Moore: The Definitive Case for Giannis Antetokounmpo as 2019 NBA MVP

Moore: The Definitive Case for Giannis Antetokounmpo as 2019 NBA MVP article feature image
Credit:

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34).

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo is the odds-on favorite to win the 2019 NBA MVP, with James Harden not too far behind.
  • Let's dig deep into the case for Giannis, analyzing his statistical efficiency, his defensive prowess and his impact on the Bucks' success as a team.

I’ve got three words for you.

Most Dominant Player.

Here’s the MVP case for Giannis Antetokunmpo in layers with the broadest and most important on the bottom and the layers above adding context:

The necessary question, of course, is what I mean by “most dominant,” especially with Harden putting up the best scoring season of the past 50 years since Michael Jordan (while averaging seven assists on good efficiency).  Harden is unstoppable this season because he’s going to hit the shots you try to force him to take, but with Giannis it’s a bit different: He’s dominant because you can’t stop him from getting the impact he wants.

He dominates his physical matchups and the team-wide matchups. He gets to the rim no matter the coverage, generates assists no matter how he’s schemed, and controls the game defensively with his physical presence.

To watch him is to watch a player who opponents just have no idea what to do with. Watch these clips and ask yourself how a human being is supposed to stop him:

Let’s look at some numbers.

FACTS AND FIGURES

Stat line: 27.4 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.5 blocks per game on 57.7% from the field, 24.6% from 3-point range, and 72.9% from the stripe.

Advanced (rank in parentheses): 64.1% TrueShooting percentage (8th), 30.4 PER (2nd), 8.3 Offensive Win Shares (3rd), 5.4 Defensive Win Shares (3rd), 13.8 Win Shares (3rd), 10.5 Box Plus-Minus (2nd), 7.3 Value Over Replacement Player (2nd)

Giannis’ per-game numbers don’t pop the same way Harden’s do. They all seem mundane on their own. He’s fifth in scoring per game, sixth in rebounds per game, 20th in assist per game, 13th in blocks per game. It’s the combination of those stats where it gets wild. Much will be made, and rightfully so, of Harden’s unprecedented scoring with seven assists per game.

But it’s the combination that sets Antetokounmpo apart first. No player since assists began to be tracked has ever had his line of 27-13-6. The only player to ever average 27-13 with 1.5 blocks per game and .550 or better from the field was Shaquille O’Neal (also, I might add, nicknamed the Most Dominant Ever).

So while Harden’s scoring numbers are indeed historic, especially when combined with his assists, Giannis’ are similarly standing alone in history. He’s Shaq with more assists. O’Neal never averaged more than 3.8 assists per game. It’s this added dimension to Antetokounmpo that not only sets him apart from the Diesel, but best adjusts him to the modern era.

And here’s the kicker: Antetokounmpo averages just 32.8 minutes per game, compared to 37 minutes for Harden. As we’ll get into when we compare the two players in our final MVP piece, that narrows the statistical gap between the two considerably. Antetokounmpo doesn’t play heavy minutes because he doesn’t have to: The Bucks are often up by so much he simply isn’t needed.

That’s where the team stats come in.

The Bucks have a 113 offensive rating with Antetokounmpo on the floor, good for sixth-best among players with a 25% usage rate or higher, and second-best among players with a usage rate north of 30%, with Harden, of course, the only player above him.

Defense is where the conversation really starts to veer toward Antetokounmpo. He has the league’s second-best defensive rating among all players playing 30 minutes or more (Joe Ingles) and the best defensive rating among all players with a usage rate above 20%.

The result is this: With Giannis Antetokounmpo on the floor, the Bucks beat their opponents by 12.7 points per 100 possessions. That is a beatdown. A destruction. An absolute ass-kicking. It is the best net rating of any player who play at least 30 minutes per game and has a usage rate of more than 30 this season, and second-best for any player with usage rating of 25 or more behind Steph Curry. Antetokounmpo will also play at least five more games this season than Curry, which should be noted (alongside the historical outlier the Warriors provide).

Net rating — which is just plus-minus extrapolated across possessions instead of minutes to account for pace) — is our clearest statistical lifeline to winning. It doesn’t take a scientist to understand the Bucks have won the most games this season, and so Giannis’ standing as the best player on the team with the best record is fairly opaque. But if Antetokounmpo’s on-court net rating weren’t so dominant, even compared to how excellent the Bucks have been without him on the floor, his case wouldn’t be so solid.

Quite simply: the Bucks kick the ass of everyone, all-comers, with Giannis Antetokounmpo on the floor this season. But to understand his relationship to those numbers, and the Bucks’ win total, you have to go a bit deeper.

THE OMNIPOTENCE ENGINE

Giannis is fast.

I know, dynamite analysis.

But when you sit down and watch every offensive possession he’s had this season as I have, it really does shock you. He’s not fast in terms of foot speed, but his stride is so long, he covers ground in such a way that it just catches guys off-guard constantly.

This season, 25% of Antetokounmpo’s offense comes from transition plays, by far the highest of any playset. He is constantly grabbing the ball and attacking downhill on some poor forward who will think “I got him” only to realize that by the time he’s processed the word “him” in his mind, Antetokounmpo is already engaging him in the Eurostep.

Often, you’ll see the Bucks beat teams not by sprinting out in full fast break but in these small mid-transition situations because the defense simply can’t account for Antetokounmpo’s ability to cover ground.

I have labeled this clip “More Guys” because every time I watch it I think “you have five defenders across half court before a single Bucks player gets there and you’re still going to need a lot more guy to stop Antetokounmpo.

It feels barefaced to describe the fact that this obviously exceptionally tall and long-limbed individual is in fact an unbelievably tall and long-limbed individual, but it really is true that Giannis has dominated in large part this year with his physical tools.

Rudy Gobert is listed at 7-1, 245 pounds. He is a large human being. Even with him embellishing these a bit to attempt a charge, look at how far contact with Antetokounmpo sends him:

It’s not just the power, either: The speed, even in the half court, gets him to positions faster than the defense can react:

Andre Drummond, in fact, does not want any part of this:

It’s not fair to say his scoring abilities are entirely based on his athletic tools, though. There’s real skill. Giannis’ release point is so high that with his touch around the rim, there’s again, just not much you can do.

Finishes like these have become routine. This is probably his best non-dunk finish of the season. The Celtics sent everyone. Not enough.

The Bucks don’t just use him on-ball, either. They use him on cuts, in the post, and off the roll, like here, using the spacing around him to open a lane. There are counters upon counters for the Bucks to hit opponents in waves:

If this was just Giannis bullying his way inside, there are ways to stop that, but the spacing that Mike Budenholzer has installed around great shooting talent has transformed the offense. Antetokounmpo has made just 47 three-pointers this season, and yet Milwaukee averages the second-most 3-point makes per 100 possessions league-wide.

How do you accomplish that with a non-shooter having a usage rate over 30 percent?

Gravity. Just like Steph Curry draws so much gravity out of the paint, opening up slashing opportunities for the Warriors, teams get absolutely terrified of drives from Antetokounmpo, opening up perimeter options for the Bucks. This dribble-handoff sequence has been money all season, because watch how the defenders all have to gear up to try and get in Antetokounmpo’s way to the rim:

Brook Lopez is a great shooter and yet this Mavericks defense — after a made bucket with all their defenders back, mind you — is so preoccupied with Giannis that the trailer is wide open.

And here, again watch how many defenders the Pistons are throwing at Antetokounmpo to stop him from getting to the rim, leaving Lopez open:

Giannis’ individual numbers are impressive; he’s having one of the most efficient 2-point shooting seasons in NBA history. But it’s these contributions to the Bucks’ overall lethal offense that showcase how Antetokounmpo is the engine that makes the unit go.

There are weaknesses, to be sure. Most will point to his lack of a jumpshot, but even that needs a little more discussion. For starters, look at his shot chart:

Notice that little red spot inside the arc, there, in the dreaded mid-range? Antetokounmpo has made 40 percent of his shots there. Overall, from mid-range he’s shooting 35 percent by NBA.com, but Synergy Sports has him a little higher at 39.7 percent which is 50th percentile league-wide. That also matches the 16-24 range numbers on NBA.com. He’s got a little confidence in that shot, too:

Maybe more importantly, though: Look at how many times in the above clips defenders are dropping vs. him, and then look at how often he’s getting to the rim anyway.

That’s the key here, that if you leave him in one-on-one coverage Giannis is dunking all over your soul, and if you bring help, he’s finding an open shooter. Antetokounmpo’s weakness is definitely his jumper, it’s just that the Bucks have enabled him to make that weakness irrelevant, and Antetokounmpo in return has enabled the Bucks to cover for him. Were he not such a reliably willing passer, the lack of a jumper would be an issue. It’s not.

One more issue is his turnovers. Giannis actually has a higher turnover rate relative to usage than Harden does. He turns the ball over 17 percent of the time in transition, 18 percent of the time in the post, and 18.4 percent of the time in pick and roll. His handle is suspect, which can get him in trouble.

You can also freeze him with certain coverages. He is almost assuredly going to see a 2-3 zone in the playoffs. Look at what Brooklyn’s use of it does to him here:

 

The problem, of course, is that you can get a few stops on him. Take the charge, disrupt his handle, stymie him. But then he’s coming right back down the floor at you and going to be right in your grill again. His unrelenting approach combined with the Bucks’ plethora of options makes him impossible to hold down forever.

Let’s talk defense.

THE LOOMING HAND OF FATE

First off, as mentioned above, the Bucks have the No. 1 defense in the NBA and Antetokounmpo has the best defensive rating of any player with his usage rate. His balance on both sides is a huge part of his MVP case.

This is just from Thursday night:

There just aren’t players who can make that play on Embiid.

Giannis’ defensive presence is a constant threat and it deters so much. Watch Buddy Hield in transition decide to test him before simply averting and settling for a step-back jumper. He can hit that shot, but it’s that initial transition attempt that shows how intimidating Antetokounmpo can be:

His help instincts are phenomenal, and that athleticism means he can get to pretty much any shot and knock it into the 18th row:

Antetokounmpo ranks in the 81st percentile overall in individual defense via Synergy Sports to go with that team defensive rating. He’s in the 80th percentile at defending spot-ups, which is huge for Milwaukee, which gives up the most 3-point attempts per 100 possessions. You have to be great at closing out, and he is.

Giannis will give up the occasional shot while chasing those blocks inside, though. And he doesn’t always engage on screen plays like this:

If we’re going to ding James Harden for plays like this, we need to note the relative frequency with which plays like this happen to Giannis, too. If Antetokounmpo does over-extend, and it’s not a high-priority shooter, he won’t chase, especially given his rebounding assignments:

Antetokounmpo ranks in the 60th percentile or better defending spot-up shots, isolation possessions, stopping the roll man in pick-and-roll situations, and as the primary defender in pick and roll. There is one weak point in Antetokounmpo’s defensive profile, however, and it’s worth noting.

The Bucks drop Antetokounmpo in pick-and-roll coverage when he’s guarding the screener. The reality is that for all his lateral speed, he’s not going to be able to contain the best shooters.

The scheme works; Milwaukee is the best team in the league at defending points in the paint. But it does mean the Bucks give up a decent amount of off-dribble jumpers, and opponents have shot considerably well in those scenarios.

You go down the list of players who have taken these shots and you find Emmanuel Mudiay, Reggie Jackson, Tim Hardaway Jr., Jeff Green — players you would willingly surrender such shots to.

But they have shot 52% eFG on those attempts, putting Antetokounmpo in the 14th percentile on 106 possessions defended this year. It’s a small chunk, and often he’s not even the one actually guarding the shot, but it is notable that anecdotally, you can hit jumpers vs. Antetokounmpo off the dribble.

Overall, he’s just 39th percentile defending those, compared to his stellar 91st percentile mark at the rim.

Giannis is still the most complete defender in the league, and probably the most impactful; he combines 80% of Rudy Gobert’s rim protection with a better ability to contain on the perimeter, but he’s not perfect.

THE SYNTHESIS

The best argument for Antetokounmpo, besides his sheer dominance, comes with understanding how his overall contributions have driven the Bucks to the top of the NBA standings this season.

We’ve shown you how he bends the defense until it absolutely breaks, and how he simultaneously draws attention to get guys open 3s on the perimeter. We’ve shown you how he blocks shots but is also solid in individual coverage.

The key areas that make up the Bucks’ formula for success are all significantly better with Antetokounmpo on the floor.

They generate 3.6 more points per 100 possessions in fast-break situations with him on the floor. They surrender 4.1 fewer.

They generate 8.2 more points in the paint per 100 possessions with him on the floor vs. off, and give up 2.4 when they already lead the league in that category.

They generate 35 three-pointers per 100 possessions with him on the floor compared to 37 with him off, but so much of that differential is simply his hyper-efficient 2-point offense.

Do you see the pattern?

The things that make the Bucks truly elite this season all lead back to Antetokounmpo. It would be one thing if he had the production and the highlight reels but not the overall effect on the team. And it would be one thing if he was clearly the driving force reflected in the plus-minus but didn’t have the production.

Antetokounmpo is the synergy of both, fueling the Bucks, who in turn fuel him, who in turn fuels the Bucks.

It’s for this reason that the “he has a better team around him” argument fails. For one, I don’t believe a player should be rewarded for bad teammates, nor punished for good ones. One of the central demands of an MVP should be making his teammates better. A year ago, Eric Bledsoe was getting called Drew and the Bucks roster was thought to “not have enough help” for Giannis.

And sure, Mike Budenholzer and Brook Lopez have helped changed that as well. But Antetokounmpo was put into a position to succeed by his team and not only has he, but he has done so at the absolute highest level.

He is the most dominant player and both the engine and the fuel to the best overall team in the league. He contributes to wins on both sides of the ball combined more than any other player in the league.

He is a phenom.

He is an unstoppable force of nature.

That is why he is a worthy and deserving candidate for the 2019 NBA Most Valuable Player award.

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