They talk about the dog days of summer in baseball, but what Bucks fans are experiencing right now is much worse. Everybody is way more concerned with the end result of Milwaukee's 13 remaining games than the games themselves. We're on edge in crunch time of every close games, but possibly for the wrong--or at the very least, confusing--reasons.
In the grand scheme of things, lineup questions at this stage of the season are almost silly. We know the Bucks are one of the two worst teams in the NBA, and the only remaining question is whether they're bad enough to hold off the Philadelphia 76ers for top odds in the draft lottery. So while it's not particularly pleasing to see Ersan Ilyasova and Zaza Pachulia in the starting lineup game after game, it's probably not making much of a difference either.
Still, there are young guys on the roster that deserve attention, either because they actually have a long-term future with the team, or because it's in the organization's best interest to figure out just what they're capable of. Giannis Antetokounmpo might fit into both categories, and many fans are begging to see more of the electrifying rookie as the season winds down. He's averaging a bit under 25 minutes per game since the break, so it's not like he's disappeared from the rotation, but his role off the bench and generally disappointing statlines have made him easier to overlook in recent weeks. Would the Bucks be better served by boosting Giannis' minutes per game above 30, or even higher? Would Giannis be well served by such a "trial by fire" approach? It's a question of marginal benefit at this point, even if Nate Wolters' broken hand means he could find himself back in the starting lineup by default. Problem is, I'm not sure those small gains are worth the potential cost.
In trying to determine how to handle the final few weeks of Giannis' rookie season, consider what reasonable expectations might be. Is Giannis suddenly going to break out if his playing time ticks up a few minutes per game? That would seem to suggest his current "slump" is due to a lack of rhythm or defined role, which feels unlikely. He might see a rise in counting stats purely due to the increased time, but what does that really tell us?
That's the key point, I think. Are we likely to learn anything new about Giannis if the Bucks force-feed him the ball 20+ times every night the rest of the way? I imagine we'd see a lot of missed jumpers, a fair number of turnovers, some nice drive-and-dish plays, and a few highlights. Essentially everything we've seen all season, just more of it. Maintaining efficiency while boosting usage is a key element to becoming a star in the NBA, but honestly, we need to see a lot of improvement from Giannis before we worry about increasing his role. He played pretty well against Golden State last night, but I don't think anybody really came away saying "Here we go, now he'll really take off!" We're no longer surprised when Giannis makes an impressive play, or flashes his upside. We're now seeing the diminishing returns of a promising but uneven rookie campaign. There's a ton to be excited about, to be sure, but it's pretty clear he's approaching his first-year ceiling.
Generally, there's been a strong feeling on our boards that Giannis is simply exhausted, which is totally understandable. He's never played this much high-intensity basketball in the span of a few months before. If the Bucks suddenly dump a whole lot more on his plate, what are they risking? I think the concerns over his mental well-being have mostly been put to bed--keeping a positive attitude has never seemed to be a problem. Instead, the worry is that he'll get hurt, or pick up bad habits in meaningless minutes for a dysfunctional team playing zero defense.
There's also the question of what good it does the Bucks to see significantly more of Giannis the rest of the way. It's a bit like trying to evaluate a wide receiver on a football team with a bad quarterback: how much can you trust what you see? There's definitely value in experimenting with Giannis in different types of play sets--we've seen a fair bit of him in P&R for a while now, and he even saw a couple post-ups against the Bobcats last weekend--but that would suggest quality of minutes is just as important as quantity. A bigger sample size usually doesn't harm observational accuracy, but in this case it could be misleading. It's similar, I think, to Brandon Knight's situation. Knight has played better than most expected this season, functioning fairly well as a primary scoring option. But what does that tell us about how he fits on a team with more offensive talent and cohesion? This was an encouraging season for Knight, but next year might be the more eye-opening one where his future is concerned.
The same is likely to be true for Giannis. In his second year, many will expect significant improvement from Antetokounmpo, and that's reasonable. It's only fair that we give him until then to make that improvement a reality.