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NBA Daily: Giannis, Harden And Giving In To The Narrative

Finding growth and excitement in a new narrative is tough to ignore – just ask James Harden, writes Ben Nadeau.



Few people outside of Texas believed that James Harden fully deserved MVP honors over Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2018-19 – but, as of now, at least one of those supporters remain stalwart in that defense, and his name just happens to be James Harden.

During a radio interview on a local Houston station, Harden didn’t mince words when the topic bubbled to the surface.

“I think once the media, they create a narrative about somebody from the beginning of the year, I think they just take that narrative and run with it the entire year,” Harden said. “I don’t want to get into details. But all I can do is control what I can do, and I went out there and did what I was supposed to do at a high level. You know what I’m saying?”

It’s late August and the internet, undefeated in its ability to spin nothingness into slightly-bigger tales of nothingness, collectively logged on to trash a five-time member of the All-NBA First Team. And, to be fair, Harden is the owner of the most compelling counterargument in league history, if that’s any consolation to remaining Houstonians still in mourning.

Incredulously, and through night after night of incessant double- and triple-teaming, Harden finished with an average of 36.1 points per game. Or, in other terms, Harden notched the seventh-best single-season mark of all-time, the most since Kobe Bryant’s 35.4 tally in 2005-06 and the highest number put up by any player not named Michael Jordan or Wilt Chamberlain. For 30 consecutive games, Harden torched opposing defenses for at least 30 points, a feat only bested by Chamberlain’s outrageous 65-game streak in 1961-62.

The former MVP made 4.8 three-pointers and nabbed two steals per game too, averages that placed Harden second-best in the entire NBA. Not a single player attempted or made more free throws than Harden either — a result largely thanks to his insane 40.47 usage percent, the second-highest season-long rate in basketball history. The Rockets, who finished with 53 wins and the sixth-best record in the league, were must-watch television from December to March.

This was no truer than whenever Harden stared down whatever hopeless defender had matched up with him, ever-so-silently debating on which way he was going to dissect the soul of his opponent on that particular possession. Harden scored 30 or more points in 57 total games, topped 50 in nine of them and hit 60 twice. For everybody else that stepped on the court for Houston in 2018-19, they reached the 30 point-mark a combined total of five times (Eric Gordon, 3; Clint Capela, 1; Chris Paul, 1).

Dominance is somehow understating what Harden achieved in 2018-19 and yet, as Harden posits, the Antetokounmpo-led narrative won out.

And like the best-woven tales of fiction, the ones that reach the inevitable, predictable conclusion can often be the most satisfying voyages of them all.

So as long as Harden has gotten his achievement-based treatment in this particular narrative, the Greek-born superhero should too.

Antetokounmpo’s 30.89 PER was the 12th-best ever – to wit, Harden finished with the 18th-highest PER ever – with only certain first-ballot Hall of Famers ahead of him on the list. The 6-foot-11 transplant tallied 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game, all career-highs, and led the Bucks to their most complete season since 1980-81 with 60 wins. It wasn’t just a one-man offensive show, either, as Antetokounmpo finished in second for Defensive Player of the Year voting, only thwarted by the transcendent Rudy Gobert.

Narratives are a two-way street. Simply put, they are vastly-differing stories told from unique angles, all completed to a bow with drama-filled chapters and compelling character growth. For Harden, however, this was his sequel – a far more boring case study depending on who is asked, or if they’re a believer in voting fatigue. The bearded menace and his renewed effort was an impressive follow-up, but one for a story we had just experienced the year prior, if not elevated a few notches higher.

Harden – if his own narrative arc theory is to be accepted – already had his big, bombastic assault on the record books.

To do that all again – somehow improving on his MVP-awarded 2017-18 campaign – was to merely be James Harden. The rise of Antetokounmpo was both fresh and organic — so really, Harden never had a chance.

Just as movie studios across the country churn out blockbuster reboot or uninspired series-extenders with no end in sight, there is nothing more compelling than a brand new story. When a modern lead gives the audience something to invest in – say working to overthrow a seemingly-unmovable giant like the Warriors – the narrative begins to look a little different, even if it still remains largely the same.

Since LeBron James reeled off four MVP wins in five years from 2008-13 – only interrupted in the middle by an otherworldly run by Derrick Rose, case in point – there have been five different honorees in six seasons. Whether bias, inherently or unconsciously, muddied the voting procedure in April, it should hardly matter now. Antetokounmpo was a worthy choice, an underdog story turned superstar destroyer as it finally reached its true destination, all as a Greek-born baller led a franchise to their best record in almost forty years.

Antetokounmpo came from nothing in Athens; for Milwaukee, it was a gamble of epic, unprecedented proportions. Unlike the majority of other international prospects, the film that existed on him barely constituted as noteworthy at all. Grainy tape of a lanky Antetokounmpo styling over high-schoolers hardly represented the type of guaranteed potential that most top-ranked Division-I prospects possessed.

Even at No. 15 overall, it was certainly feasible that the Bucks would regret reaching on Antetokounmpo down the road. But as the journey unfolded, slowly and surely, it became clear just how special a rim-running, defensive-hound at point forward might end up being. Watching Antetokounmpo evolve and develop, each year becoming a little better than the last, was a page-turning, can’t-look-away novel that would’ve dominated best-sellers lists had it been written down as words instead.

At the core, we all tell stories to keep ourselves alive. We tell them to children with eager ears, we write about them in hopes of distilling a moment in time — if only to save a feeling for those that came before us and those that will come after. We tell stories in our constant search of the unique and unfamiliar, the exciting and exhilarating, just in an attempt to unearth something not yet seen before. Stories, and embracing the characters held within those pages, are a crucial foundation of life itself.

Last year, Antetokounmpo was the book that people couldn’t quit, the novella that needed the perfect ending, the cherry on top of a historic franchise-best sundae. Justifiably, that league-wide pilgrimage got its fireworks-worthy finale when Antetokounmpo lifted the MVP trophy through choked-back tears, forever thankful for the fans, organization and country that once embraced a skinny, unknown teenager from a different planet altogether.

Narratives, as Harden rightfully opines, can take on a life of their own, often spinning out of control and leaving all those behind in a torrid wake – for better or worse. That phenomenon is not a sports-only issue either; that type of invested energy in others you believe in or hate on is human nature.

And, most of all, the craziest part of all this: James is probably right, he deserved MVP. But so did Giannis Antetokounmpo, preconceived narratives or unwritten chapters be damned.

We’re always searching for the next big story and Antetokounmpo handed it to the world on a silver platter – who were we to say no?

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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