NBA MVP race: Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Paul George set stage for award showdown
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With less than 20 games to go in the 2018-19 NBA season, the MVP race is down to three worthy candidates: Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Paul George.

But how should we separate those three players within the MVP debate? That’s what we’re here to figure out.

MORE: Patrick Beverley roasts George for blaming officiating

To fans of the Bucks, Rockets and Thunder, there are certainly arguments to be made in favor of each of these players, so don’t take this as the dreaded clump of “media” hating on Antetokounmpo, Harden or George. (To be clear, this writer does not hold an actual MVP vote. You don’t have to care at all!)

These guys all deserve to be in the MVP conversation, and it’s possible a late charge could separate one from the pack. Here’s where we stand as of March 12…

1A. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

Stats: 27.0 points, 12.6 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.4 blocks, 58.0 percent shooting

Advanced: 30.2 PER, 63.9 true shooting, 31.8 usage, 12.1 win shares, 10.3 box plus-minus, 5.83 real plus-mins, 6.4 value over replacement player

The MVP argument: The Bucks own the NBA’s top record (50-17), top net rating (8.8) and top defensive rating (104.7), and Antetokounmpo is the driving force behind Milwaukee’s climb to the top of the East. He is dominating inside (league-high 17.5 points in the paint per game) unlike any player since prime Shaquille O’Neal, and he’s hit 37.2 percent of his 3-pointers since the the beginning of February. His efficiency with his usage is incredible, especially considering opposing defenses know what he wants to do.

He is also a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. He has the steal and block numbers, and he’s leading the NBA in defensive win shares and defensive rating, per Basketball Reference. He is a capable rim protector and switchable along the perimeter for the league’s best defensive team.

Yes, Antetokounmpo benefits from a strong supporting cast and the coaching of Mike Budenholzer, but the team’s net rating swings from 12.1 with him on the court to 3.3 with him off. There is something to be said about the difference between dragging a team from below average or average to good and from good to elite.

Another point against Antetokounmpo would be his lack of playing time (33.0 minutes per game) compared to Harden (37.3) and George (36.6). However, that could help his case because, well, is it his fault his team has crushed all challengers? Despite less minutes, Antetokounmpo could be only the second player to average at least 26 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and one block, the other being Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Antetokounmpo checks off just about every box on the MVP list, so he gets the slightest edge over Harden — for now.

1B. James Harden, Rockets

Stats: 36.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 2.1 steals, 43.6 percent shooting, 35.9 percent 3-point shooting

Advanced: 29.9 PER, 61.1 true shooting, 40.4 usage, 11.5 win shares, 10.9 box plus-minus, 6.97 real plus-minus, 7.7 value over replacement player

The MVP argument: It’s not just that Harden has been the most dominant offensive player this season. He is having one of the greatest offensive seasons in NBA history.

His 36.2 points per game would be the highest mark for anyone not named Michael Jordan or Wilt Chamberlain. He could become the only player to average more than 35 points and seven assists over a full season, per Basketball Reference’s database. He has logged more than 1,000 isolation possessions, yet he’s posted 1.10 points per possession (91st percentile). The closest isolation player? Russell Westbrook with 279 possessions. Less than 13 percent of Harden’s 676 field goals have been assisted. What kind of sorcery is this?

His defense will always leave something to be desired, but give him some credit for being second in steals per game (2.14) behind George (2.25) and tied for first in deflections (3.8) also with George. He is a sturdy post defender and can stop isolations if he’s locked in. That’s a big if, though, and his off-ball defense and closeouts to shooters can be bad, awful or nonexistent in some cases.

Still, Harden put the Rockets on his back when they found themselves with the second-worst record in the West back in December. His usage percentage (40.4) is second only to Westbrook’s 2016-17 MVP campaign (41.7), but he just keeps firing those stepback jumpers and firing passes to open teammates.

Does his offensive load and efficiency outweigh Antetokounmpo’s two-way excellence? It’s understandable to place “The Beard” above “The Greek Freak,” hence the 1A and 1B labels. Good luck, voters.

Why Thunder’s Paul George is a tier below

Stats: 28.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.3 steals, 44.0 percent shooting, 38.8 percent 3-point shooting

Advanced: 23.9 PER, 58.6 true shooting, 29.6 usage, 10.1 win shares, 5.8 box plus-minus, 7.78 real plus-minus, 4.5 value over replacement player

The MVP argument: George is enjoying his best NBA season with career highs in points, assists, rebounds and steals. He has taken on more offensive responsibility while maintaining All-NBA defense.

If you want to go by on vs. off numbers, George makes the biggest difference of the top three MVP candidates.

However, George doesn’t quite bend defenses as the No. 1 option in the same way as Antetokounmpo and Harden. That’s not a slight to George, but rather a reality of his team situation and role. His advanced numbers (PER, true shooting, usage, etc.) also lag slightly behind the top two. 

It’s possible George makes waves with a sudden surge, but he has missed three of Oklahoma City’s last nine games — he may be dealing with a shoulder injury — and when he has played, it’s been ugly. His shooting percentages in his last six starts: 28.7 percent from the field and 22.4 percent from 3-point range. 

If that trend continues, Antetokounmpo and Harden could turn this into a two-man race. If George flips back to his previous shooting splits, he will be a true MVP option.

Honorable mentions: Nikola Jokic, Nuggets; Joel Embiid, 76ers; Stephen Curry, Warriors; Kevin Durant, Warriors; Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers; Kawhi Leonard, Raptors

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