying to improve and trying to play basketball at a high level and everything’s going to take care of itself.”
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His only colorful comments regarding the award came in the heat of the moment on Feb. 6. That’s when, following a dunk in transition against the Washington Wizards, he yelled out, “I’m the (expletive) MVP” while pounding his chest with both hands.
Outside of that, though, he hasn’t campaigned and isn’t going to, even if others think he should.
“My thought process on all of that is just to get better,” Antetokounmpo said. “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, so I know it’s going to work.”
The case for Harden
At 36.4 points per game, the reigning MVP owns the highest scoring average in the league since 1986-87 when Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan finished at 37.1. Only Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain have had a higher scoring average over a full season than Harden’s current clip. His signature step-back jumper is on the way to ascending to the level of NBA lore — if it hasn’t already.
Harden is more than just a scorer, though. He has the ball in his hands more than any player in the league and he can orchestrate at a high level, too. His assist percentage ranks fourth in the league and he entered Monday eighth at 7.5 per game.
Unlike years past when he was discredited for his lack of effort on defense, Harden has shown marked improvement on that end. Entering Monday, he led the NBA in deflections, an indication of defensive activity and involvement. He doesn’t rank among the league’s best defenders in most other categories, but there’s less of a question about his buy-in at that end, which is especially impressive considering his astounding offensive prowess.
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Part of Harden’s case also involves how he put the Rockets on his back in the middle of the season. With injuries all around him, including to co-stars Chris Paul and Clint Capela, Harden, by necessity, willed a team of misfits back into the playoff race. He scored 30-plus points for 32 games in a row, averaging 41.1 in that stretch on 44.1 percent shooting, including 37.1 percent on 3s.
Houston went 21-11 in those games and has since ascended to the No. 3 spot in the more challenging Western Conference at 47-27. Without Harden’s efforts, there’s a good chance the Rockets would be either scrapping just to get into the playoffs or out altogether. His playing style, with its high usage, extreme shot volume and time spent at the foul line may not be the most enjoyable for some to watch, but it’s undoubtedly been effective and has saved Houston’s season.
The case for Antetokounmpo
Antetokounmpo has been incredibly consistent as the best player on the best team in the NBA. No one projected the Bucks would own the league’s best record (55-19) at this point and be the only team in the league with a chance to reach 60 wins. Antetokounmpo’s production has been a major reason behind the team’s success.
With 27.4 points, 12.6 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game, Antetokounmpo can become just the second player in NBA history to put up over 27 points, 12 rebounds and six assists per game over the course of a full season. The other was Oscar Robertson during the 1961-62 season in which he averaged a triple-double. Add in Antetokounmpo’s steals (1.3 per game) and blocks (1.5 per game) and his counting numbers resemble those of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 1975-76 MVP season (27.7 points, 16.9 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.5 steals, 4.1 blocks).
Offensively, Antetokounmpo has dominated the league at the rim. Every defense aims to curtail him from getting to his desired location yet no one has been able to consistently stop him. He’s thrown down a league-leading 3.9 dunks per game while shooting a ridiculous 74 percent on a high volume of shots in the restricted area (536-of-724), averaging out to 16 points at the rim per game on 10.8 shot attempts.
Add in Antetokounmpo’s defense and he’s likely been the most complete player in the league this season. Whether or not he becomes MVP, he’s among the favorites for Defensive Player of the Year and should be a first-team All-Defense selection. His 98.7 defensive rating is the best in the league, as are his 5.3 defensive win shares and 5.2 defensive box plus-minus.
His ability to roam around and block or contest shots has been integral to the Bucks going from one of the worst defenses in the league to the best this season. Antetokounmpo’s long frame and arms have made shots difficult for opponents, with his 40.8 defensive field goal percentage representing one of the best in the league.
While Antetokounmpo hasn’t had to carry the Bucks to quite the same extent as Harden, he’s brought them higher and faster than anyone expected, which will surely count for something at voting time.
Matt Velazquez covers the NBA for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, part of the USA TODAY Network. Follow on Twitter @Matt_Velazquez.