When assessing the leagues top echelon as it currently stands, the top six players in the modern game are as close to universally agreed upon as they can be. In no particular order that group consists of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard. That group appears to have those positions locked up. For now.
Hot on their heels is the 23-year-old, two-time All-Star, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is on the verge of busting that tight-knit group wide open. Antetokounmpo’s meteoric rise to superstardom took another huge leap last season, as the Greek Freak averaged 26.9 points, 10.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks per game.
Early in the season, Antetokounmpo’s name was mentioned in MVP discussions before that talk gradually petered away – much like Milwaukee’s hopes of securing home-court advantage in the playoffs. The team’s struggles were, of course, a huge reason for this, as MVP contention is so often based around team success.
With six weeks remaining before preseason is set to tip off, Giannis is once again a popular pick to be an MVP bolter as the season moves along. Is this realistic? Could Antetokounmpo legitimately become the Bucks first MVP since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1974?
Odds to win the 2018-2019 NBA MVP via @BovadaOfficial:
LeBron James – 10/3
Anthony Davis – 4/1
Giannis Antetokounmpo – 9/2
James Harden – 11/2
Kevin Durant – 9/1
Kawhi Leonard – 11/1
Russell Westbrook – 14/1
Stephen Curry – 15/1
Joel Embiid – 16/1
Kyrie Irving – 16/1
— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) August 15, 2018
Again, whether or not Giannis is an MVP caliber talent is not the question, so let’s take a look at the other factors at play to see if we can legitimize his claims to MVP this season.
You could argue this point until the cows come home, but the reality is, team success counts for plenty in the greatest regular season individual achievement in basketball. Simply put, you must win a whole heap of games to give your star a chance at collecting an MVP.
For the Bucks, this became a sticking point last season and will be the ultimate question heading into the season in regards to Antetokounmpo’s chances. Let’s take a look at the last five MVP winners with their accompanying team records:
- 2014 – Kevin Durant (59-23)
- 2015 – Steph Curry (67-15)
- 2016 – Steph Curry (73-9)
- 2017 – Russell Westbrook (47-35)
- 2018 – James Harden (65-17)
With Westbrook being the obvious outlier –we’ll get back to that– the past five MVP winners squads have averaged 62.2 wins. Furthermore, since 1985, Westbrook is the only MVP winner to be on a team that has won less than 50 games – excluding lockout shortened seasons in 1999 (Karl Malone), and 2012 (LeBron James).
When you acknowledge the fact that the Bucks have only had one 50-win season in 30 years, you begin to see why many have become skeptical about his chances.
Jason Kidd had a 139-152 record as Bucks head coach (.478 win pct).
Milwaukee is on pace for 42 wins this season, below its preseason Vegas over/under of 47.5. pic.twitter.com/P0t0G9S7of
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 22, 2018
On the surface, the Bucks appear to be a team ready to take a major leap in the suddenly wide-open Eastern Conference. Replacing the questionable schemes of Jason Kidd with respected veteran coach Mike Budenholzer is a huge reason why. Adding floor-spacing big men in Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova is another. Getting a full offseason with Eric Bledsoe coupled with the expected development of Thon Maker and Sterling Brown and you can certainly see the Bucks trending towards that 50 win mark this season.
Giannis put up MVP numbers last season, but he’ll need a little more help from his Bucks team mates to make a legitimate case.
Back to Westbrook’s outlier MVP season.
Westbrook became the first player to average a triple-double over the course of a season since Oscar Robertson completed the incredible feat in 1962. The accomplishment was, of course, met with skepticism due to Westbrook’s occasional penchant for chasing stats, but it was nonetheless an unbelievable achievement.
Make no mistake, Antetokounmpo put up special numbers last season. In fact, according to basketball-reference, he was the only player league wide to average at least 26 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists and a block per game.
Last season, 69 media members voted Russell Westbrook first for MVP.
This season, only 19 of those media members had Westbrook on their MVP ballot despite averaging a triple-double again and winning one more game (19 didn't have a vote this year).
— Jovan Buha (@jovanbuha) June 26, 2018
To emphasize how big the year was for Antetokounmpo, since 1990, only David Robinson (1994), Chris Webber (2001) and DeMarcus Cousins (2017) have been able to put up those box score stats across an entire season. Robinson came 2nd that season with the Spurs winning 55 games, Webber came 4th with the Kings winning 55 games and Cousins finished outside the top ten in voting as Sacramento and New Orleans languished with win totals in the 30’s.
Giannis finished 6th in MVP voting last season, dropping out of contention as the Bucks stumbled to a 44 win year and a first round playoff exit. If the Bucks aren’t able to make a big jump as a team, then Giannis will need to put up 30/10/8 if he’s to improve on that 6th place from a year earlier.
As important as the two factors above will be to MVP contention for Anteokounmpo, you simply can’t rule out the public narrative when assessing his chances.
Ask yourself this: LeBron James is unanimously the best player of this generation and arguably the greatest to ever lace up his sneakers in the NBA. Entering his 16th season in the league, James has only secured four MVP awards. How is this possible?
I’ll tell you why. It’s a combination of voter fatigue and becoming numb to greatness. Think about the last two seasons MVP race. Now I want to preface these comments by saying both Westbrook and Harden were absolutely deserving winners after brilliant individual seasons but….here we go.
Westbrook and Harden were in an absolute race to secure the award in 2017. Neither had been crowned MVP previously and both were piecing together unbelievable seasons. The Rockets were unquestionably the better side during the season, winning eight more games and securing home court advantage for the playoffs.
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) October 20, 2017
Westbrook however, had just lost Kevin Durant to Golden State and was able to forge ahead, lifting his side to the playoffs while averaging unprecedented box score stats. Despite the detrimental effect it occasionally had on the Thunder’s on-court performance, the media had built up the Westbrook story so much, it became too hard to disregard. Westbrook eventually took out the award, and you probably could have placed significant money right then and there on Harden winning the next season’s MVP – after all, he probably deserved it.
LeBron James on the other hand recorded career high numbers in assists (9.1), and rebounds per game (8.6), to go along with 27.5 points a contest last season, carrying an awful support cast to home court advantage once again in the playoffs. It was possibly James finest season in the league, and certainly worthy of MVP. James had Harden covered in rebounds, assists, blocks, and minutes per game, while hitting the floor in ten more games than Harden. LeBron was likely the best player in the league last season, but he has four MVP’s and it was Harden’s time.
The narrative aspect will play into Antetokounmpo’s hand, as he has quickly become one of the leagues most watchable and likeable characters. Giannis is an early hipster pick for MVP among the online NBA community and it’s easy to see why. But make no mistake, he’s going to need a hell of a lot to go right for it to be the case.
It boggles the mind to consider how Giannis could take another step from his monster season in 2017-18, though it wouldn’t surprise given his insatiable desire to be the best.
Antetokounmpo has the framework to become an MVP this season, and you could certainly envisage how it could be the case, but one get the feeling the key to his chances may just be the guys surrounding him.