Remember Giannis Antetokounmpo the Point Guard?
The concept of throwing a 6'11" teenager at the point provided some theoretical fun a year ago, but ultimately it never seemed to make much sense despite the Greek Freak's fascinating combination of size, ball-handling and unselfishness. After Jason Kidd teased the idea in Vegas and provided a couple glimpses of it during the preseason, we saw almost none of it when the games counted. And to be honest that was probably for the best. Just because you can dribble and pass doesn't mean you need to be an actual point guard; those skills have plenty of value playing from the wings and high post, too.
Still, Giannis' ongoing pursuit of positional revolution apparently isn't over just yet. With the league's renewed affinity for small-ball turning into a Draymond Green-inspired all-out obsession in recent months, John Hammond offered up another way to deploy his 20-year-old jack-of-all-trades in an interview on The Baseline podcast earlier this week. Behold: GIANNIS THE CENTER!
I love the fact that with our roster, I think moving forward, I love the thought of small-ball for us, potentially if there's ever a matchup situation where you say "they're going to go small, how do we match up with that," whoever that team may be, I think you play Giannis Antetokounmpo at center. And he's 6'11", so it's not really small-ball per se, but his ball skills and know-how of how to play will give us the ability to do that and I think that could be a really fun team to watch someday if you do look at small-ball theory.
I never really bought the logic of Giannis playing PG -- other than post-ups, the advantages he brings at the point are minimal -- but seeing some minutes at center actually makes much more sense to me. After all, Giannis himself has admitted to power forward likely being his best long-term position, and we already saw regular doses of him at that spot a year ago. As a refresher, here's Giannis on his blog back in March:
For the moment, I realize that I can do bigger damage as a "3" or a "4". I don't think that there's a faster power forward than me in the NBA, who can defend me when I put the ball on the floor. That's the position that I believe I will settle in the future, but I don't want any position to hold me from improving all parts of my game.
No one's suggesting Giannis see 20 minutes a night at the pivot -- last year he only saw about 30 minutes at center all season -- but in fits and starts it's not much of a stretch. Bigs will always have a harder time hanging with him in P&R and pick-and-pop plays, and he's regularly shown the ability to put less mobile big men on skates when he faces them up and puts it on the deck. The tradeoff is the potential punishment he gets on the opposite end, but that's become far less of an issue as the league has increasingly gone small. Consider that Giannis had some impressive minutes last season defending Chris Bosh, an all-star-level scorer who has started regularly at center for the Heat. It might not fly against Dwight Howard, but it doesn't have to.
As a result, it's not much of a stretch to consider Giannis as a five in certain situations, especially when the opposing team doesn't have a bruising center who can threaten from the post. The Bucks were often at their defensive best when Antetokounmpo was able to help off less talented guys, and that could be a clear recipe for success against many of the league's second unit centers. Normally we think of great defenders being lockdown one-on-one guys, but in a system that emphasizes switching and forcing turnovers that's not necessarily the most important skill. The Warriors didn't give LeBron James a steady diet of Draymond Green in part for that very reason -- even if Green was their best option as a man defender, they know he also provides as much or more defensive value as a roaming help defender.
The Big Core?
Ironically, the biggest obstacle to seeing Giannis get minutes at the 5 would likely be the rest of the Bucks' roster. Jason Kidd has plenty of options at center with Greg Monroe, John Henson and Miles Plumlee, but they're still relatively thin at power forward until Jabari Parker is back to full speed -- which might not happen until after New Year's. The latter is a bit of a guessing game for now, though Hammond also sounded content to roll with the 15 guaranteed contracts currently on the roster, six of which he described as "core" players moving forward.
I expect us to go in with that roster into training camp, with those 15 players.
We're trying to build around some kind of consistenty with the nucleus of Michael Carter-Williams, Khris Middleton, Jabari Parker, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Greg Monroe and John Henson. Those six guys are the young core that we look and say that's kinda the future of this organization, and that's not discounting anyone else. Other players have to step and become a part of that group with us. But those guys are the group we hope we can build some kind of continuity with.
We can of course debate whether the likes of Henson, MCW and even Middleton are true "core" pieces, though in many ways it's a matter of semantics. I usually think of "core" players as a top three or four grouping of guys that you try to retain at almost any cost, and who together can form the nucleus of a contender. Think the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili troika of the 2000s, or Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka in OKC now. Under that definition, you could argue that only Giannis, Jabari and maybe Monroe would qualify as "core" guys, and with Giannis and Jabari they'll have to become all-star caliber players first. There are no guarantees on that front, but it's also not unreasonable for the Bucks to be building around them in the hopes that it happens.
Hammond and the Bucks are thus taking a less discriminating approach to the core concept, expanding it to include basically all the young rotation guys they'd like to keep around for the foreseeable future. And not without reason -- ESPN rated the Bucks' young core #1 in the league for a reason. It makes for good PR and hopefully boosts the confidence of the guys involved, factors that shouldn't be understated. Practically speaking, it's conceivable that all of them could eventually be re-signed to market-level deals once their rookie contracts come up over the next few years, which is in many ways the first litmus test for how "core" a guy really is. Bear in mind that it's difficult to be really good without having some useful rotation players on cheap contracts, and by 2018 none of these guys figure to qualify on that front. For better or worse, Henson still sounds in line for an eight-figure extension, though it's unlikely that the Bucks will ever have more than three "real" max deals at any point in time. Not surprisingly, teams that have had sustained success typically see their roster construction go through recurring phases: draft well, keep their best players, let non-essential guys go, rinse and repeat.
While we don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves, if there's a key inflection point for the Bucks' current roster it might be 2017. Monroe can become an unrestricted free agent by turning down his player option that summer, while Giannis will see his first big deal kick in -- either as a restricted free agent or with an extension that can be signed next summer. With a current 17/18 cap estimate of $108 million, that would make Giannis eligible for a deal starting at around $25 million per season and Monroe at over $30 million, dwarfing the still-rather-huge dollars Khris Middleton reeled in last month.
Interestingly, the cap is currently projected to be slightly lower the next two summers, an obscure artifact of the massive TV cash injection in 2016. So a hypothetical Jabari Parker max deal would actually start at a lower amount in 2018 -- perhaps $23 million. If all goes to plan, it's thus conceivable the Bucks by 2018 could be paying upwards of $75 million annually for Giannis, Jabari and Monroe, with Henson and Middleton adding another $25 million or so to their cap number. That would leave them in the ballpark of $100 million without having accounted for MCW (or another point guard) and the rest of their bench, meaning the days of cap space would be long gone. Provided they pinch pennies on their remaining rotation they could still keep all six guys and stay under the tax (which should be north of $120 million at that point), but it's a much more constrained situation from a cap context.
Either way, three years is an eternity in NBA terms, so we shouldn't go too overboard extrapolating where the current "core" will be. By 2018, the Bucks' roster will likely have evolved in ways we can't predict today, and cap increases could once again exceed expectations and bring additional flexibility. Still, the team's willingness to commit to non-stars like Henson (and to a lesser extent Middleton) have to be considered in the broader context of where the roster could be two, three and four years from now, and for that reason the Bucks may structure them in slightly funky ways. to make sure they don't result in future inconvenience. The Bucks wisely gave Middleton a declining salary in 2017 and 2018 to accommodate new deals for Giannis, Monroe and an eventually-declining cap, and they'll hopefully use similar strategies in whatever they give Henson (non-guaranteed money at the back end would be even better).
Long-term, we don't know much else. The Bucks' six-pack of young building blocks may lead them to the promised land in 2019...or it may be half gone a year from now. Ultimately, you're only a "core" piece until you're not -- and in the NBA that seems to change more quickly than anyone would like.