DGS NBA Midseason Awards Part III
If you missed parts one and two of the DGS NBA midseason awards check them out here and here. In the final installment, we present the DGS NBA midseason MVP. Outside of the Warriors and Rockets, it has been a tumultuous year for the NBA. Who will emerge as the season’s most valuable player? Read on and find out!
Most Valuable Player:
3 – LeBron James is a perennial MVP candidate. He has already cemented his status as a top-five all-time player. At this point, he is just padding his resume. James is still the best player on the planet and this year he has shown it yet again by leading the Cavs into the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff race in spite of an underwhelming supporting cast. His numbers are just as staggering as they usually are. He may not average a triple-double but he does not need to. He bends the defense by being on the court. Every defender has an eye on James because of the way he can take over a game. It is hard to believe LeBron is only in his early thirties with how long he has been in the league. In his 15th season, he is putting up an MVP case as strong as he ever has.
The problem with James’ candidacy is that his defense has slipped dramatically. During the regular season, James is merely an average defender. His effort level ebbs and flows depending on the opponent and situation. Yes, he can still lock in during the playoffs but those stretches are few and far between in the regular season. It would have been unimaginable for an all-time great two way player like Michael Jordan or Hakeem Olajuwon to let his team slip to the low 20’s in overall defense. The personnel on the Cavaliers have a lot to do with it but James has been part of the problem rather than the solution. Defensive leaders need to lead by example and ensure their teammates have each other’s back defensively. During the Isaiah Thomas experiment, that type of leadership was absent. It may seem like picking nits, and it is. In a year with so many viable MVP candidates, those minor details make the difference. James loses points for that here.
The other impediment to James’ candidacy is the team success aspect. With other players performing at a similar or even higher level in the regular season, James needs team success to help his case. Cleveland has been the biggest underachiever this season. Unfortunately, that has to count against James. If the Cavaliers rebound and seize the top seed, then James will earn the kudos. For now, this middling Cavs team is hurting rather than helping.
Sometimes it is hard to fairly evaluate James. He has been the best player in the league for what seems like forever. It has probably been 10 years with all apologies to Kobe Bryant and undeniably he has been the king of the league since his run in Miami. Combine that with MJ comparisons and it often seems like James is competing against himself. That leads many commentators to underappreciate James and the historic player that he is. It is preposterous that James is still doing this 15 years into his NBA career with no signs of slowing down. MVP or no, James is chasing GOAT status and this season is just another exhibit in his case.
2 – James Harden has been the best player on one of the best teams in the league. He is a maestro with the ball and largely is the offense in Houston. When LeBron or Kobe have had that same feature, they have had brilliant individual seasons but those offenses have never come close to what Houston is doing this year. Their historic offense relies so heavily on Harden that a season ago he was worn out come playoff time. They got Chris Paul in the offseason and somehow Harden has gotten better. Amazingly, the offense that was borderline historic a year ago is on the upswing. Incredible has become unguardable. Houston has been so successful that commentators around the league are already bemoaning the inevitable move towards “Moreyball”. It takes a special player and a special team to change the NBA zeitgeist in such a short time. Harden and the Rockets have done it.
One of the most remarkable parts of James Harden’s career has been his ability to adjust. He began his career in a sixth man role with the Thunder where he excelled. After the infamous trade to Houston, Harden had to completely reshape his game to match the needs of his new team. Lost in the shuffle of that trade was that Harden had to successfully make the switch. There are no certainties in the NBA and the Rockets trade was a gamble for both teams. The Rockets won that gamble because Harden transformed his game and made himself better. Defense aside, Harden has been able to add or adjust his game admirably. Mike D’Antoni came to Houston with his system and it was Harden who had to fit into it. He has. Now that system and Harden’s embrace of it has brought him to the mountaintop.
Harden has reached the apex of offense. He is an NBA terminator. He nonchalantly destroys defenses. His pick and roll is the toughest play to guard in the league and he can run it with anyone. Going under is death. Harden will rain fire if given even an inch of space. Go over the top and Harden will take it to the rack and finish, possibly with a foul tacked onto it. That has led many teams to switch the pick and roll. Try that and Harden has a one-on-one against a larger player. These situations seem cruel. Harden is a cat playing with a mouse. He tempts them with fakes and dribbles before inevitably driving by them or getting himself a clean look at a three. In fact, these aforementioned options are so unpalatable that many coaches have tried to trap the pick and roll and assign both defenders to Harden. Harden has adjusted by becoming one of the best passers in the NBA. Harden can threat passes into any window and is always a step ahead. He has become a master at angles. In addition, the Rockets’ front office has surrounded Harden with two types of players. Most of Houston’s roster is either shooters or big men who can finish around the rim.
The one exception to that rule was Houston’s addition of Chris Paul. Paul’s arrival has changed everything for the team and its superstar. Paul has made the decision-making process for defenses even more difficult. Giving the Rockets a four-on-three by trapping Harden was once a necessary risk. That is no longer the case with perhaps the greatest point guard of all-time running a mini fast break. In addition, it has enabled Harden to move off-ball and boost his efficiency into historic territory.
At this point, the above paragraphs may beg the question of how this transcendent player could fail to be the MVP. The answer is twofold. One part of it is the production of the player ahead of him. The other is that nowhere in the previous paragraphs has there been any mention of Harden’s defense. Unfortunately, that is because Harden continues to be a sieve on that end of the floor. In most years, that might not matter but like with James, it comes down to the nits when there are so many deserving candidates. Harden is flat-footed and unprepared far too often and it could end up being the difference between a game seven in Houston or in Oakland. Harden is historic but without elevating his defense, he will not be MVP.
1 – Giannis Antetokounmpo is the midseason NBA MVP for many reasons. The primary one is that he has no holes in his resume. The only obvious flaw is that the Milwaukee Bucks have not been a top team in their conference. That argument fails the sniff test given the surrounding talent. Who has been the second-best player? The choices are Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, and Khris Middleton. LeBron had Kevin Love and a deep bench including a number of former all-stars. Harden has Chris Paul, Client Capela and a slew of three-and-d wings. Giannis largely has himself. Add in that the Bucks have had one of the worst coaching situations all season with Jason Kidd giving way to Joe Prunty and it is remarkable that the Bucks could end up as a top-four seed. Well, it would be amazing without witnessing the force of nature that is Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Antetokounmpo is fifth in RPM. He has a player efficiency rating of nearly 29. He is a legitimate defensive player of the year nominee. Pick a category that is not shooting related and odds are that the Greek Freak is near the top of the list. His shooting has improved this season but it remains the one aspect of his game that requires major refinement. The problem for defenses is that like Ben Simmons, Antetokounmpo is clever enough that if a defense gives him space he can use it to get a head start. One of the major positive impacts of Jason Kidd’s tenure as head coach was putting the ball in Antetokounmpo’s hands because it minimizes the impact of his shooting and has helped him develop his passing. When he gets to the lane, he is just as capable of throwing a laser cross court as he is of stretching out his pterodactyl-like arms for a dunk or finger roll. As a result, sometimes it seems like his lack of a jump shot is not all that harmful since he is better off getting to the rim anyway.
At the end of the day, Harden is probably going to win this award and rightfully so. However, Antetokounmpo has made himself a legitimate challenger for LeBron’s throne as the best player in the league. With apologies to Kevin Durant, it is the Greek Freak who is the best two-way player in the league. For his ability to buoy a dysfunctional franchise on both ends of the floor, Giannis Antetokounmpo is the DGS NBA midseason MVP.
There are a lot of honorable mentions for this award but none of them are true snubs. Kevin Durant and Steph Curry cannibalize each other’s voting base so it will be tough for either to get a real foothold in spite of brilliant seasons from both players. Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins seemed primed for MVP runs but the Cousins injury has derailed the team and the Pelicans need to win more games to give Davis a real shot. Kyrie Irving is a fine player in Boston but not quite on the same level as the three frontrunners. One of the strongest cases outside of the top three is Jimmy Butler. Butler has transformed the Timberwolves in his first season. If the Timberwolves manage to nab the third seed, Butler should factor heavily into this race.