Giannis Antetokounmpo and the case for MVP
He has the stats, but can the Bucks win enough games to keep him in the conversation?
Russell Westbrook had his MVP moment. With less than 10 seconds remaining in a late December game against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Oklahoma City Thunder guard and 2017 league MVP launched a contested 3-pointer from 30 feet to tie the game at 95 with just under five seconds left in regulation.
The home crowd went nuts. The Thunder bench leaped to its collective feet. Westbrook, a triple-double monster, had dropped his 40th point to go with 14 rebounds and 9 assists. With a shot like that, by that guy, at home and seemingly headed to overtime, no one in Chesapeake Energy Arena had any reason to believe the Thunder wouldn’t walk out victorious.
But then something, or someone, freaky happened.
On the next possession, with 4.7 seconds left, Bucks guard Khris Middleton inbounded the ball near midcourt to forward Giannis Antetokounmpo. The “Greek Freak,” as he’s affectionately known, squared up his defender, Josh Huestis, motioned the ball across his chest and knees as if drawing up the play in real time on the court, and headed toward the baseline. Taking just one dribble and three steps (as he’s known to do), Antetokounmpo tiptoed around Huestis and along the out-of-bounds line, levitated from just outside the restricted area and met Westbrook at the rim before dunking the ball with barely a second to spare.
Game over. MVP moment stolen.
Through the first half of the 2017-18 season, Antetokounmpo is well on his way to becoming one of the league’s brightest stars, if not one of its best. He’s averaging career highs in points (27.8, second in the NBA) and rebounds (10.4) while leading the Bucks in assists (4.8). His 1.3 blocks and 1.4 steals per game trail only center John Henson and guard Eric Bledsoe, respectively.
Alongside the league’s burst in popularity (NBA viewership on ESPN is up 24 percent from last season), Antetokounmpo is what Westbrook and his triple-doubles were last season, Golden State Warrior Stephen Curry and his stratosphere-stretching jump shot was between 2015 and 2016, and virtually anything Cleveland Cavalier LeBron James has been since 2003: nightly fodder among sports show hosts and viewers. Whether it’s his ostrichlike strides down the court to block an opponent’s shot or Euro-stepping — “gyro-stepping” — from what feels like half court to dunk on your favorite player, Antetokounmpo is a constant presence on SportsCenter’s Top 10 list or World Wide Wob’s Twitter feed, appointment viewing in a non-appointment viewing television landscape.
To start the season, Antetokounmpo at one point averaged an obscene 38 points while shooting 67 percent from the field, mostly from within the restricted area. His 208 points through the first six games of the season were both a franchise record and the eighth-highest point total in NBA history. It didn’t take long until he was the early favorite to win MVP.
The basketball world had started to take notice of Antetokounmpo well before his most recent jump in development — he was voted an All-Star starter and last year was named most improved player — but something has changed in the 23-year-old that has put him in the upper echelon of professional sports stardom.
He barely lost to James in All-Star fan voting in January (after initially nabbing the most votes), and took home the most player and media votes. Antetokounmpo’s No. 34 jersey is the fourth-highest seller in the league behind Curry, Kevin Durant and James, all former MVPs, despite the fact that he plays in the sunny, sprawling metropolis that is Milwaukee, the league’s fourth-smallest media market (unlike Curry and Durant in Oakland, California) and, unlike James, has not been one of the most famous players in the league for the past decade. That’s even more impressive with 80 percent of the country unable to spell or pronounce his first name (YAHN-iss) or last (ah-deh-toh-KOON-boh or ahn-teh-toe-KUHN-poe).
At the halfway point of the season, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks (32-25) sit in sixth place in the competitive-yet-crummy Eastern Conference, 2½ games behind third-place Cleveland but also only 2½ games ahead of eighth-place Miami. If Milwaukee is to make a serious run to the playoffs, it will take a Herculean — and, for this story’s purposes, an MVP — effort from its star player.
Is he up to the challenge?
The legend of Giannis Antetokounmpo has grown exponentially since he was selected 15th overall in the 2013 draft. Back then, he was an unknown teenager from Greece with a funny last name who was better known for his crash course in Americana than for what he was doing on the court (he averaged fewer than seven points a game his rookie year). Between glimpses of the player he would become, there were tweets about trying a smoothie for the first time: “GOD BLESS AMERICA.”
But over the past four seasons, he’s improved his game step by elongated step. Instead of a light switch being immediately turned on, it’s been more of dimmer, slowly getting brighter as time passes. He’s no longer the skinny, precocious first-year player who smiles all the time and gets lost in translation.
These days, he will dunk on you. Flex on you. Kobe Bryant mean-mug you, and practically dare you to do something about it. He will, in his own words, “f— you up” and let you know that this is his “f—ing s—.”
With his height (6 feet, 11 inches), length (7-foot-3 wingspan), speed and athleticism, his player comparisons know no bounds. He’s James, yet also Durant. He’s Shaquille O’Neal in the paint while at the same time Magic Johnson running point on offense.
“He’s an incredible talent like Magic,” Hall of Famer and former Bucks center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said during a recent Bucks game broadcast. “To be that tall and … be able to see the court the way he does and move the ball well and get the other guys involved in the offense, I think he does an incredible job.”
Johnson agrees, telling ESPN earlier this month that Antetokounmpo’s handles, passing ability and basketball IQ surpass even his from the Showtime Lakers days in the ’80s. The three-time MVP, who now serves as the Lakers’ president of basketball operations, was promptly fined $50,000 by the NBA for those remarks.
Antetokounmpo is becoming the biggest star this side of Abdul-Jabbar to don the deer logo on his chest. Before his first selection last season, the Bucks hadn’t sent a player to the All-Star Game in more than a decade (Michael Redd, 2004) and hadn’t had one voted in as a starter in three (Sidney Moncrief, 1986). In celebration of the franchise’s 50th anniversary in 2018, the header of the Bucks Twitter account features just two players: Abdul-Jabbar and Antetokounmpo.
“He’s taken another jump,” said former Bucks coach Jason Kidd, who was fired on Jan. 22. If Antetokounmpo can maintain what he’s done so far through the rest of the season, Kidd added, “then he’s arrived in the sense of being one of the best in the world.”
During Game 6 of the Bucks’ first-round series against the Toronto Raptors last season, the Bucks trailed by three points with just under 10 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Antetokounmpo had the ball at the top of the key with the much shorter Kyle Lowry guarding him. Lowry sagged off Antetokounmpo by about 5 feet, way too much room for the bigger forward to not just pull up to try to tie the game. But Antetokounmpo surprisingly elected to use the extra space to drive around Lowry, scoring an easy dunk to put the Bucks down by one with three seconds remaining. Time would run out, and the Bucks lost the game and the series.
It was a mistake, perhaps more a miscalculation, that young players are expected to make. But more than that, it was an example of the young Buck not yet believing in that killer instinct that supposedly lies deep inside all of the greats: not only that desire to want the ball with the game on the line but also the fearlessness to take whatever shot opens up.
If Antetokounmpo lacked that “clutch” gene before, he’s more comfortable as a scorer this year. The game, he’s said, is more slowed down than it was in the past; he’s now more patient predator than uncoordinated Bambi. So when the ball is in his possession at the end of close games, Antetokounmpo is zoned in on getting off a shot to win the game.
“I don’t know if it’s going to go in or if I’m going to miss, but I just got to get a shot off,” Antetokounmpo said after a January game against the Washington Wizards in which his midrange jumper with 40 seconds left sealed the victory. “It’s 50-50, I don’t know if it’s going to miss or go in. So, in those types of situations, I’m thinking get in the spot, get a shot you’ve been working on and just shoot with confidence.”
Antetokounmpo technically only has two game-winning shots this season (tied for the most in the NBA), defined as “go-ahead shots within the final five seconds” of a game. But that stat only tells about half of the story. Last-second heroics against the Thunder and New York Knicks (the second time he’s downed the Knicks in as many years) have received the most attention. But Antetokounmpo has been putting his team on his back all season.
There was the steal-and-slam that took down the Portland Trail Blazers in the team’s third game:
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) October 22, 2017
The rip of James that put the game out of reach for the Cavaliers in December:
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) December 20, 2017
And the game-sealer versus the Wizards in January (3:14 mark):
Giannis gets his 14th game with 30+pts this season in tonight's WIN:
34pts | 12rebs | 7asts | 2stls | 1blk pic.twitter.com/tBsZmIaVgQ
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) January 7, 2018
“Man, he’s been in that position quite a few times now, so he’s getting used to it. It’s going in now,” Bucks center Thon Maker said after the Wizards game. “It’s going to be his stroke, so he’s going to get used to it.”
Antetokounmpo still can’t technically shoot (his 32.5 shooting percentage outside the paint is the fourth-worst average in the league, per ESPN Stats & Information), but since January he hasn’t been afraid to chuck it up. Call it the Mamba Effect. Like future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant — who, before the season, told his young protégé to win the MVP this season — Antetokounmpo told reporters that, in reference to shooting more 3-pointers, he’s only concerned with getting buckets. “If I’m open, I’m going to shoot it. Hopefully I can make it, but I’m just going to play everything in the flow of the game.”
Neither Michael Jordan (32.7 percent) nor Bryant (32.9 percent) was known for their 3-point shooting in their careers, so Antetokounmpo doesn’t have to feel pressured into extending his shot selection. In his final, pushed-off-of-Bryon Russell championship season, Jordan shot a paltry 23.8 percent from downtown.
But if Antetokounmpo were to raise his 3-point rate to the respectable 33-34 percent range, defenders will have to guard him closer, giving Antetokounmpo even more space to fly past them as he drives to the basket. He leads the league in shot attempts within 5 feet of the basket while ranking second in drives per game for players 6-foot-10 or taller. And once he’s inside, he’s nearly unstoppable, converting 64.6 percent of shots within the paint (ranked sixth in the league), which translates to 16.4 points in the paint per game, the most since O’Neal during the 2004-05 season and the most by a non-center since 1996-97 (data courtesy of NBA Advanced Media and ESPN Stats & Information). His 120 dunks through the All-Star break are the most of a non-center, giants who typically camp out in the paint most of the game.
Still, there are reasons that Antetokounmpo is a long shot to win MVP. No matter how many game-winners he converts or rim-rattling dunks he crashes down, the Bucks are still seven games out of one of the top playoff spots in the East. As The Washington Post‘s Neil Greenberg pointed out last month, there have been only two players since 1985 (Jordan, Westbrook) to win MVP while on a team without one of the best two records in a conference.
Then there’s his “James” problem. Houston Rockets guard James Harden is the front-runner at the moment, and LeBron James is always in the conversation. Harden, the leading scorer among all players, recorded the first 60-point triple-double in NBA history for the team with the best record in the league last month, while James is putting up the best stat line of his career in season 15 (not to mention the game-winner against the Minnesota Timberwolves in early February to remind everyone who is still king).
But Antetokounmpo’s fortunes can change quickly if the Bucks, like Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis famously said, “just win, baby.” After a dismal 23-22 start to the season, which led to Kidd’s firing in January, Milwaukee has won nine out of its last 12 games at the break under interim coach Joe Prunty.
The rest of the Bucks know they have to do their part to keep Antetokounmpo in the MVP discussion.
“You know the MVP, they really look at the teams winning,” said forward D.J. Wilson, Antetokounmpo’s unofficial hype man, the Danny Ray to his James Brown. “And I don’t know who has what position in the playoffs, but I think if we just continue to win, then he’ll put himself in a great position.”
Maker added: “He’s always going to be in the conversation because of the numbers he puts up and being able to play on both ends of the floor and playing as hard as he does every single night; he should always be in the conversation. … I can’t call it, but the way we’re playing right now, if it plays out like that every single night, and our wins are coming up, it should be an easy decision to make.”
Antetokounmpo has to get the Bucks back to the playoffs (they haven’t gone in consecutive seasons since 2003 and 2004) and out of the first round (they haven’t advanced to the second round since 2001) to even have a shot (NBA award voting ends at the regular season, but still). Being the most valuable player in the league comes second to Milwaukee’s overall success.
“I’m just trying to help my team win, and we got a long way to the end of the season,” Antetokounmpo said. “So far I think I have been doing that, but I have a long way to go.
“My goal is to be the MVP of this team first.”