Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.
Last week, when asked if he belonged in the MVP conversation, James Harden took his answer a step further. “I feel like I am the MVP,” said Harden. “It’s just that simple.”
Harden has a compelling case. The Nets guard is averaging 26 points per game this season. He’s leading the NBA in assists while playing a league-high 38 minutes per game. Equally important—Harden has impacted winning. The Nets were 7-6 before the January trade that brought Harden to Brooklyn. They are 24-7 since and 17-3 over the last 20, almost all without Kevin Durant.
But is it really “just that simple”? Face it, there are a lot of compelling cases. There’s Nikola Jokić who is a an assist and a half per game shy of averaging a triple double. There’s LeBron James, who appeared to have a firm grip on the award until an ankle injury put him on the shelf. There is Joel Embiid, a midseason frontrunner until a knee injury sidelined him on March 12. There’s Damian Lillard, arguably the NBA’s best scorer.
And now there is Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Two months ago, Antetokounmpo was on the fringes of the MVP race. Like the Bucks, Giannis was sluggish out of the gate. Some of that can be attributed to last fall’s roster shakeup that saw Milwaukee swap out seven of its top 12 players. Some of it can be tied to post-bubble fatigue. For Antetokounmpo, there was likely an addition mental drain from the decision to sign a max-level extension with Milwaukee, not to mention the fact that he returned from Greece just days before the start of training camp.
Yet over the last two months Antetokounmpo has been on a tear. He averaged 30.7 points and 12.3 rebounds per game in February. He’s averaging 8.2 assists per game in March. The Bucks are among the NBA’s best fast break teams, averaging 15.2 points in transition. Giannis is chipping in 9.2 of them. Milwaukee has made 666 threes this season. Giannis has assisted on an NBA-best 162.
Playmaking—Antetokounmpo is averaging a career-best 6.4 assists—has been an area of growth for Giannis, something team officials attribute to the game continuing to slow down for the 26-year old two-time reigning MVP. “The pace that he is playing at is different,” Bucks GM Jon Horst said in a telephone interview. “He’s playing with more control. He’s picking his spots. That’s the kind of thing you only get through maturity.”
Regarding the MVP race, Horst offers the strongest possible endorsement. “He is a better player this year than in the years he won,” says Horst. And while GM-supporting-star is hardly an objective take, there is evidence backing it up. Antetokounmpo is in the top-five in offensive and defensive win shares—only Jokić can claim that—and one of two players (Jokić, again) averaging at least 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.
There’s more. In his two MVP seasons, Giannis averaged 29.0 points, 12.8 rebounds and and 5.9 assists; this season he’s at 28.3/11.5/6.4. Antetokounmpo is fourth in the league in fourth quarter scoring (7.7 points), putting him on pace to finish in the top five for the third straight season. Harden is the only other player on pace to accomplish that. Entering Monday night’s game against the Clippers, Giannis ranked second among all scorers against teams over .500—averaging just under 28 points per game.
Any other year Antetokounmpo would be considered a favorite, perhaps the favorite, to win the award. Yet, mysteriously, in what is shaping up to be one of the tightest races in recent history, he is often left out of the discussion. Is it voter fatigue? The media members who vote on the award are human, and there can be a reflexive inclination to prefer someone new. Is it how last season finished? There’s no doubt Giannis’s MVP status was questioned when the Bucks fizzled out in the second round, while his competition, James, was leading the Lakers to a championship. Is it the historical significance of this vote? Only three players—Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird—have won the MVP in three consecutive seasons. There could be some reluctance to add Giannis to that list.
Still—Giannis’s case could become overwhelming. He will likely have a significant edge in games played over James and Embiid, who remain out. His team could be better positioned in the standings than Jokic’s. Denver is in the middle of a crowded Western Conference playoff field. The Bucks had an eight-game winning streak snapped against Boston last week and are once again within shouting distance of the East’s top seed. “We’re not a better team [than last year] on paper,” says Horst. “But I think we are a better team.”
Ultimately, Antetokounmpo’s legacy will be defined in the playoffs, but the MVP is not a postseason award. It’s meant to be decided in a vacuum, based on performances during one season—one regular season—with no consideration given to anything else. It’s the Most Valuable Player. And as the NBA enters the final third of the season, it’s clear there are still not many players more valuable than Giannis.
A BIG MAN'S BIG CHANCE
The Lakers needed Andre Drummond, whom L.A. signed to a prorated deal for the rest of the season on Sunday after completing a buyout with Cleveland. The Lakers have the NBA’s top defense, but the center position has been shaky, with Marc Gasol struggling through the least productive season of his career and Montrezl Harrell unable to provide the physical presence Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee did a year ago. Enter Drummond, one of the NBA’s best rebounders, who should quickly become L.A.’s starting center.
But Drummond needs L.A., too. The Lakers will be the first championship-driven organization Drummond has played for in his 10-year NBA career. During that time Drummond has posted some eye-popping numbers, evolving into arguably the best rebounder of this generation, but those numbers have been perceived by some as empty calories, inflated statistics on bad teams.
The next few months in Los Angeles will be different. Drummond said all the right things at his introductory press conference on Monday. He cited what he can do defensively as being the biggest asset to the defense-oriented Lakers. He said his decision to sign with L.A. was based on the team being the best fit. He said he hoped to help Anthony Davis by letting the Brow spend more time at power forward, avoiding the physical toll that comes from battling with centers.
“I’m not here to do anything besides win,” Drummond said. “I think playing with [LeBron and Davis] will really benefit my game. Being able to allow them to play their game, to have a third person to cause havoc in the paint."
There’s little doubt Drummond’s defense and shot blocking will be assets to the Lakers. “Our defense is going to be really crazy when those guys come back,” Drummond said. The Western Conference is loaded with top centers (Jokić, Rudy Gobert, DeAndre Ayton) and having the 27-year old Drummond on board gives L.A. a big, physical body to throw at them.
And a motivated one. “[Playoff success] was something that I was hungry for,” Drummond said. “I was hungry to get back in the playoffs again and really get a true experience of what it’s like to play on the biggest stage. Being here, and being able to have that opportunity, it’s truly a blessing.”
There will be some bumps. Drummond has not played since mid-February, with the Cavaliers sidelining him to clear more playing time for Jarrett Allen. Drummond is not a particularly willing passer and his shooting percentage in the restricted area (51.9%) is shockingly low for a player who spends as much time as Drummond does in the paint. And, like Howard, Drummond will have to embrace being a dirty work-type player—a role that generally doesn’t come with gaudy statistics.
But if he does, look out. Drummond was a sought-after commodity the last few days, with good reason. He’s a starting caliber center effectively available for free. The Lakers lost something when Howard defected to Philadelphia in free agency. They may have gotten it back—and more—with Drummond.
More Morning Shootaround
Herring: Inside the NBA's year of the lefty