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Effectively following an entire NBA season is an exercise in managing perspective.
So much time is spent immersed in the hypothetical: the next free-agency coup, possible superstar trades, the rush to coronate one contender and unseat another. Moments go underappreciated or get lost entirely amid this carousel of cause and effect. Appreciating and reflecting on the now is difficult when there’s always a bigger picture.
Giannis Antetounmpo is among the few stars who merge both schools of coverage.
What he’s doing now is never ignored because he’s made it impossible to do so. Every season of his career is a march of progress. He’s a viable franchise cornerstone, then a star, then a megastar, then an MVP, then an MVP favorite. And his (literal) giant strides act in service of the longer view, a leaguewide takeover that has fueled obsession over his future and, more importantly, solidified his trajectory as one of the all-time greats.
His latest feat juggles this dual emphasis once more. He is the NBA’s 2019-20 Defensive Player of the Year, an accolade that puts him in rarefied air when combined with last year’s MVP award:
Antetokounmpo will join an even more exclusive club if, as expected, he’s again named the Association’s Most Valuable Player. Only two others have won both DPOY and MVP honors in the same season: Michael Jordan (1987-88) and Hakeem Olajuwon (1993-94).
What appears inevitable is almost overwhelming. Attempting to figure out where Antetokounmpo might finish his career on the all-time ladder is now almost devoid of hyperbole.
Nearly no outcome feels too ambitious.
Yet the macro does not overpower the micro. Antetokounmpo is 25. Twenty. Freaking. Five. And he’s about to become the Defensive Player of the Year and league MVP—the utmost, verging on inarguable, boon in the best-player-alive discussion.
And what’s more, Antetokounmpo is not here on the back of convenience. Voter fatigue has not opened a finite window of opportunity. He will now be the one at risk of voter fatigue in the MVP discussion, and his DPOY victory has not come amid an enfeebled field.
The latter will receive the most pushback. Surely two-time defending DPOY Rudy Gobert suffered from voter fatigue. But that alone doesn’t explain Antetokounmpo’s claim to the award. Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard and Ben Simmons all had their own arguments.
Boiling Antetokounmpo’s DPOY selection down to anything less than deserved is the real farce. The No. 1 spot might technically be interchangeable among three or four players, but splitting hairs isn’t in any way a demerit. It is part of the process. Whether your choice was Davis or Gobert or Simmons or Kawhi, Antetokounmpo has, at the bare minimum, a valid case over them.
Using the Milwaukee Bucks’ on-off splits to downplay his candidacy is disingenuous. Who cares that they placed in the 56th percentile of points allowed per 100 possessions when he was off the court and were much better than that for most of the year? They ranked inside the 99th percentile with him in the lineup.
Improving a good-to-great defense is much harder than boosting an average or bad one. And in Antetokounmpo’s case, he didn’t just nudge the Bucks in the right direction. He buoyed them. Milwaukee allowed 11.1 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor—close to the biggest defensive rating swing in the league and measurably larger than any of the main alternatives.
The more granular numbers offer equal support.
His most frequent defensive matchups ranged from bigs to wings. He didn’t spend much time covering the opposing team’s No. 1 option—nearly 75 percent of his possessions came versus the No. 3 option, per BBall Index’s Krishna Narsu—but he parlayed that freedom into ubiquity. He was, frankly, everywhere: around the rim, chasing down opponents in transition, policing passing lanes, breaking down plays from behind, forcing turnovers as the helper.
Rival offenses shot appreciably worse with Antetokounmpo on the floor. They were 6.2 percentage points below their season average at the rim (93rd percentile) and 1.8 percent worse from beyond the arc (74th percentile). Antetokounmpo probably would’ve spearheaded a more pronounced dropoff from deep if the Bucks upped their commitment to contesting threes.
Lineups with Antetokounmpo as the de facto big were more effective than ever. Milwaukee let up just 99.5 points per 100 possessions during his time at center (99th percentile), and Antetokounmpo, for his part, registered as a legitimate deterrent around the rim. Just 32.5 percent of opponent shots came at the basket when he played center, a share noticeably lower than the league average (32.5 percent) and not far away from the Bucks’ league-best allowance (29.1 percent).
Those who dared challenge him at the rim didn’t fare well. Players shot 41.7 percent against him at the hoop—the absolute stingiest mark among 130 players who contested at least three point-blank looks per game. And if you’re concerned about volume, he challenged about the same number of such attempts as Thaddeus Young.
Antetokounmpo-at-center lineups best represent the range of his impact. Those arrangements have become more of a staple, place in the 100th percentile of points allowed per 100 possessions and rank in the 79th percentile of opponent shot frequency at the rim. Antetokounmpo isn’t just a viable paint protector these days. He’s an actual deterrent.
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
Catch-all metrics paint the same dominant picture. Antetokounmpo is first in NBA Shot Charts’ DRAPM (even when adjusting for luck) and first in NBA Math’s defensive points saved. ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus didn’t view him as favorably (ninth), but he still placed higher than any direct DPOY competition other than Gobert (first).
More than anything, though, getting caught up in whether someone else could’ve edged out Antetokounmpo misses part of the point. This is all absolutely about the culmination of one season, but it’s also about his body of work in its entirety.
His dominance isn’t just enduring. It’s comprehensive. He’s averaging 26.5 points, 11.1 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.5 blocks over the past four seasons while downing 59.4 percent of his two-pointers. Historical comparisons for his performance essentially don’t exist; he’s invented a new form and degree of box-score stuffing.
But perhaps the truest mark of his greatness, aside from the open fawning over his potential 2021 free agency, is the emphasis on its faults.
His absence of a dependable outside shot remains a thing, a shortcoming used to both prop up and puncture. Social-media accounts still go wild when he drains a three because nailing triples at an efficient clip would give him an irreversible hold on the league. On some level, his relatively limited range makes the Bucks kinda-sorta solvable in a postseason series.
Whether Antetokounmpo needs to beef up his outside shooting isn’t a matter of course. He has settled it. He’s increased his three-point volume and baked in more turnaround and fadeaway jumpers should his dribble stall out before reaching the rim. Both put some semblance of pressure on defenses and ensure his success is not situation-based. Exchange him for Simmons and the Bucks are absolutely worse.
On a more explicit level, Antetokounmpo has already won MVPs. Plural. Probably. And he’s not rendered futile in the playoffs once defenses tighten up.
The imperfections—imperfection?—in his game are neither voids nor actual holes. They’re more like cracks or wrinkles, not inconsequential but hardly prohibitive. One or two teams are built to truly limit him. None will entirely.
Winning a title, while no small ask, is all that’s really left to cap off Antetokounmpo’s resume. Counting rings is an oversimplification of all-time discussions, but that hardware also matters. Championships are jet fuel for cross-era comparisons and rankings.
Maybe that title will come this season. It doesn’t need to. The Bucks falling in the NBA Finals or before they emerge from the Eastern Conference changes nothing about where Antetokounmpo currently stands and the bandwidth he still has to climb.
Because, inarguably, he has already crystallized his course as one of the NBA’s best of all time—without a title, without a consistent three-point shot and, most terrifyingly, without necessarily reaching the peak of his powers.