1214 GMT March 23, 2019
Just to be clear, there are no hard feelings. Everyone, particularly the dozen-plus players surveyed on the matter, agrees the Houston Rockets' James Harden and Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo are having brilliant seasons – with many nods toward Paul George, who has taken an unexpected leap in Year 2 with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Just because someone might favor one over the other doesn't make it an inherent dis, espn.com reported.
But there is an undercurrent of division, and it seems to center on the nature of Harden's accomplishments.
The media seems fascinated with Harden's incredible scoring binge and has covered it as such, detailing his mounting 30-point games and creating a pursuit of what would've seemed like an untouchable Wilt Chamberlain record just a few months ago. It's why Harden is the Vegas favorite to repeat as MVP.
While players acknowledge Harden's mastery, some are put off by the style: both the way the Rockets play and the way Harden expertly uses the current rules to his advantage. The enforcement of freedom of movement rules and the relaxing of travel calls on his step-back -- and to be clear, most of the time he executes the devastating move within the rules – have helped supercharge Harden's season in a way that can irritate his opponents.
"Guys can say he gets away with travels on the step-back or he flings his body into people to get fouls, but honestly, a lot of us get away with stuff like that," said one All-Star who didn't want his name used because he wasn't trying to court controversy.
"Just speaking for myself, and I don't know how others feel, but what he does isn't always team basketball. If you look at how Giannis plays, that's more the way I was raised in the game. Just my opinion," he said.
Based on admittedly unscientific conversations, there are many players who agree. Earlier this season, Harden scored 304 consecutive points that were unassisted. That streak was tracked with awe by fans and media. For some players, though, it created eye-rolling as it was the opposite of team play.
The Harden counterpoint is simple. With the Rockets badly banged up and missing co-creator Chris Paul for weeks, Harden felt he was doing what he needed to keep the Rockets afloat in the highly competitive Western Conference.
It wasn't unlike the 2015 NBA Finals when the Cleveland Cavaliers were missing Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, and LeBron James was forced to dominate the ball and score. James came close to being the first Finals MVP from the losing team since Jerry West in 1969, but Andre Iguodala edged him out in the vote.
"We played the same exact way last year and we almost made it to the Finals," Harden said, defending the Rockets' style this season. "I don't even care about the points, I'm just trying to win.
"We had a funky first half of the season. I just did whatever it took to keep our head above water. I was getting double-teams and triple-teams and I was doing whatever it took."
Harden is getting plenty of credit for that by the media, which has the votes for the official award. He's now at 31 consecutive games with 30 or more points, tying Chamberlain for the second-longest streak ever. He's averaging 41.5 points during the run and the Rockets are 21-10.
In a victory last month in Golden State, his electrifying 3-pointer between Draymond Green and Klay Thompson to finish off a 44-point, 15-assist, 10-rebound game was a signature MVP moment. So many times the MVP winner is aided by a great narrative that is formed during the season, and this season, Harden absolutely has it.
Perhaps it's only fair. Two years ago, Harden had a strong MVP case, but Russell Westbrook had a phenomenal narrative: the first player to average a triple-double since Oscar Robertson while on a Kevin Durant-departure revenge tour. Westbrook got more than three times the first-place votes as Harden, who finished second.
Harden's play, Harden's story and Harden's killer highlights are lining up for him.
But just like with Westbrook, who has been accused of chasing triple-doubles, Harden fights against the purists. Those individuals seem to favor Antetokounmpo, who plays a more classic team-centric style that highlights old-school brute force of going to the rim over new-school efficiency like 3-pointers and free throws.
Antetokounmpo is also a terror at the defensive end. Harden is not. Though Harden has developed more into a defensive playmaker and is third in the league in steals per game. And the Bucks, it is important to point out, own the league's best record at 43-14.
"What is the most valuable player? He sets the tone for our entire organization, our work ethic, our approach to every day," said a clearly biased but thoughtful Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer. "You can talk about stats and Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O'Neal and things. But when you've changed an entire organization, changed the way people come to work every day and set a tone, that's value to me.
"I feel like he's the most valuable player in our league. He's changed things in Milwaukee. He's changed them for the better. We're one of the best teams because of Giannis."
If we're being honest here, if the vote were taken today, Harden wins over Antetokounmpo, and it's probably not that close. There's still roughly a third of the season to be played, of course.
But in the coming weeks, as this topic really heats up and influential voices are asked for their opinion on the matter, the answers could be revealing. There isn't a right or wrong answer per se – favoring one is not an insult to the other – though this is a point that can often be overlooked.
In the end, it's healthy for the NBA if the MVP race is competitive. Having a variety of opinions and styles juices the conversation and makes winning it all the more honorable. If it wasn't debatable and people didn't care, it wouldn't be any fun.
This season, the race could be just a little more spicy than usual.