It’s only November and false NBA narratives are abounding, but one proposition has already become irrefutable; barring calamity, Giannis Antetokounmpo is on a crash course to win back-to-back MVPs.
Whilst Luka Doncic, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam etc. etc. have been early-season darlings of those partial to a sizzling hot-take, James Harden – currently in the stunning region of averaging nearly 40 points per game – and Antetokounmpo – who is on pace to post the highest PER in the HISTORY of the NBA – are the clear frontrunners.
It’s hard to believe that the Greek Freak could have improved on his historic 2018-10 campaign, and yet here we are. 14 games in to their 2019-20 campaign the Bucks are 11-3 and their transcendent star has tweaked an individual game-style which was already nigh-on unstoppable to make it nigh-on unprecedented.
Last season Antetokounmpo became just the second player in NBA history to average more than 27 PPG, 12 RPG, 5 APG and 1.4 BPG, led the league in PER and was second in VORP, Box Plus/Minus and Defensive Rating. His 30.89 PER over the course of the season was good for 12th all-time, behind only Wilt Chamberlain (three separate seasons) Michael Jordan (four separate seasons), LeBron James (three separate seasons) and Stephen Curry (2015-16).
He led the Bucks in every major statistical category and carried them to a 60-win regular season record (best in the East) despite not having anything close to what could be considered a second star (sorry, Khris Middleton) to help him. He did all of that while playing less than 33 minutes per game.
This year, stunningly, he’s been even better.
While playing exactly the same minutes (32.8 per game), Antetokounmpo is currently averaging career highs in points (30.5 – a 2.8 PPG improvement on last year), assists (6.0 – a 0.1 APG improvement on last year) and rebounds (13.8 – a 1.3 RPG improvement on last year).
The obvious qualifiers to those stats – which Harden-apologists like to spout – are that second-fiddle Middleton has missed the last four games, the team no longer has Malcolm Brogdon to carry the scoring load and Eric Bledsoe looks like a shell of his former self. But that only goes part of the way to explaining what’s happening in Milwaukee.
The answer is actually kind of simple; Giannis Antetokounmpo has worked on his game, and is an even more well-rounded basketball player than he was just five months ago. While the improvement has come almost across the board, nowhere is it more obvious than in his shooting numbers.
The Greek Freak is shooting a ridiculous 37.2% on threes taken off the dribble. Per NBA.com’s Advanced Stats, he’s taking more than two additional threes off the bounce per game than in any other season of his career, and has clearly made the decision to take fewer spot up threes than he ever has.
Per Basketball Reference, he’s shooting a career-best 50% from the mid-range (16 feet to the three-point line), which is remarkable given his career average from that distance is a dismal 35.6%. Granted, the sample size – he’s only taking one per game from that range – is small, but it’s also worth noting that his shooting percentage from 10 to 16 feet is at a career-best 46.2% (last year 38.1%).
While Antetokounmpo’s three-point shooting percentage of 30.6% isn’t quite a career-high (he shot 30.7% in 2017-18), he’s shooting a career-high volume from beyond the arc, with nearly 24% of his 20.6 shots per game coming from long range.
Nearly 5 three-point attempts per game is a significant step up for a guy who’s never taken more than 203 in a season, and speaks persuasively to a new-found confidence – or at least a new-found intent to show confidence – in his jump shot.
At this rate, Antetokounmpo (assuming he plays the equivalent of last year’s 72-games) is on track to hit more than 100 threes this season. His previous best is 52 (last year). He’s likely to hit that mark before the All-Star game.
It’s not just his outside shooting which has improved either; Antetokounmpo has somehow managed to improve on an inside game which may already have been one of the best we’ve seen in league history.
He’s currently shooting a mind-blowing 85% on shots taken at the rim, which is a problem for opposing defenses given he takes nearly nine of those shots per game. That’s an average of more than 15 points per game at the rim alone, for those playing at home.
Antetokounmpo also draws 11.7 fouls per 100 possessions and and 6.87 shooting fouls per 100. He led the league in all three of those categories last season, and has improved on all three this season.
His current 2019-20 PER of 33.08 would be the best in NBA/ABA history by a staggering margin (Wilt’s 1962-63 mark of 31.82 is the benchmark; Luka Doncic’s feats have him sitting second with a current PER of 32.24).
Antetokounmpo’s current Win Shares Per 48 Minutes is currently sitting at 0.303 – a mark which would leave him with the 11th-best season of all time based on that metric.
If you haven’t got the picture by now, it’s possible you never will.
Somehow, a guy who put together one of the greatest seasons in league history last year seems poised to out-do himself in almost every major statistical category on both ends of the floor.
While Harden’s scoring is outrageous, and Doncic’s playmaking ability as a 20-year-old is astounding, if Antetkounmpo maintains this level of dominance, the MVP race is already won.