Sports | February 29, 2020 2:39 pm

The James Harden-Giannis Antetokounmpo Feud Has No Winners

The last two NBA MVPs have unnecessary beef

Giannis guards Harden
James Harden is defended by Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

This is what happens when MVPs collide. After a couple of stray remarks here and there, the feud between Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and Houston Rockets guard James Harden has now, officially, become a whole thing.

Here’s the problem: while both men are making good points about the nature of superstardom in 2020, neither man has the high ground, and it’s turning into a petty war of words that should have been avoided.

The feud escalated, seemingly in a joking fashion, during the NBA All-Star Draft earlier this month, when Antetokounmpo skipped selecting Harden in order to go with Boston Celtics point guard Kemba Walker. His rationale? He wanted someone who could, and would, pass the ball.

Never mind the fact that Harden is averaging two assists per game more than Walker, or that he eventually finished with six assists in the All-Star Game to Walker’s three. This was a playful but pointed shot at Harden from his main competition for the MVP award this year, and it stuck.

On Friday, Harden sat down for an interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols and fired back at Antetokounmpo’s comments. The full clip is worth watching:

Specifically, the comments that stuck in the public eye were Harden’s thinly veiled shot at Antetokounmpo’s physical talents:

“I wish I could be 7 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.”

That was followed, rather swiftly, by a two-pronged response from the Bucks star. First, he let his play show just how skilled he is, going off for 32 points, 13 rebounds and six assists in a 47-point beatdown of the Oklahoma City Thunder. A good enough counter, but Antetokounmpo wasn’t done, speaking to the media about Harden’s comments directly:

“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. [..] It’s hard to drive full speed and try to make the right pass to the corner. I try to get my passes more accurate and it’s a lot of things I’m still adding, and hopefully when I add all those things in my game, I’m a more complete player and I’m better and can help my team win and the game is easier.”

On the surface, this seems like sour grapes from Harden, who will likely be passed over for the MVP award this year in favor of Antetokounmpo. And it could also be a lingering hurt that provoked him, given that he’s no closer to winning an NBA title than he ever has been, while the Bucks are likely the best team in the NBA.

But digging deeper into the two players’ histories reveals a bit more. Harden, after all, is one of the most ridiculed players in the league, constantly mocked for what fans — and other players — deem excessive flopping.

One thing that can’t be argued, however, is that he has become one of the premier playmakers and passers in the league. For Antetokounmpo to target him for that probably struck a new kind of nerve, leading to his comments about the Greek’s perceived lack of skill.

And Antetokounmpo pulled the strings because, underneath all the wholesome memes, he’s enough of a troll to know how to get under opponents’ skins while weaving the narrative in his direction. Though his initial comment was likely made in jest, it nonetheless pushed forward a false narrative that was designed to annoy Harden at best, or piss him off at worst.

In the end, this has turned into a petty battle of words where neither player comes off looking all that well. Sure, a bit of personal rivalry always spices up the NBA, particularly because most players just like each other. And this does make the Bucks and Rockets’ next meeting, on March 25, must-see TV.

But given how well both players are performing this season, it’s unnecessary seasoning that just highlights how easily rattled both can get when they’re attacked in the press. Maybe the feud will cool off now that both have fired off comebacks, but don’t count on it. The next month should be interesting, to say the least.