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Freaksgiving: Giannis Antetokounmpo is now a point guard, a center and everything in between

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NBA: Sacramento Kings at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe Giannis Antetokounmpo just needed a triple-double to wake up the rest of the NBA.

It’s not news to anyone who actually follows the Bucks, but the Greek Freak’s stat-stuffing ways are hardly new — the dude’s been posting insane numbers all season, which is in many ways the logical extension of his monster finish to the 15/16 campaign. His combination of points (21.8), rebounds (8.5), assists (5.8), steals (2.0) and blocks (2.2) have never been matched over a full season in league history, and it’s not like you need a PhD in math to appreciate the gravity of the Greek’s statistical wizardry — though if you did, you’d also drool at his +3.23 real plus-minus, +7.5 box score plus-minus, 24.8 PER and the fact that the Bucks are 15.9 points/100 possessions better when he’s on the court vs. on the bench.

And yet for whatever reason — the Bucks perpetually being meh, Milwaukee being unsexy, no one wanting to have to pronounce his last name — the first weeks of the NBA season had been oddly silent in terms of national media attention. But if this week is any indication, that might be changing:

Zach Lowe: No one could never accuse our guy Zach Lowe of sleeping on Giannis, but it’s still cool to see Giannis leading off Zach’s weekly observations:

This is getting scary. Antetokounmpo is averaging more than two blocks per game, and opponents are shooting just 45 percent at the rim when he's nearby -- a top-shelf mark for a center, let alone for whatever Antetokounmpo is.

He is beginning to realize how much damage he can do as a long-armed help defender. He covers so much territory with a single stride; he almost teleports from the 3-point arc to the rim. Dudes who think they are about to drop in an easy layup have no clue what horror awaits them.

The Bucks have plopped Antetokounmpo into shot-blocking territory more often by having him (mostly) defend power forwards, leaving Jabari Parker on wings. That has the trickle-down benefit of engineering a cross-match when Milwaukee goes the other way on offense; opponents don't want their big guys chasing Antetokounmpo, and the Bucks sometimes catch defenses scrambling to find their matchups in transition.

Lowe and Marc Stein also talked about Giannis and the Greg Monroe situation in this week’s Lowe Post podcast. Long story short: Jason Kidd seems to not like Greg Monroe, which is a problem because no one wants to trade for him either. My comment: there’s no small irony in Kidd wanting to start the guy who’s been scoreboard poison (the Bucks are 16.5 pts/100 worse with John Henson on the court vs. off) while benching the guy who leads the team in +/-. That’s right: Greg Monroe has the best on-court rating on the Bucks right now (+4.7 pts/100).

The Ringer: Kevin O’Connor wrote about Giannis on Tuesday and discussed his game in depth with Chris Vernon on the The Ringer NBA Show that same day. Among other things, Kevin noted this much-quoted stat which I’d be remiss not to share:

In the Bucks’ 93–89 win over the Magic on Monday night, Giannis Antetokounmpo became only the fourth player since 1984 to finish a game with at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists, five steals, and three blocks. The others are Michael Jordan (1988), Hakeem Olajuwon (1994), and Andrei Kirilenko (2007), per Basketball-Reference.

ESPN TrueHoop podcast: Brian Windhorst kicked off the daily pod on Tuesday by relaying that he wanted to talk about Giannis on his SportsCenter appearance earlier this week but was shot down because, well, ESPN. That’s OK, we’ll take the appreciation of the TrueHoop crew.

Beyond Giannis’ individual brilliance — always a good topic for discussion in our podcasts — the Bucks’ increased reliance on smallball is probably the most interesting trend, and not surprising it’s been fueled by Giannis’ versatility on both ends. Here’s our conversation about it from Wednesday:

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We’re still very much in small sample theater at this point, but Giannis has been on the court without a true center for 45 minutes so far this season and been nothing short of brilliant. Normalized to per-36 minutes, he’s posted 28 points, 8.0 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 3.2 blocks and 3.2 steals (!) in those lineups, which makes the Bucks’ +15.5 rating in that span not terribly surprising.

It’s not to say the Bucks can always play small; it can leave them vulnerable on the defensive boards and take a physical toll on guys. The latter is a major reason why even the Warriors don’t play their “death lineup” (which is +30.9 net this season!) more than five minutes per game on average. And we haven’t even mentioned the politics of further reducing the pool of minutes available to the Bucks’ big men, which was an issue even before Kidd came to the long-overdue realization that going centerless could provide a valuable changeup. Personally: I’d make Monroe the go-to backup center playing 20 minutes a night, choose between starting either Henson or (preferably) Plumlee on a night to night basis, and then experiment with small lineups in the second and fourth quarters.

As noted, the Bucks have been a disaster with Henson on the floor all season, and unfortunately it’s not just a quirk of him playing with bad bench units. While the starters were +8.6 with Plumlee in 91 minutes, they’ve been -23.4 in the 86 minutes Henson has played with them. Zooming down to two-man combinations, both Plumlee and Monroe have been a shade over +10 in net rating terms when on the court with Giannis, while Henson and Giannis together have been almost -13.

Granted, it’s tough to imagine the differential between Henson and the other Bucks bigs staying that large for long, but it also underscores how self-defeating Kidd’s handling of the big men has been. It’s no secret that Monroe doesn’t have a long-term future in Milwaukee, but benching him for a guy who has made the team dramatically worse won’t help the Bucks’ present much either.