The evolution of the James Harden-Giannis Antetokounmpo feud

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The Houston Rockets‘ official Twitter account took what could be considered the first jab in the beef between two of the NBA’s biggest superstars seconds after Giannis Antetokounmpo was announced as the league’s 2018-19 MVP.

James Harden finished as the runner-up for the third time in five seasons, which didn’t sit right with the Rockets organization. The tweet has since been deleted but was certainly up long enough to send a message.

“Congrats to the MVP, but we respectfully disagree,” the tweet read before rattling off several bullet points making a case that Harden should have been the repeat winner, such as that he was the first player in NBA history to average at least 35 points and seven assists per game for a full season.

It’s common for franchises to lobby for their stars to receive postseason honors. But the timing of this tweet — as first-time winner Antetokounmpo was making his acceptance speech — was perceived by many around the league as poor form, a disrespectful display of sour grapes.

“The Beard” and “The Greek Freak” have exchanged a handful of jabs since, some direct shots, others more subtle.

As Harden’s Rockets prepare to face Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks in the bubble in Lake Buena Vista, Florida (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC), get up to speed on the pokes between the perennial MVP candidates over the past year.

“I went out there and did what I was supposed to do at a high level. There’s only a few other seasons that anybody has ever done that before. People were tuned into how many points I was going to score the next game. It was a thing. But I can’t control that.”

James Harden

Harden, making an August 2019 appearance on Houston hip hop station 97.9 The Box to promote his annual JH-Town Weekend charity events, readily agreed when one of the hosts declared that “politics” determined the MVP winner.

The implication seems to be that Antetokounmpo wasn’t deserving of the honor, which he won by receiving 78 of the 101 first-place votes, despite a historical stat line (averages of 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.3 steals) to lead the Bucks to the NBA’s best record.

There’s a precedent for the Rockets complaining about the “narrative” determining the MVP winner when Harden finished second in the voting. It also occurred after the 2016-17 award went to Russell Westbrook in the case of the then-Oklahoma City Thunder point guard joining Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history to average a triple-double for the season.

Of course, that didn’t prevent the Rockets from pumping up Westbrook as a recent MVP when they pulled the trigger on a blockbuster trade to acquire him last summer.

It’s not clear why exactly the narrative would have shifted to favor Harden in 2018-19, when he won the MVP in a landslide, getting 86 of 101 first-place votes. It’s also hard to build a case that the ballot is biased against Harden when he has received more points in MVP voting over the past five years than anyone.

But Harden doubled down in an interview with GQ weeks after his radio appearance when asked if a narrative had been already formed for this season’s MVP race.

“Nah, it hasn’t happened yet, it’s too early,” Harden said. “Wait until the preseason and when the regular season starts up again. But they [the media] for sure got some teams they locked in on. We all know. That’s just what it is.

“You can’t tell me that a guy whose team was a 14-seed at one point last year, and ended up a 4-seed with everything that was going on — so many injuries — and who went on a 32-game 30-point streak, eight 50-point games, two 60-point games in one season … and all the talk was about [Antetokounmpo]?

“There’s no way.”

“It’s me. I can get any shot I want to.”

James Harden

This was Harden’s explanation for why he struggled in a season-opening home loss to the Bucks, finishing with 19 points on 2-of-13 shooting.

Harden consistently declines to credit the opposing defense for causing him problems after an off night, never wavering in his confidence that he can create his shot regardless of the defenders or schemes that he encounters