Giannis Making His Case for MVP
Courtesy of Jeff Hanisch of USA Today Sports
It’s been a long time since Milwaukee Bucks fans have seen a basketball player on their team play better than anyone else in the NBA -- over forty-four years in fact. It last happened when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won the NBA’s most valuable player award in 1974.
After being delighted over the summer by MVP-caliber baseball from Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich, Milwaukee has been treated to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s unique excellence on the court, as he has squarely put himself into the NBA’s MVP conversation as we approach the midpoint of the season.
As the 15th selection in the 2013 NBA Draft, Giannis came into the league as a skinny but athletic teenager from Greece, without many expectations. The draft videos you could find online impressed, but the quality of competition was a huge question. In a weak draft, where Anthony Bennett was the first overall pick, Milwaukee could gamble that this unique freak of an athlete could develop his basketball skills enough to eventually become a franchise player.
The potential was realized early on. Although he played somewhat sparingly, early on, plays like this showed he would undoubtedly have a place in this league,
and he surprised some by starting almost a quarter of Bucks games his rookie year. By the 2015-16 season, Giannis was a regular starter for the Bucks and a season later, he would become the first All-Star the franchise had seen since Michael Redd in 2004.
Last season, Giannis earned his second consecutive All-Star Game start, while also leading the Bucks into the playoffs against the Boston Celtics, where they would push the two-seed in the East to a winner-take-all Game 7. If he hadn’t already, the Greek Freak officially became a mainstay in the national spotlight.
This season, Giannis has lived up to the hype and then some. Despite averaging the fewest minutes per game since his second season, and a full three fewer minutes than last year, he is still averaging over 26 points per game, and is just fractions of a point from a new career high.
This is especially impressive since the one hole in his game continues to be his three point shot. Though he climbed up over 30% last year for the first time since his rookie season, he has been atrocious from downtown in a league where the three-ball is how most players make their offensive living. He is so dominant close to the rim, though, that it doesn’t matter -- it’s easy to average nearly 30 points per game when you have the ability to make plays like this:
As those who have watched any Bucks game know, Giannis is more to this team than just a scorer. He also leads the Bucks in assists, averaging 6.1 per game, and is also averaging a career high 12.6 rebounds. The ability to move and pass like a point guard, while simultaneously dominating in the paint like a center is part of the remarkable talent that creates problems for the rest of the league.
What really cements his MVP case is how noticeably impressive Giannis is on the court, and how clear it is even to a lay fan how many plays he makes that positively affect the game for the Bucks.
Yes, there are flashy plays and big dunks, but it’s the hustle block, the game-changing steal, or the game-clinching rebound that sets Giannis apart, showing his exceptional ability in every aspect of the game. It can only help his case that the Bucks have more nationally-televised games this year than in any other season over the last decade.
The likes of James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James always loom as perennial threats to take home the MVP award. With his recent scoring tear, Harden may be the biggest threat to Giannis in the race at this point of the season. But there are a few things working in Giannis’s favor. First, Harden won the award last year. While plenty of players have won multiple MVP awards and some have gone back-to-back, the sense is that the voters like to give the award to a new and emerging player.
This is certainly true in the instance of LeBron, who probably could have won the award each of the last ten years. While he has won four of them in that span, he has not won one since 2013, as the NBA has instead awarded emerging candidates in Durant, Westbrook, Harden, and Steph Curry.
The second piece working in the favor of Giannis is that he plays in the Eastern Conference. While this could be perceived as a negative due to the East being the weaker conference, Giannis has established himself as the best player in the East on what is currently the best team in the East. Such a narrative could help Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors, and perhaps even Joel Embiid and the 76ers, but that would require their teams to surpass Milwaukee: both teams look up the East standings at the Bucks.
Right or wrong, Giannis seems like the only serious MVP candidate out of those three at this point, and while all the other contenders in the West beat up on each other, Giannis will be able to continue to rack up wins and dominate in the weaker East.
Heading into 2019, the Milwaukee Bucks own the NBA’s best record. While the team is much deeper than any in recent memory, it is the All-Star from Greece that has put the Bucks in this position two-and-a-half months into the season. If the new year is anything like 2018, it is very likely Milwaukee will celebrate another MVP in their city come June.