The MVP race is going down to the wire. But instead of agonizing over James Harden vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo, our staff turned in their ballots for their Personal MVPs of the 2018-19 season.
Jrue Holiday, Pelicans
Jonathan Tjarks: The best players in the NBA come into the league at such a young age that it’s hard to remember that their age-28 season should be their peak. Holiday, who turned 28 last June, has seemingly been around forever. He was drafted in 2009 by the 76ers, and he spent his rookie season playing with Allen Iverson and Elton Brand (now the team’s GM). He will probably be remembered as a guy who was always in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sam Hinkie traded Holiday to the Pelicans in 2013 for two first-round picks to start the Process, and Holiday spent most of his 20s trading stints on the injury report with Anthony Davis, only to emerge as an elite point guard right when Davis tired of playing for the franchise.
Holiday, much like Paul George, is having a career season. He is averaging career highs in points (21.2), rebounds (5.0), steals (1.6), and blocks (0.8), and he is only a few decimal points behind his career mark in assists (7.7), while also playing elite defense across three perimeter positions. Ask Damian Lillard about Holiday, if he hasn’t already blocked the clinic Holiday put on in last season’s playoffs out of his memory. Holiday is a two-way killer whose value is more pronounced in the playoffs than in the regular season, and he could spend the rest of his prime playing on a rebuilding franchise. There are not many players in the NBA who are actually better than him. I almost feel bad about him not getting the recognition that he deserves, and then I look at his contract. As Don Draper said, that’s what the money is for.
James Harden, Rockets
Dan Devine: Part of me wanted to be slick about this—to come up with an artisanal choice, some indie darling, a below-the-fold player with panache whom I could hop on and claim some Yeah, but personally, I dug their earlier stuff more type of shit. But the grim truth is that I’m more dad than dadaist, and the more I thought about it, the more I came back to a single, simple statement: When I think about this NBA season, James Harden is the first thing I think about, and I’m pretty sure that’s going to be true no matter who’s holding what hardware come season’s end.
Chris Paul was hurt, and the Rockets looked broken and couldn’t seem to get right, so Harden just grabbed a roll of duct tape and a lifetime supply of stepbacks and got to work making history. If someone asks whether you caught that game where Harden went for 60, you have to ask “Which one?” He is, to some degree, playing an entirely different game than almost anybody else in the league; he averaged 41.1 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 7.4 assists per game for two and a half months because, well, that was the only way Houston could win. And they have: Since Harden kicked off his “Unguardable Tour” with a 50-point triple-double against the Lakers, the Rockets own the NBA’s no. 1 offense and second-best record.
I’m open to the argument that those numbers by themselves don’t make you the MVP—it’s not like it’s Giannis Antetokounmpo’s fault that his teammates have been really good and healthy—but I do think they make what Harden has done more notable and more awe-inspiring. In mid-December, he seized the story of the season. He hasn’t yet let it go.
Josh Okogie, Timberwolves
Megan Schuster: There hasn’t been much to be excited about in Minnesota this NBA season. A quick refresher: 2018-19 started with Jimmy Butler’s trade demand, out-of-control practices, and orchestrated media appearances; after that, there was Tom Thibodeau’s firing in January, more disappointing performances from max-contract guy Andrew Wiggins, and eventually another year of not making the playoffs. Woof.
One bright spot outside of Karl-Anthony Towns does exist, though, and he first leaped into many Wolves fans’ hearts on November 28. His name is Josh Okogie:
The Wolves selected Okogie with the 20th pick in the draft last summer. He wasn’t given much playing time under Thibodeau (go figure), but since Ryan Saunders was installed as the team’s interim head coach almost three months ago, Okogie has had a chance to shine. His athleticism is off the charts, he plays hard on both ends of the floor, and when he’s hot, he can sway the team’s mojo more than any other guy on the roster—even KAT. One prime example of that came on February 13 in a home game against Houston. The Wolves still had some semblance of playoff aspirations at that point (even if the probability was low), and a win would be crucial to keeping those alive. Okogie stepped up at pivotal moments, playing tough defense against James Harden, hitting a 3 that put the Wolves up six with four and a half minutes to go, and slamming home a dunk with 90 seconds left to keep Minnesota on top.
Okogie hasn’t been enough to overcome the rest of the Wolves’ problems this season, but a desire to monitor his development has gotten me to tune into an abnormal number of games. And that’s all I can ask for from a personal MVP.
Paul George, Thunder
Paolo Uggetti: George is having a career year, averaging 28.2 points (by far a career high), 4.2 assists (also a career high), and 8.2 rebounds (you guessed it—a career high). Those numbers would be good enough to push him to the front of the MVP race in most other seasons, but with Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden likely to draw the top spot on most ballots, George will have to settle for being the most compelling player of the season.
George’s rare blend of supreme athleticism and effortlessness make him a must-watch—and not just on the offensive end. The 28-year-old swingman likely won’t win Defensive Player of the Year either, but he should win some kind of award for making defense enjoyable. Much like Kawhi Leonard, George can blanket an opponent on the perimeter just with positioning, quickness, and footwork, and he can also swipe the ball away at the right time (he’s averaging 2.2 steals per game—another career high). Defense may not be as thrilling as dunks or 3s, but with George you don’t have to choose.
It’s remarkable to think George has found this extra gear even after suffering a gruesome leg injury nearly five years ago and after balking at a shot to play alongside LeBron James in Los Angeles last summer. In just his second season in Oklahoma City, George looks like one of the best players in the league. Even Russell Westbrook would agree—which may be George’s most impressive feat of all.
Kevin Huerter, Hawks
Danny Chau: I considered him a fringe lottery pick heading into the 2018 NBA draft. I have a weekly podcast segment dedicated to his exploits. Still, I couldn’t have predicted just how important Kevin Huerter has been for the Atlanta Hawks in his rookie season. The Hawks have won more games since the All-Star break than either the Celtics or the Thunder, and while Trae Young’s prolific, mind-bending 3-point exhibitions have taken center stage, Huerter has established himself as a foundational backbone to the surging young team.
The Hawks have a negative net rating on the season, but it goes from bad to putrid when Huerter steps off the floor. Atlanta has been outscored by an additional 7.5 points per 100 possessions in the time Huerter is off the floor compared to when he’s on it—by far the largest on/off net differential on the team. To watch Huerter play is to observe the skill set that may soon become a prerequisite to playing shooting guard in the near future. The concept of “making teammates better” is no longer solely the responsibility of a team’s point guard and/or best player; it falls on each athlete on the floor, and there isn’t a clearer path to making your team better than creating physical space for others to succeed. Huerter’s ability to spot up from way beyond the arc, shoot while in motion curling around screens, and make passes off the dribble opens up far more opportunities for everyone else than a player with a less dynamic skill set would be able to. The raw numbers aren’t there yet, but the data and eye test doesn’t lie. Just ask Dwyane Wade. Or Jimmy Butler:
Kevin Huerter dunks on Jimmy Butler in transition then stares him down pic.twitter.com/nlFtQfJKDc— The Render (@TheRenderNBA) March 24, 2019
Buddy Hield, Kings
Haley O’Shaughnessy: Becoming the next Steph Curry is a daunting task to live up to. Yet two years after Vlade Divac traded for Hield because his boss, owner Vivek Ranadive, had reportedly prophesied Curry-level potential in him, Hield is somehow underrated once again. He went from being “better” off the bench to a necessity to have on the floor; in part because of Hield’s efficient play, the Kings are an exciting surprise this season in their own right. Hield has had a breakout season, breaking records with his spot-up shooting in the league’s fastest-run offense. Only a handful of players can maintain accuracy and form in the midst of high-pace chaos quite like Hield does; one might say it’s reminiscent of … Steph Curry. Oh, and speaking of Curry? He’s shooting 43 percent from 3 this season, eighth best in the NBA and just one spot below Hield (43.2 percent).
Brook Lopez, Bucks
Zach Kram: Lopez didn’t need to change. Through his first eight NBA seasons, he had been an All-Star, scored 20-plus-points per game three times, and earned nearly $74 million. He’d also made just three 3-pointers and attempted just 31.
But starting in 2016-17, Lopez modernized anyway, as he left the post for the 3-point line in response to the sport’s offensive evolution. Over the past three seasons, the Net/Laker/Buck has made 35.6 percent of his 1,186 long-range attempts. Here are some other players who have shot between 35 and 36 percent on 3s in that span: LeBron James, James Harden, Jimmy Butler, Devin Booker, Isaiah Thomas.
And Lopez has been even better this season, canning 37.1 percent of his 6.4 triples per game, and inspiring the “Splash Mountain” nickname that ranks among the league’s best. Meanwhile, he anchors the league’s top defense by allowing opponents to shoot just 51.5 percent at the rim when he’s the closest defender—the seventh-best mark among 150 players who have defended three such shots per game.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is probably the real MVP, but Lopez allows his teammate to maraud near the basket like prime Shaq on offense and forms a perfect pair with the DPOY candidate on defense as well. For years, teams have pursued 3-and-D wings to round out a modern roster; Lopez is the much rarer 3-and-D big man who serves both roles with equal vigor and success.
Kyrie Irving, Celtics
John Gonzalez: If we are talking about stats and team accomplishments, then there are lots of other players who are more deserving. But if we’re talking about talking, then no one is more deserving. Kyrie’s penchant for self-aggrandizement and difficulty with self-reflection have been at odds all season—much to the dismay of the Celtics and their team chemistry. My favorite was when he said he “didn’t really come into this game to be cameras in my face, be famous, be a celebrity” mere months after starring in a film based on his alter ego, Uncle Drew. Everything he does is extremely [chef’s kiss], and I hope he and Kevin Durant will be very happy together. Admittedly, certain people will probably not be happy with the snark-heavy component of this pick.
Mitchell Robinson, Knicks
Daniel Chin: It’s hard to find many positives in a Knicks season that’s only unique because they traded away their franchise player for cap space. Robinson, the 36th overall pick of the 2018 draft, has been one of the few bright spots this season. After missing a full year of competitive basketball, the 7-foot-1 big man was expected to spend much of the season developing in the G League. Instead, Robinson has not only earned himself a spot on the roster, he’s also emerged as the steal of the draft and one of the league’s best rim protectors.
Watching Robinson swat away shots with ease has been the most reliable source of entertainment in what could end as the worst season in Knicks history. Along with being tied for second in blocks per game (2.4) and fourth in total blocks (141, a Knicks rookie record), Robinson has now blocked two or more shots in 22 consecutive games. Only 11 other players in NBA history have reached as long a streak, including just three other rookies. He’s shown his inexperience at times (like when he fouled out in nine minutes) and he doesn’t always look like he has full control of his body, but logic-defying alley-oops make up for it. He might not be able to fill the hole in New York fans’ hearts left by Kristaps Porzingis (though there’s a 14 percent chance someone else will soon), but Robinson is going to be a great piece to have as the Knicks continue their rebuild.