Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging 28 points per game this season, the second-best score of his career, as well as 11 rebounds, six career passes, blocks and steals, while announcing his second best effective goal percentage on the field ever.
The numbers are only valuable to the MVP and suggest that he is the first three nominees for the award, according to the Basketball Reference. But you can pretty much guarantee he won’t win it.
You see, ‘Greek freak’ is old news. He is a 26-year-old who has already been. We’ve seen it all from him before. In particular, we’ve seen him publish similar numbers in previous seasons, when he won back-to-back MVP trophies – last and previous seasons. It’s over.
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The problem with Antetokounmpo is that the MVP award – no matter how old, grumpy basketball heads will claim that advanced analytics takes over the game – is driven by narrative. Yes, there are several statistical categories that players are usually in the first place when they win a trophy, but that is not science.
2 + 2 = 4 doesn’t happen here. And that’s why it’s so much fun to discuss every season. There are no formulas, checkboxes or numbers that can be reached automatically. They help, but that’s not all. It comes down to something more intuitive. Bowel sensation.
And Antetokounmpo knows that. In 2018-19. His points, rebounds and assists have increased over the years. His players worth more than a replacement took a step forward, his Box Plus Minus made a huge leap and his Win shares went into space.
But the story of that season was how LeBron James left the Eastern Conference to join the LA Lakers and suffered his first major injury of his career.
The Borg drawn up in Golden State meant Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant canceled each other out. Kawhi Leonard joined the Toronto Raptors and would eventually take them to the championship, but he missed too many games during the regular season.
The Denver Nuggets surprised a lot of teams to finish second in the West. Paul George had the best season of his career and maybe he could have gotten it if he hadn’t suffered a few injuries towards the end of the season. Which left James Harden of the Houston Rockets and Antetokounmpo.
The difference was that Antetokounmpo catapulted his team to the best record in the league, while Harden only managed to bring his team to fourth place in the albeit strong Western conference. ‘Beard’ has also already won the trophy and threatened to win it for several seasons, but he has consistently failed to do anything on the biggest stage. People got tired of watching him post incredible numbers in the regular season while the Rockets couldn’t make it to the finals.
Antetokounmpo’s overall improvement that season coincided with the growth of the Milwaukee Bucks, thanks in part to the arrival of coach Mike Budenholzer.
After showing 60 wins to the Atlanta Hawks a few years earlier, mostly starless, Budenholzer had a chance to show what he can do with the right number one option, and the effect was instantaneous – take a team that finished 44-38, led by Jason Kidd and Joe Prunty a year earlier, at 60-22.
Budenholzer’s system of creating space and putting the ball in Antetokounmpo’s hands meant that the attacker could dominate. His size of 6 feet 11 inches meant he would have to be guarded by the top opposition player during most games, but his long, fast first step helped him get to the edge where there was usually a wide open lane thanks to good teammates who had to defend on rim.
Antetokounmpo forced the attack to attack, but in the playoffs it was realized by good defensive teams. With the league’s best perimeter defender, Kawhi Leonard, as well as another long-time defender, Pascal Siakam, and one of the league’s smartest greats in 15 years, Marco Gasol – not to mention one of Nick Nurse’s most creative defensive coaches in recent history – Toronto The Raptors built a wall for the Bucks ’best option and blunted the team’s momentum.
The second year in this system helped to know the team and saw Antetokounmpo set even better numbers. From 73.2 percent of their games, they won to 76.7, but once again Milwaukee came across a defensive saw and a team with momentum, the Miami Heat. Bam Adebay’s athleticism and length, as well as Jimmy Butler’s persistence, caused the Bucks all sorts of problems.
In the first round of the playoffs against the Orlando Magic, Antetkounmpo averaged 30 points, 16 rebounds and six assists in five games, but against the Heat, in a series he had to leave early due to injury, he had 26, 13 and five for four.
These are still great numbers – an MVP worth in the regular season – but a slight victory for the Heat series showed how the narrative is changing for Antetokounmpo.
The book of stories is coming to an end
Even if Antetokounmpo’s numbers have improved this year as well, it will still be hard for him to win a third consecutive MVP trophy. No one has done that since Larry Bird, and two of that season his Boston Celtics have won championships.
Yes, the MVP is a regular season award, so the playoffs should not be considered, but the media – who vote for the award – are excluded unless the player shows continuous improvement. It’s not purely a numbers game. That is not science.
The way to get back into the MVP conversation is to improve your team’s success to the next level, and the irony is that this year’s Bucks are probably better placed for a deeper run in the playoffs.
Budenholzer is working on new defense schemes, introducing switching and different rotation plans compared to what the team has typically used in previous seasons. They also made a big upgrade in the ball handling department – brought in Jrue Holiday for Eric Bledsoe – and while it took a while to speed up with new teammates and a new system, things look good.
The percentage of Bucks wins this season is lower than the previous two, but they have won four of their six. That includes a win over the Philadelphia 76ers earlier this week, who played without Ben Simmons. He will meet again Saturday at Sky Sports at 8:30 p.m., when Simmons is likely to return, and playing against one of the league’s best defensive teams when they are fully will be a good test for Milwaukee.
As a focal point for the two defensive player of the year candidates in Simmons and Joel Embiid, not to mention good defensive support, including Danny Green, George Hill, Dwight Howard, and even the good Tobias Harris, it is in these great games that Antetokounmpo must show that he turned the page.