Why Giannis Antetokounmpo is the 2019 MVP

The Greek Freak takes home the big one

MVP. A moniker that ends up powering legacy debates, player contracts, and existential arguments about the state and goal of team basketball–shouts to Russell Westbrook breaking brains with his triple double win. Each year, we distill 82 games into one first place vote, and then years later use these awards to judge legacies. The 2019 season produced so many fascinating storylines and ridiculous storylines that we need a whole new way to settle the debate.

A revised methodology

I first tried to recreate our rookie model for our eligible players (minimum forty games player, minimum twenty minutes played per game), but I think that framework minimizes team impact far too much. We wanted to allow rookies on bad teams to transcend their tank and still produce, and in doing so we gave a decent weight to per game stats and minimized others like offensive and defensive rating and total win shares. For an MVP, however, this misses key components of each player’s argument.

To correct for that, I revised our formula to slightly reduce the impact of counting stats–in a year where Westbrook can average a triple double and not break into the conversation at all, it seemed very appropriate–and upweighted each player’s z-score for total win shares and VORP, or value over replacement player. I also incorporated offensive and defensive rating into the calculation, attempting to add another layer of team-level insight into the methodology. I kept the same z-scoring, or standard deviations above/below the average, to ensure we’re generating the same composite score. For the dataset, I looked at every eligible player’s season since 2013.

This system would have named the actual MVP every time, barring some oddities around the 2014-2015 season, where Anthony Davis went buck-wild statistically but couldn’t overcome the ever-dreary Pelicans roster; even in that case, the actual MVP, Steph Curry, was a mere 0.5 points away.

Let’s focus on this year. First, let’s visualize what a typical score looks like by creating a distribution of scores for all eligible players in 2019. All data, as always, comes from Basketball Reference.

Funny enough, most scores end up in the slightly negative to zero range, a nice visualization of the value over replacement scoring for the league-average players. For today, we’re focusing solely on the right side of the graph, where a little blip above the 30 mark showcases the razor-thin margin between the top two players.

The Greek Freak steals the show, but by a razor-thin margin

Giannis Antetokounmpo is my MVP, my new favorite player, and the perfect new face of the NBA. His growth and evolution staggers my mind every time I get a chance to watch him: just look at how he’s scored since 2013 in this MVP calculation:

This season, he’s fully weaponized under Mike Budenholzer’s new system and has destroyed all comers, leading the Bucks to their top overall finish and a ridiculous 60 wins. I can’t stress enough how insane Giannis is in person: he’s built like a center, flies up and down the court like a guard, and gets to the rim whenever he decides he’s feeling it. I was lucky enough to snag lower-bowl seats to a game in Milwaukee, and snapped this moment of anguish for poor, poor Kemba Walker, when Giannis laid down a pick and absolutely rocked the poor guard.

He’s an athletic freak with an unbelievable backstory and a tireless work ethic, and his stats showcase this that growth. He’s nearly four full standard deviations above the mean for box score plus minus, win shares per forty-eight minutes, and PER, while maintaining a true shooting rate above 64%.

Right behind him is last year’s MVP, the bearded man of mystery, James Harden. The margin between the two is razor-thin, with Giannis edging Harden by a mere 0.34 points. Harden himself had a fantastic year, turning into this unstoppable offensive dynamo with an ability to score from every part of the court while maintaining his efficiency. I’ve spent hours in NBA 2K19 trying to figure out how to hit his signature stepback three to no avail.

Harden pulled the Rockets out of a tailspin, stringing together a Wilt Chamberlain-like scoring streak and willing the team into the playoffs. He leads the league in win shares and VORP for this season, won the scoring title by over eight points, and even improved statistically on his MVP winning year in 2018.

Yet, he fell just short of Giannis this season. The split in their statistical profile is fascinating and deserves a deeper look.

Per game, Harden jumps ahead in expected categories. He’s putting up more points and assists, albeit with more turnovers, while Giannis excels defensively with a much higher block, steal, and rebound rate. Harden put up a scoring sum reminiscent of MJ in the 80s, at over 36 points per game, and reimagined the way to score (albeit at the sometime cost of aesthetics and at the weaponization of the referees). Giannis ended the year with over 27 points per game, 12 rebounds, 5 assists, and over one steal and block; the only other player, ever, to do that was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1974. Good god.

The real differences show up in their advanced stats. Giannis jumps ahead with his impact on the defensive end, as his defensive rating ends up edging Harden in the total score, as the Beard is essentially league average there. Despite Harden leading the league this year in total win shares, Giannis jumps ahead in win shares per 48; potentially a good sign for the Bucks as the rotations tighten and minutes for the stars increase in the playoffs.

Across every other stat, both guys are head and shoulders above the league, and either guy is a fantastic choice for the award. Harden represents perhaps the heights of offensive creativity and unstoppability, which more than outweighs a more average output on the defensive end. Giannis, a game-breaking giant on both ends, powers the league’s best team (at least by regular season wins) and may end up collecting defensive player of the year in addition to this award.

Yet, with Giannis’ slight lead, and his leadership in powering the 60-win season for the Bucks, he’s my highly unofficial MVP pick. I know he agrees with me.