Credit: Bleacher Report
The NBA season is well into the second half now, which means crunch time for many of the franchises in the league. This is the time where teams find their solid rotations for the playoffs and where teams on the outside looking in think of shutting down shop for the season. Yet, amidst all of the hustle and bustle of the season, we seem to have stumbled into some DRAMA!
Giannis Antetokounpo and James Harden are two of the best players on the entire planet. The two previous MVPs have been historically dominating the league for the past couple of years. Antetokounmpo is set to have the highest single-season Player Efficiency Rating (PER) in NBA history with a rating of 32.3, according to Clutch Sports. His physical dominance is one thing- with Antetokounmpo’s 7’3 wingspan seeming endless, but it is the application of his more refined skillset that shows him to be unstoppable offensively and a superb defensive anchor as well. In fact, Antetokounmpo is first in defensive win shares and defensive rating this season. Antetokounmpo is reaching the heights that none thought he would reach when he came to America as a skinny teenager in 2013.
Harden, meanwhile, averaged 36 points per game last season, bamboozling every defender in the league with slick ball-handling and his signature step back, which is basically unguardable. Harden’s control of the pace of the game is pure mastery. If Harden wants the game to slow down, it will slow down. If Harden wants a classic shoot out, the pace will speed up. Harden’s offensive intangibles are the stuff of legends.
So what in the world are two of the best players in basketball beefing about?
It all started in August of last year, where James Harden went on 97.9 The Box, a radio station in Houston, and spoke about the snub, claiming the reason he didn’t win was because of a media narrative.
“I think once the media creates a narrative about somebody from the beginning of the year, I think they just take that narrative and run with it the entire year,” said Harden.
Giannis took the high road here, essentially saying some months later that everyone is entitled to their own opinion.
It seems harmless, right? A competitive athlete is upset about not winning an award, and he blames the media. This is common practice in sport, but here is where the games begin.
The 2020 NBA all-star draft on February 6 had live coverage on TNT of LeBron James and Antetokounmpo picking out their teams for Sunday’s game on the 16th.
While filling out the starting five for both teams, Antetokounmpo was stuck between two players, Trae Young and Kemba Walker. He vented this to the panel on TNT, which Charles Barkley replied with, “Wait, you don’t want the dribbler?”
Antetokounmpo could have taken the high road here, too. But why should he? He is the MVP of the league, after all. Rather than let Barkley’s jab slide, Antetokounmpo said he needed to go with someone who is going to pass, which is fine. But calling Kemba Walker the step back killer, when Harden is the king of the stepback shot right now, is a definite jab.
Giannis didn’t stop there. In the press conference following the game, he gave us insight into what the game plan was for the last minutes of the game. “Offensively, we were just trying to find whoever James Harden was guarding,” said Antetokounmpo. This was Giannis doubling down on how he felt about Harden and after staying silent from the All-Star game jab, Harden broke his silence with Rachel Nichols on ESPN last week. One quote from this interview will sum up how Harden feels about Antetokounmpo.
“...But I wish I could just run and be 7 feet and just dunk. Like that takes no skill at all. I had to actually learn how to play basketball and how to have skill, you know? I’ll take that any day,” said Harden.
With Giannis not firing back at Harden, and with him saying that his comments were meant with no malice, this beef may not be in our memories for too much longer.
However, the NBA should want it to. Granted, one plays for the Houston Rockets and another plays for the Milwaukee Bucks. These two teams aren’t even in the same conference. But there’s no coincidence that when the NBA began its revitalization in the ’80s, the two main stars, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, were arch-rivals.
The Bucks and Rockets don’t carry the tradition that the Celtics-Lakers matchups do, obviously. This, however, is a rivalry between two truly unique talents. Two competitors, in the midst of a playoff battle in their respective conferences. It’s the slick ball-handling, sharp visioned, extravagant scorer, James Harden. Or it’s the powerful, yet agile, all-around phenom Giannis Antetokounmpo.
With the NBA’s rating dropping 15% from last year, perhaps pushing this “beef” narrative could help bring more attention to the game itself. It isn’t something that is exactly full proof but maybe marketing a la Bird Vs. Magic can ignite a spark to get the ratings up.
If you are in a band, and two of the most talented members don’t get along, usually bad things happen. A fight here and there, then boom, total chaos. The NBA might be looking at the beef between Harden and Antetokounmpo as that. Rather, the NBA should look at the blueprint it had already created 40 years ago, and roll with it again. I, for one, am here for the Giannis v. James show.