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Why Giannis' past shouldn’t be a factor in present MVP candidacy

When Giannis Antetokounmpo won a second consecutive MVP award last season, he became only the 12th player in league history to achieve such a feat. The company he joined consists of some of the greatest players to have graced an NBA court.

Of those 12 players, only 3 have won the award 3 times in a row: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Larry Bird. No one since has come close to replicating such a feat, but Giannis has the opportunity to join those esteemed gentlemen in their hyper-exclusive club.

Realistically speaking, however, does Giannis have a good chance of winning the MVP this season?

Without a monstrous statistical run to close the second half of the season, it’s looking like he will fall just short of doing so. 

There are a couple of hurdles for Giannis to climb; the first and most glaring one is perhaps the most difficult to overcome: voter fatigue. In today’s current NBA climate of “What have you done for me lately?”, the fact that Giannis has had little NBA playoff success to show for his two MVP trophies will weigh heavily against him during deliberations.

But that is the unique dichotomy that goes into the voting process. An award that, in theory, should be based off of current regular season performance is, in practice, very much a “legacy” award in some aspects, especially if voters put a lot of stock into narratives over empirical and statistical evidence. 

As it currently stands, Giannis’ perceived legacy is that of a player who largely excels in the regular season but falls short of expectations when the all-important postseason – the only part of the season that matters to most people – comes around.

The second hurdle is the fact that the current crowd of MVP candidates is quite packed. The path to a third consecutive MVP trophy is very much a line, and Giannis arguably isn’t at or near the head of it. 

The list of prospective MVPs is headlined by beasts of the game: Joel Embiid has been a two-way force for the Philadelphia 76ers; Nikola Jokić is having a career year while keeping the Denver Nuggets afloat near the top of the Western Conference; LeBron James, at 36-years old, is showing no signs of slowing down; Damian Lillard has been the preeminent clutch superstar in the league, resulting in the Portland Trail Blazers overachieving above expectations.

Situated right behind them in the eyes of most people (for some, behind Brooklyn’s James Harden, who has been phenomenal) is Giannis. To them, it doesn’t matter that Giannis is putting up MVP-worthy numbers – he’s currently averaging 28.3 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 6.3 assists. The number that stands out the most for them is zero – zero NBA Finals appearances despite the Milwaukee Bucks garnering the best record in the league during the last two seasons.

But strip away the past and how that could affect the future. Strip away any preconceived notions about how Giannis is a limited performer when push comes to shove, and focus your lens toward what is happening during this season. Look not only at his raw numbers, but the impact he generates on both ends of the floor.

Only by stripping away the unnecessary fluff will you come to a certain realization: Giannis should very much be in the MVP conversation, and has an argument for winning it over everyone else.

Offensive impact

There was once a time when Giannis was deemed impossible to stop. His rise to superstardom was filled with highlight dunks, multiple defenders’ futile efforts to swarm him under the rim, and long strides in transition that allowed him to cover a superhuman amount of ground. It used to not matter that he was a below-average jump shooter – his inevitable nature at the rim more than made up for that glaring hole in his game.

Among 37 players who have taken at least 200 shots within the restricted area this season, no one has converted shots at a better rate than Giannis (78.8%), per NBA.com. Once he gets a full head of steam, there is no stopping him from using his unique combination of speed, power, and length over anyone who tries to stop him in single coverage.

That is, unless the defense is smart enough to know not to throw single coverage at Giannis. The Toronto Raptors were smart enough to figure that out and were hailed as the innovators of “The Giannis Rules.” 

The rules were simple enough to understand. Giannis is unstoppable with momentum, and the Raptors – adopting a prevention-is-better-than-the-cure mindset – sought a way to stop him from building such momentum toward an uncontrollable point.

They built walls made out of human bodies, aiming to cut off driving lanes from every direction, whether it be to the left, right, or straight ahead. It was a novel approach to what most teams do to take away an opposing superstar’s strengths. They were perfectly fine with anyone else taking the shots and creating their own offense, as long as the head of the snake remained blind and immobilized. 

The Raptors struck gold and defeated the Bucks in 6 games in the Eastern Conference Finals; the Miami Heat adopted the strategy the following year to send the Bucks home in the second round of the playoffs.

Once the Raptors and Heat shattered Giannis’ aura of invincibility, there was a need for the Bucks to make slight adjustments to their offense. 

Head coach Mike Budenholzer – a staunch proponent of a 5-out spread offense to take advantage of spacing around Giannis – started going to more 4-out-1-in configurations this season, with 4 players spacing out and 1 player situated at or near the dunker spot.

This addressed the problem of Giannis running into walls and being stopped by multiple players packing the paint. The addition of an offensive player roaming nearby, ready to act as a release valve should someone come over to double Giannis near the rim, makes a world of difference.

Peep at Khris Middleton in the clip above. When the ball finds its way to Giannis on the left block, Middleton clears to the weak side, but doesn’t go all the way to the corner. Instead, he stations himself at the dunker spot. When Danny Green veers toward help position, Giannis fades away and dumps the ball to Middleton for the easy layup.

The Bucks have made more use of “inverted” pick-and-rolls in order to release Giannis on downhill drives. Coupled with the presence of a player in the dunker spot, this has given him more space to operate with, as opposed to walls being formed and the risk of garnering an offensive foul or a missed point-blank shot.

Watch Donte DiVincenzo set a screen for Giannis – hence the “inverted” nature of a guard setting the screen for a bigger man – providing Giannis with space to turn the corner. With Brook Lopez’s presence at the dunker spot and two players spaced out on each corner, Giannis makes the easy drop pass to Lopez for the dunk.

On some possessions, Giannis himself is the beneficiary of the 4-out-1-in formation, especially with him as the 5 in compact lineups:

Pat Connaughton takes his man off the dribble in the possession above, with Giannis lurking at the weak-side dunker spot. He sneaks behind Ivica Zubac, whose attention is on Connaughton in the paint, and receives the pass for the easy bucket.

Nothing has changed in terms of Giannis’ importance to the Bucks offense. With him on the floor, the Bucks offense improves by 3.8 points per 100 possession, second only to DiVincenzo on the team, per Cleaning the Glass. The Bucks shoot better with Giannis on the floor – their effective FG% goes up by 3.0%, which leads the team, per Cleaning the Glass.

What’s changed is how the Bucks have made use of Giannis’ gifts – and his limitations – to craft an offense that could better withstand the rigor and grind of a playoff series. 

Defensive impact

Giannis’ impact on the defensive end doesn’t need any sort of long-winded introduction. He is, after all, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, the face of a Bucks defense that was the league’s stingiest during the 2018-2019 season (defensive rating of 104.9) and the 2019-2020 season (defensive rating of 102.5).

They have fallen off a bit so far this season. They currently have a defensive rating of 109.7 points allowed per 100 possessions, 8th in the league, despite having pretty much the same core personnel from previous seasons (Antetokounmpo, Lopez, and Middleton) and replacing one for an equally capable defender, if not more (Eric Bledsoe being traded to the Pelicans for Jrue Holiday).

Part of that may be due to the Bucks’ willingness to take more risks and experiment with their defensive schemes, a new development out of Budenholzer, who is known for stubbornly sticking to his guns. 

Previously, the Bucks’ philosophy involved protecting the paint in lieu of tight perimeter defense. They led the league in opponent rim FG% as a result during the past two seasons: opponents shot just 57.5% at the rim in 2018-2019, and 55.1% in 2019-2020, per Cleaning the Glass.

The consequence of such a scheme, however, is that the Bucks gave up the most three-point shot attempts per game to opponents in 2018-2019, and gave up the third-most attempts in 2019-2020. It came back to bite them against the Heat in the playoffs, where hot three-point shooting from the likes of Jae Crowder and Duncan Robinson made the Bucks pay for their negligence of the three-point line.

This forced Budenholzer’s hand, to the surprise of many. He has been looking at different schemes to supplement his preferred deep drop that he favors when defending the pick-and-roll. One of those adjustments has been the usage of Giannis as an active on-ball defender rather than as a roamer and help defender.

Giannis certainly has the gifts to be a capable lockdown artist, and to be fair to him, he has proven in flashes that he can smother shiftier guards and wings further away from the paint. All he needs are enough on-ball reps, which Budenholzer has given him this season.

In previous years, the possession above would’ve likely been defended with Giannis dropping toward the paint, but with Budenholzer being more willing to switch screening actions, Giannis switches onto Lonnie Walker and uses his length to contest and force the miss.

Giannis has also been given more leeway to pick up the other team’s best player, something that wasn’t as frequent during the past two years. Here he is picking up Kawhi Leonard during a screen-and-roll possession:

The scheme in the possession above called for Giannis to go over the screen, rather than under, against Leonard, who is shooting 38.5% on threes this season. After Giannis goes over the screen, he trails close by and makes Leonard constantly aware of his presence, wary of his shot being blocked from behind. Leonard goes up for the shot anyway, but he runs straight into Lopez while Giannis contests – a defensive sandwich that nullifies the shot.

The Bucks allow opponents to score 8.2 points per 100 possessions fewer with Giannis on the floor, a team best, per Cleaning the Glass. Across the board, their metrics are much better – they grab more rebounds and force more misses – with Giannis anchoring the defense, in congruence with his standing as one of the league’s best defenders.

But much like on offense, it’s not so much the results but rather the process that must be taken into account. The Bucks needed to adjust, to try new things on defense, lest they experience another precipitous exit from the playoffs. They are in the process of doing so, a recalibration on a scale not seen before during the Budenholzer era.

Giannis is at the center of such efforts, and the fruits are showing. Over the past 15 games, the Bucks are 11-4 and are currently 3rd in the Eastern Conference, with only 2.5 games separating them from the top seed. Over that span, Giannis has been averaging 27.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 6.9 assists, on shooting splits of 55.7/37.8/75.5 and 63.7% true shooting.

Combining Giannis’ impact on both offense and defense, the Bucks have been outscoring opponents by 12 points per 100 possessions during his minutes. Such impact belongs up there among the best of the best – Embiid, Jokić, James, Lillard, etc. – which should serve to bolster Giannis’ chances of winning his third straight MVP.

The unlikelihood of him winning still stands – such is the reality of today’s current MVP voting process. It’s perfectly valid to say that any of those other candidates deserve the award over Giannis based on team performance and statistics.

But let’s face it: Most voters won’t even look beyond the counting stats, should they decide to look at all. They will look for the one elephant in the room that shouldn’t even have a place in MVP deliberations: Giannis’ playoff success, or lack thereof. 

If that should factor in heavily in their decision instead of Giannis’ undeniable two-way impact, then it would be a monumental shame. – Rappler.com