Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden

Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden are the leading candidates for NBA MVP. Antetokounmpo is the best player on the best team, but Harden’s scoring numbers are historic.

And then there were two.

Tuesday night, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Houston Rockets squared off in a highly-anticipated, nationally-televised game. The game featured two playoff-bound, title-contending teams. More importantly, it was likely the last opportunity to see the two leading candidates for NBA MVP in a head-to-head matchup.

All season long, Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden have been considered MVP favorites. As the season winds down, they’re not only frontrunners for the award, they’re the only two acceptable answers for ballot’s top spot.

To quote old-school Charles Barkley, “Anything less would be uncivilized.”

Both players are having extraordinary seasons. However, a shared MVP coronation is pretty lame and has never occurred in league history, therefore only one of these players is likely to claim the prestigious Maurice Podoloff Trophy. (Shout out to anybody who knew that was the trophy’s actual name without the help of Google or Wikipedia)

Case for The Beard

Harden is having one of the greatest scoring seasons of all-time. If the season ended today, Harden’s average of 36.2 points per game would rank 7th in the history of the league. Only Wilt Chamberlain (1960-1964) and Michael Jordan (1987) have averaged more points for an entire season.

Harden’s 32-game streak of dropping at least 30 points is second all-time behind Chamberlain’s 65.

The last three MVP awards have gone to the league’s scoring leaders (Harden, Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry). Harden hasn’t just led the league in scoring this season, he’s dominated. His scoring average is 8.0 points more than his closest competitor (Paul George, 28.2).

Out of the top-10 individual scoring performances in the 2018-19 season, Harden has seven of the top performances. He even put scored 61 points twice just so he could share the top spot with himself.

Antetokounmpo’s best scoring performance, a 52-point game against the Philadelphia 76ers, ranks just outside the top 10.

Harden hasn’t been solely a scoring machine. He’s also averaging 7.5 assists and 6.5 rebounds per game. His player efficiency rating (PER) is third in the league at 32.10.

Thought it is unlikely Harden will ever be considered a lockdown defender, he has taken positive strides on the defensive end. Harden is second in the league in steals at 2.14 per game. He’s also proven to be a very effective post defender.

A good example happened Tuesday night when the nearly 7-foot-tall Antetokounmpo traveled unsuccessfully trying to back down the 6-foot-5 Harden on the lower block.

Harden occasionally still gets caught “Shaqtin-A-Fool” on defense, but he has certain been active and engaged on the defensive side of the basketball.

Case for Greek Freak

It would be easy to summarize Antetokounmpo’s case for MVP as “the best player on the best team.” However, that would not quite do justice for Milwaukee’s best.

Barring a colossal collapse over the last seven games, the Bucks will finish the season with the best record in the NBA. Currently sitting at 56-19, the Bucks are on track to become the only 60-win team this season. That has everything to do with Antetokounmpo.

Antetokounmpo’s traditional stat line is a healthy 27.3 points, 12.6 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game. His 30.53 PER leads the league.  He also leads the league in defensive rating (98.6) and defensive win shares (5.4). That means he’s a legitimate candidate for MVP and Defensive Player of the Year.

It should come as no surprise though that the Bucks boast the top defensive rating in the league (104.2), average the most points (117.4) and sit third in offensive rating (113.4).

I know what you’re thinking. The MVP Award is an individual award, not a team trophy. That is absolutely correct. However, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the “Greek Freak” leads the team with the best record in the NBA in points, rebounds, assists and field goal percentage (58.1).

Keep in mind that the Bucks have won a whopping 43 games by 10 points or more. That means Antetokounmpo is more likely to be chilling on the bench cracking jokes late in the fourth quarter while Harden is still side-stepping, back-stepping and extra-stepping his way to more buckets.

That explains why Antetokounmpo has accumulated his stats is just 32.9 minutes per game compared to Harden’s 36.2. According to SB Nation’s Paul Flannery, “That comes out to almost 11 fewer games. Wild.”

That’s why even with Harden’s crazy scoring spree, if we are being honest, Giannis is the real MVP this season. Harden is clearly the most unstoppable offensive player in the game. In terms of overall impact, it’s almost impossible to deny that Antetokounmpo stands taller than the competition.

J-Mac hangs ‘em up

Shout out to Jeremy Maclin. The former Kirkwood High/Mizzou/NFL wide receiver announced his retirement from the NFL over the weekend.

The 30-year-old St. Louis native spent nine seasons in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens.

Over his professional career, Maclin amassed 514 receptions for 6,835 yards and 49 touchdowns. He’s one of “the best that ever did it” in the St. Louis area and at Mizzou. Congratulations and enjoy your retirement!

Be sure to check In the Clutch online and also follow Ishmael on Twitter @ishcreates. Subscribe to The St. Louis American’s YouTube page to see weekly sports videos starring Ishmael and Melvin Moore at youtube.com/stlamericanvideo.

Ishmael H. Sistrunk is a columnist and the website coordinator for the St. Louis American and www.stlamerican.com.

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