The cases for the first two are straightforward.
For Giannis, he's the inarguable best player on what's been the best team in the NBA all season. Under Mike Budenholzer, Giannis has blossomed, with career highs in points, rebounds, assists and effective field goal percentage while putting on a case for Defensive Player of the Year as well. And remember: If the Bucks weren't blowing teams out, Giannis' stats would be even more impressive. He's playing about four minutes per game fewer than a year ago since the Bucks, with an NBA-best net rating of plus-8.8, have the luxury of frequently sitting him late in games. Vegas considers him the favorite right now.
For The Beard, he's having one of the most historic scoring seasons in NBA history. He's averaging 36.2 points per game -- which would be the highest average in a season since Michael Jordan averaged 37.1 points in 1986-87 -- and included a 32-game streak where he scored 30 or more points, the longest streak since Wilt Chamberlain. These aren't empty stats, either; he's done so in a way that's helped his injury-maligned team win. The Rockets have won nine in a row. If this team makes a run at the one-seed out West, I suspect Harden will repeat.
Paul George's MVP case? It's a little more nuanced. But once you read into those nuances, it may, by the end of the regular season, be just as strong as those two perceived front-runners -- if the Thunder can get out of the 3-6 funk they've been in since George seemed to have his MVP moment on Feb. 22 in that epic double-overtime win over the Utah Jazz.
Here's the top stat -- OK, the top group of stats -- that best shows why Paul George could really be the league's 2018-19 MVP.
When George is on the court, the Thunder outscore their opponents by 9.0 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. That's a better net rating than the Milwaukee Bucks, who have the best net rating in the NBA.
When George is off the court, the Thunder are outscored by their opponents by 9.3 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. That's about the same net rating as the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have the worst net rating in the NBA.
If you want this presented in equation form:
- OKC + PG13 = Bucks
- OKC - PG13 = Cavs
George's differential in on/off numbers is the best in the NBA -- by far. According to Cleaning the Glass (whose numbers differ slightly than NBA.com because it filters out garbage time), George's efficiency differential is +18.9 points per 100 possessions, tops in the league among players who've logged more than 450 minutes. Second on the list is way behind George: Kevin Durant, who is +16.3, then Danny Green, at +16.3, then Joel Embiid at +15.1. The gap between George and the others has narrowed in the past couple weeks as George has battled through injuries and a slump (in his four games since returning from injury, George is averaging 21.5 points on 22.9 percent from 3 -- before that he was averaging 28.6 points on 39.8 percent from 3). But if we're going to define the NBA's Most Valuable Player as the player who is most valuable to his team, then there it is: The difference between the Thunder with George on the floor and George off it is the difference between the NBA's best team and worst team.
(Context: The Bucks outscore opponents by 12.1 points per 100 possessions when Giannis is on the floor, and outscore opponents by 3.2 points per 100 possessions when Giannis is off the floor, for an efficiency differential of +8.9. The Rockets outscore opponents by 3.3 points per 100 possessions when Harden is on the floor, and outscore opponents by 3.4 points per 100 possessions when Harden is off the floor, for an efficiency differential of -0.1.)
There are plenty more ways to make the MVP case for George. The Thunder make the case that he's the most complete player. It's hard to argue with that; George is a front-runner for the Defensive Player of the Year award while ranking second in the NBA in scoring (to Harden). He's the ultimate team player, too. Just look at the hustle stats. George is second in the NBA in deflections (also to Harden), first in loose balls recovered and first in steals. He's turned into the ideal two-way NBA wing, the type of player a mad scientist couldn't conjure in a lab, who can shut down a team's best scorer while making more 3s per game (3.7) than all but two NBA players.
At the All-Star Game last month, George was asked about what the difference is between him a year ago -- his first season with Oklahoma City -- and this season, in the first year of his four-year contract extension. He spoke not about anything that he specifically has done but instead about team chemistry, and about feeling in a comfortable place with his teammates.
"This being my second year with Oklahoma, you just really get a chance to grow and develop and just unravel as teammates," George said. "I think that's just been the biggest key. No pressure going into things. We kind of know each other now. We know our play styles. We know how to get each other going, and that's the key."
I asked the Thunder's head coach, Billy Donovan, about the difference between 2017-18 Paul George -- a star player, to be sure, but not even the best player on his team -- and 2018-19 Paul George, who is one of the best players in the league. Donovan hit on a lot of the same notes as George: That chemistry takes time, and that the time he's spent alongside Russell Westbrook has been key in his jump this season. And it took a while to adjust from the Pacers' more plodding pace to the Thunder's run-and-gun approach. (OKC ranks third in the NBA in pace this season.)
"Even during the free agency, before he had made his final decision, we had spent some time together, and the one thing I'd say about Paul, he's really bright, he's smart," Donovan said. "I think he was a little bit taken aback by how fast Russell was, the speed and pace at which we're trying to play at. It was totally different for him in Indiana. The other part was, going into this summer, I think he was preparing himself for the grind of being at Indiana, being the guy, wanting to get stronger, put more size and strength on. Probably last year slowed him down a little bit.
"He's really good at surveying situations and knowing exactly how he can inject himself to make an impact," Donovan continued. "He knew exactly what he needed to do this year and how he needed to play to be really effective for us. … A lot of times guys, when they got plays directly run for them, they look at that as that's their play, that's their opportunity to shoot the basketball. I don't think Paul views the game that way. He views the game as making the next best play, whether it's shooting, whether it's passing, whether it's driving, it doesn't make a difference. He has that kind of mentality. He doesn't necessarily want plays run for him to get him shots."
What Donovan is saying is this: Whether his stats are good or great, the defining characteristic of Paul George is that he's a winner. And that's what makes his MVP candidacy, more than Giannis' or Harden's, hinge on the Thunder's play for the final month of the season. If the Thunder continue this relative rough patch -- they're now tied for fourth in the West with Portland, after sitting comfortably in third at the All-Star Break -- George will get third place in MVP voting. But if George's final month of the season can replicate what he did in February, when he averaged 35 points, 8.4 rebounds and 5.4 assists while tallying six straight games with five or more made 3s, he'll have a serious shot.
The case for an MVP is often in the eye of the beholder. As Mark Twain used to say, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics." Give me the point you want to prove and I'm sure I can find some statistics to prove it.
But the proof of Paul George's MVP candidacy will come down to one thing: How much his impact on this team can vault them toward the top of the Western Conference standings. When your style of basketball is like George's, where it's based on making an impact toward winning on both sides of the floor, the ultimate judge of his greatness will depend on his team's success.