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James Harden’s and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s “Heisman Moments” Have Defined This NBA Season

And they could help resolve the MVP debate. Here’s the case for both, as presented through their best plays, games, and highlights.

A photo illustration featuring James Harden of the Houston Rockets and Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks playing each other on top of a Heisman trophy base Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Heisman Trophy is a crucial part of the fabric of college football. It exudes history as much as it sparks debate, pitting players not just against each other in the same season, but against past winners of the sport’s most prestigious award. Because the trophy’s title doesn’t include adjectives like “important,” “valuable,” or even “best,” its meaning is open to interpretation. Sure, most can agree that the award is designed to be given to college football’s best player each year, but even the award’s description is unclear: “Winners epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard work.” What does that even mean?

Because that description is so unquantifiable, subjectivity comes into play. It’s much easier to ask who the best player in the sport was in a given season than it is to wonder which quarterback epitomized “diligence.” In the NBA, the top award has a more narrow description: Most Valuable Player—though that doesn’t preclude it from opening a Pandora’s box of interpretations, too. Still, if awards were based only on thresholds or specific titles, they’d be boring. History tells us that scoring a lot of points and leading a team to a top-3 seed are prerequisites for the NBA’s MVP (the Russell Westbrook year is Halley’s comet). But there’s fun (and let’s be honest: content) in the subjectivity, the arguments about who deserves it more.

By this point in the NBA season, the differences in MVP choices are based more on personal preference than statistical merit. Both James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo—the top two candidates for the award—have impressive numbers, both of their teams have been stellar because of their contributions, and both are deserving. The race is really a toss-up.

In college football, Heisman voters are often swayed by what’s branded as Heisman Moments—plays, games, and important highlights that transcend game tape and box scores. Often, the later in the season a Heisman Moment comes, the more it stands out and is remembered. And the more moments that a player has, the more they’ve defined that season (see: Kyler Murray in 2018). As someone who believes greatly that narrative and story lines are how we will remember a season five years later, I decided to apply this meter to Harden’s and Giannis’s 2018-19 season and identify their four best Heisman Moments. And while there isn’t a statistic that can measure the effect these moments have on voters, I’ve given each a cumulative score out of 10 based on their difficulty, stakes, uniqueness, and virality.

James Harden

The Warriors Game-Winner, January 3

To me, this is the moment of the season. A game-winning shot in a prime-time contest against the defending champions—all while being hounded by two elite defenders (it doesn’t hurt that Harden finished with 44 points and 10 3s on the night, either). This was a shot that should not have been possible, and really isn’t possible for anyone but Harden and two players he happened to be playing against: Steph Curry and Kevin Durant. And what a way for Harden to do it. This was in the middle of a 32-game stretch when he scored at least 30 points in every contest, an impressive feat on its own with this signature shot as the high mark.

Score: 9/10

The Jamal Murray Crossover, January 7

Congrats to Murray, who officially relieves Wesley Johnson of his duties as The Guy Who James Harden Crossed Into Virality. Harden has had plenty of crossovers this season that I could have included here, and for all the gripes about his style of play, there is something undeniably impressive about watching him anesthetize defenders with his low dribble and then finish them with a crossover. There is a stuttered flow to his game, which is paradoxical, but also effectively deceiving. And, oh yeah, of course he got the four-point play.

Score: 7/10

The Shot in LeBron’s Face, December 13

This was still early in the season, when Harden had reached 50 points only once and had yet to start his streak of 30-plus-point games. He began that streak in this contest against the Lakers, and it couldn’t have come with a more symbolic moment: Harden vs. LeBron at the top of the arc late in the fourth quarter, Harden stepping back from way beyond the 3-point line, getting knocked down to the floor, and the ball going in anyway.

Score: 5/10

Thirteen Points in Less Than Three Minutes, March 22

If Giannis’s closing statement was his win over the Sixers last week, then this was Harden’s magnum opus. The damage: 61 points on 34 shots, nine made 3s, and only 14 made free throws. The highlight: The Rockets were down six points late in the game and in the span of less than three minutes, Harden dropped three 3s and 13 points to help Houston complete the comeback.

Score: 8/10

Bonus WTF Moment: This Pass, January 29

How?

Score: 6/10

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Game Against the Sixers, April 4

This Heisman Moment lasted 48 minutes. Giannis battled Joel Embiid in a game that had no stakes aside from personal pride and bragging rights, but where both guys played like they were trying to win Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Save that for the playoffs (fingers crossed we get a Sixers-Bucks series). On that night, Giannis wrote his thesis by swatting away five blocks—a season high—recording 45 points, 13 rebounds, and six assists, and then, for good measure, making three of his seven 3-point attempts, in what must have looked like a horror-movie pre-playoffs trailer for the rest of the Eastern Conference.

Score: 8/10

Block and Finish in OT vs. Clippers, November 10

Down two in an overtime game against the Clippers early in the season, Giannis showed us a glimpse of what he would go on to do on both ends of the court all year along. As Danilo Gallinari leaned back to launch a midrange jumper, Giannis jumped (barely), stretched out his 10-foot pole of an arm, swallowed up the shot, and went straight into his dribble. He rolled down the court, picked up the ball at the free throw line, and Euro-stepped past a moribund Gallinari for a thundering dunk. That became a lasting image for opposing players, and a frightening reminder for the ensuing 70 or so games of just what Giannis is capable of.

Score: 8/10

Windmill Breakaway Dunk, November 24

Giannis on the break has become its own category of highlights. During these plays, he gets a blank slate to showcase just how much faster, longer, and stronger he is than everyone else on the floor. This particular play didn’t just have the gigantic, leaping drive to the rim, or a dunk that shook the basket. After stealing the ball on one end, Giannis—whose titanic 7-foot-3 wingspan could probably wrap around a sequoia—decided to take that length and turn it into a windmill dunk because, why not?

Score: 6/10

Posterizing Blake Griffin, December 5

There are so many layers to this that a book could be written on Giannis making the one-time dunk overlord of the league look like a guy at the rec center gym. When Giannis isn’t careening toward the rim like a gazelle on the run, he can bully his way through the paint and rise above everyone—even Griffin.

Score: 5/10

Bonus WTF Moment: Behind-the-Back Dribble Into Euro-step, December 29

The duality of Giannis’s game is often displayed in a familiar two-play stretch. He can, in one motion, obliterate any defensive combination thrown at him with his brute force, and in another, pull this out of his bag, adopting Kyrie Irving’s handles on his way to a perfect Euro-step scoop layup. He makes no sense.

Score: 7/10

Final Scores

Harden: 35/40

Giannis: 34/40

I found that, going through Giannis’s highlights, I was awed at every one of them, but they weren’t as memorable. With Harden, I could place each one in time. Harden edging out Giannis in this very subjective process is a product of a couple of things. In late-game situations, there’s no question it’s Harden’s ball and shot to take. Giannis, meanwhile, is the core of the Bucks’ system, but isn’t always the one taking memorable closing shots. It is important to note, too, that Milwaukee didn’t find itself in many close games this season (the team’s point differential is plus-9.1), which is a testament to the Bucks’ domination. That’s not Giannis’s fault. Also, as the league gravitates toward valuing 3-point shots more, Harden’s go-to move has become elevated and the old novelties (like dunks—where Giannis has found 28 percent of his scoring this season) have become almost passé. That’s not Giannis’s fault either.

In many ways, this discussion about Heisman Moments isn’t just a way to determine which player had more memorable performances, but also a way to show where the league is. An inside-out player and an outside-in player have both put together historic seasons, and though I may personally remember Harden’s moments more years from now, I’ll also definitely remember how close this race was.