In all the NBA’s towering history, only two players have, at any point in their career, won both Defensive Player of the Year and a scoring title. The first, predictably, is Michael Jordan—one of the few guards to claim a defensive honor largely dominated by big men. The other is David Robinson, who earned his scoring belt in legendary fashion by holding off Shaquille O’Neal with a 71-point explosion in the final game of the 1993-94 regular season.
Giannis Antetokounmpo could be the third, if the next few weeks break his way, and also the only player in over 30 years to claim both honors in the same season. As things stand today, Antetokounmpo is among the betting favorites for Defensive Player of the Year and virtually deadlocked (at 29.8 points per game) in the scoring race with Joel Embiid (29.9) and LeBron James (29.5). Maybe one or both of those accolades will elude Giannis. Yet the fact that both are even in play this late into the season calls into question how, exactly, a two-time MVP and reigning champion who’s killing teams on both ends of the floor is getting edged out of this year’s MVP conversation.
The answer, ultimately, has less to do with Antetokounmpo than with his spectacular competition. It feels as if the MVP race has narrowed to Embiid and Nikola Jokic, whose performance this season is well beyond reproach. I, for one, welcome our new unicorn center overlords. Yet before they dominated the running, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant had their moment; back in December, Curry drew 94 of 100 first-place votes in ESPN.com’s straw poll of awards voters, and Durant ranked second by total points. Antetokounmpo, even then, registered as a somewhat distant third. As the race broadened, ESPN aired First Take segments a month apart declaring that Ja Morant and DeMar DeRozan were each the MVP favorite.