NBA beefs are usually between a superstar and an irritant, or a new-school player and an "old guy hatin'."
Rarely does one have bonafide stars from both sides — in the case of the Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo and Houston Rockets' James Harden, legitimate Most Valuable Player candidates.
Apparently, the feud began when captains Giannis and LeBron James were drafting their teammates for the All-Star game. The former was torn between Kemba Walker and Trae Young, to which Inside the NBA analyst Charles Barkley said, "Wait, you don't want the dribbler?" referring to Harden.
The Greek Freak quipped, “I want somebody that’s going to pass the ball.”
The two have traded barbs in separate interviews since then.
Fuel has been added to the fire, and the entire league is loving it. The real question is, did the Giannis-Harden beef just start, or was it reignited by recent events?
Beard in 2018-19: 36.1 ppg 6.6 rpg 7.5 apg 2 spg 4.8 3pm
Freak in 2018-19: 27.7 ppg 12.5 rpg 5.9 apg 1.3 spg 1.5 bpg
Last season, Harden finished as a far second to Giannis in the MVP voting, despite singlehandedly keeping a slow-starting Rockets team afloat (14th seed at one point, ended 53-26 as fourth-best in West) and leading the NBA in scoring. On the other hand, the Greek Freak put up career numbers across the board, which resulted in the Bucks flat-out dominating the East (60-22).
In a previous radio interview, James made a case for himself. “I had a [season] for the books, but it’s out of my control," he said. "Once the media creates that narrative about one person for the beginning of the year, I think they just run with that narrative until the end of the year. I don’t want to get into details but all I can do is control what I can do and I did what I was supposed to do at a high level. Only a few seasons anybody ever did that. I can’t control that, all I can control is coming back next year and winning a chip.”
Funnily enough, the Beard was on the opposite side of this argument when he wound up as a close MVP runner-up to then-former teammate Russell Westbrook in 2017. As the new primary option of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Russ made history by becoming the first player to average a triple-double since Oscar Robertson; OKC finished as the sixth seed that year. For his part, Harden normed career-highs of 29.1 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, while leading the league in assists (11.8) — on top of 22 triple-doubles — for No. 3 Houston (55-27).
Some are pointing to a couple of past instances on the court that may have planted the seeds of the MVP beef. James had flashbacks of Metta World Peace's elbow from 2012 when Giannis threw the ball at his direction, "inadvertently" smacked him in the head, and made him the butt of every internet joke last year.
A Twitter user even went back as far as six years ago to prove that this has been a long time coming. An offensive foul by Harden sent a still-wiry Giannis sprawling, which escalated to physical and verbal exchanges. You know a video is old when Larry Sanders, Jason Terry, and Jason Kidd (as Milwaukee coach) are all in it.
War of words
"Taking jabs at James" was the theme of the Greek Freak's All-Star Weekend. When asked what his team's endgame plan was, he kidded, “Offensively, we were just trying to find whoever James Harden was guarding. That’s who we thought we had an opportunity to score on.”
The Beard could've came back with "joke's on Giannis," after Team LeBron won 157-155, but where's the fun in that, right? Speaking to Nichols, Harden responded, “I average more assists than him I think. I don’t see what the joke is.”
He really had to go there in his next quote, though: “I wish I could be seven feet, run, and just dunk. That takes no skill at all. I gotta actually learn how to play basketball and how to have skill. I’ll take that any day.”
It didn't take long before those comments reached Antetokounmpo, who told reporters before the Bucks' game against OKC, “I’m not that type of guy. I never try and take stabs... I’m just trying to to my job, which is win games, and then go back home to my family and my kid.”
He went on to destroy the Thunder (final score: 133–86) to the tune of 32 points, 13 rebounds, and six assists. More importantly, he did it with a handful of flashy moves that require skill, as if blatantly refuting James' claims.
After the match, Giannis continued, “My game is not just power for sure. I came in when I was 18, I was 180 pounds, so to power through big guys was kind of tough. I try to work on my game, midrange shots, threes, being able to screen-and-roll faster, and make the right pass. It’s hard to drive full speed and try to make the right pass to the corner.”
By the numbers
Freak: 29.7 ppg 13.7 rpg 5.8 apg 1 spg 1.1 bpg 55% fg 59.1 eFG% 32 PER 9.9 WS
Beard: 34.9 ppg 6.4 rpg 7.3 apg 1.7 spg 4.6 3pm 10.1 ftm 54 eFG% 29 PER 11.1 WS
If were looking at mere statistics, we see pretty much the same player, with reasonable advantages based on style of play. Antetokounmpo's elite rebounding and field goal rate are product of his freakish gifts and him being simply unstoppable, while Harden's bucket-getting and foul-drawing capabilities have translated into historic offense.
The fact that their effective field goal percentages, player efficiency ratings, and win shares are almost identical is indicative of each MVP frontrunner's impact to their respective teams. For now, the bad blood between James and Giannis makes the MVP race more interesting, but don't be surprised if the narrative ends up playing a part in ultimately determining the league's best player.