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Winners and Losers: The 2019 NBA Awards

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s MVP win capped a banner night for overseas players … but it also meant all of James Harden’s hard-earned points were for naught

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It took only six weeks for the NBA’s 2018-19 regular-season awards to be given out. Though the actual honors might’ve felt late and a bit stale, the reactions, speeches, and what the awards say about the state of the league were all worth the wait. We survived a night of Shaq’s hosting (a solid 7/10, but probably because it doubled as Charles Barkley’s roast), saw tears, and remembered what the Bucks were about. Here are the winners and losers for this year’s NBA awards ceremony.

Winners: The Bucks

Milwaukee won the night long before Giannis Antetokounmpo was given the MVP over James Harden. Earlier in the night, Mike Budenholzer was voted Coach of the Year for the second time in his career, a feat accomplished by only eight other coaches (and three this century). General manager Jon Horst was also recognized as Executive of the Year.

Horst, like Giannis, is still in the early stages of his career. He was promoted to the GM job in 2017, at 34 years old, and has since maintained the course set by his predecessor, John Hammond, who plucked Giannis from the draft at no. 15 overall. A great deal of Milwaukee’s successes this season trace back to Horst—not bad for someone whose hiring as GM was met with more questions of “who?” than applause. Offseason and midseason roster moves—signing Brook Lopez for the biannual exception, trading for George Hill—led the Bucks to a league-best record and to Giannis fully unleashing his talents.

Coaching pushed Giannis over the top. After growing up under the tutelage of Jason Kidd, Antetokounmpo hit another level surrounded by shooters and with the freedom to freelance on defense in Budenholzer’s system. As a result, Budenholzer, in his first season in Milwaukee after parting with the Hawks, has the latest coaching redemption story capped off by a trophy. Last year, Dwane Casey accepted the Coach of the Year award for his season with the Raptors after he’d been fired. The year before that, Mike D’Antoni was given validation for the approach that ultimately had gotten him fired in New York.

Monday night symbolized the start of what could be a Bucks reign over the league (if they can retain several key free agents). But it also felt like confirmation that Milwaukee had already arrived. The heartfelt and teary speeches that Giannis and Bud gave were a behind-the-scenes look at how far they had come in their respective lives to be at this point. Giannis, the young kid in Greece who couldn’t afford shoes, entered the most prestigious group in the NBA at 24; Budenholzer, after never quite being enough in the East, was honored for his brilliance once again; 10 years ago, Horst was working as a superintendent at a trailer park. In one sense, the journey has been long for all three; in another, it’s only the beginning.

Loser: James Harden

Harden lost the night. He didn’t receive his second consecutive MVP award—which seemed obvious from the start, as Harden didn’t show for Monday’s awards broadcast. Before the top honor was announced, presenter Hasan Minhaj even made jokes at Harden’s expense: “I was looking for James Harden, but in classic playoff fashion, he didn’t show up.” (I’m not completely sure this year’s MVP winner should’ve been excluded from that barb, either.)

I’m sure Harden is somewhere far away from Chris Paul enjoying the offseason right now, but it has to sting not being given the award after the historic stretch he had this season. As the Rockets’ Twitter account was quick to point out, Harden became the first player in NBA history to average at least 35 points and seven assists in a season. He was must-watch TV, and his box scores had figures you almost always had to check twice: Harden dropped 40 or more points 28 times, 50 or more points nine times, and 60 or more twice. Since his banner regular season ended, however, Harden has been eliminated in the second round of the playoffs, is reportedly in the midst of escalating tensions with his second in command, and has to endure an extra-humid summer that’s sure to make the beard all frizzy. Doing all that work just to finish in second place for MVP must feel like just another kick in the gut this offseason.

Loser: Magic Johnson

Magic was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award on Monday. But he was a co-winner alongside his greatest career rival, Larry Bird. Bird spoke first, leaving Magic to stand idly by as Bird re-lived some highlights, including a successful coaching career and front-office tenure in Indiana. As you may recall, Johnson was last seen leaving his president of basketball operations job with the Lakers after compiling a dump truck full of unconventional decisions.

When it was Johnson’s turn, he thanked Jerry Buss, the owner during Magic’s heyday, and his “beautiful daughter,” current Lakers owner Jeanie Buss, whom he walked out on at the end of the season. I don’t want to say “too soon” on someone else’s behalf … but Magic, too soon.

Winner: The International Game

In one night, four international players took home four of the NBA’s five major awards: Pascal Siakam (a native of Cameroon) is the NBA’s Most Improved Player, Luka Doncic (Slovenia) the Rookie of the Year, Rudy Gobert (France) the Defensive Player of the Year, and Giannis (Greece and Nigeria) the MVP. Per ESPN Stats & Info, this is only the second time in history that the MVP and ROY were both born outside the U.S.; the first being Tim Duncan and Pau Gasol in 2002. Gobert also won DPOY last year, while Cameroonian Joel Embiid was the first runner-up, and Embiid’s Sixers teammate, Australian Ben Simmons, won Rookie of the Year.

The league has made a concerted effort over the past decade to grow the game outside the States. Quite a few of the best foreign-born players in the league, such as Siakam and Giannis, didn’t begin playing the sport until they were teenagers. It’s a bit hyperbolic to call this a win for the world (though after those emotional speeches, I’m ready to go there), but it is a shining example of the league’s global reach and the type of talent in the world just waiting for a chance.

Winner: Utah

I could feel Quin Snyder and Jaren Jackson Jr.’s happiness for Mike Conley through the TV as he accepted the Teammate of the Year award, despite the different directions their relationships are going with the guard. Conley, who was dealt to Utah from Memphis last Wednesday, is moving into Snyder’s life and out of Jackson’s. (Granted, Jackson being so excited for his former teammate is the kind of effect the best teammate in the league should have.)

Like the Bucks, the Jazz won on multiple fronts. This is the second straight DPOY for Gobert, who also improved remarkably on the offensive end this season. Gobert’s—and Donovan Mitchell’s—offense should only improve with Conley’s steady hand and ability to space the floor. If all goes well for Utah this season, it could have a Milwaukeean awards night a year from now. (Probably without one of their own winning the MVP award. But dream big, Donovan!)