The only difference this time is that it’s kind of working — but not exactly in the way the #POINTGIANNIS narrative seems to imply. Since coach Jason Kidd changed the starting lineup and replaced its only point guard, Michael Carter-Williams, with a complementary player in O.J. Mayo, Giannis has had the opportunity to show just how well he can run the "point guard" position. While that’s a storyline that basically can’t get any more tantalizing for Bucks fans, it’s not as cut and dried as the headlines might imply.
Yes, Giannis is bringing the ball up the floor and running the break, and that’s freaking fantastic (see the passes below). But often that’s the extent of his point guard responsibilities, as most times the ball is quickly out of his hands as the team gets into a set. Furthermore, he isn’t necessarily running many more pick-and-rolls (though he is getting more and more of those reps), which might be the best definition of a point guard these days.
Magic Giannison to Jabari. Butter. https://t.co/L6tXbFqWb6— Frank Madden (@brewhoop) February 23, 2016
Giannis the QB!https://t.co/66wKPXWWQ4— Behind the Buck Pass (@BehindTheBucks) February 23, 2016
So no, we’re not witnessing a complete anomaly to the position in our favorite Greek, and we may never (which is 100% fine, by the way -- he's kind of okay in this role). Much of this relates to the nature of the Bucks' offense, which de-emphasizes pick-and-rolls and typically begins with a pass to a big man and a cascading set of cuts and screens. Not surprisingly, the Bucks rank in the league's bottom four in both plays finished by pick-and-roll ballhandlers (12.2% of plays) and roll men (4.7%). But the structural change we’ve seen in the last eight games does bring up a new conversation, and perhaps a more practical if not more interesting one — does this team need a traditional point guard in order to succeed long term? Is there even room for one?
To even begin the conversation, first there has to be at least somewhat of a definition of a "traditional" point guard. Nowadays, it's a lot harder to define the position than in previous eras of the NBA, but there remain some specific characteristics offensively that almost all successful point guards share. First, they typically spend much more time with the ball in their hands than their teammates. Secondly, they are typically responsible for breaking down a defense and creating opportunities for teammates, or at least balancing their own scoring abilities with keeping others involved. Specifically, probably the most essential thing a point guard provides in today's NBA is the ability to run the previously mentioned pick-and-roll.
Assuming a core of Giannis, Jabari Parker, and Khris Middleton, the underlying debate then ultimately comes down to one question -- can those three successfully combine to provide for these responsibilities? Before this season, the answer to that probably would have been "no." Middleton still wasn't much of a ball-handler, Giannis had never really seen significant experience in the role, and Parker was still somewhat of an unknown entity. But today, the idea is much more up for debate -- Middleton has developed his pick-and-roll game at a shockingly fast rate, and the early returns of the new starting lineup that more prominently feature Jabari as a scorer and Giannis as a creator are encouraging. Beyond that, Jason Kidd's aversion to a pick-and-roll-heavy offense would generally seem to cater especially well to an offense lacking a traditional point guard.
In fact, the team's current starting lineup has posted an offensive rating of 109.8 in 76 minutes of playing time since the switch. For comparison, the group we once thought of as the "preferred starters" is down to 96.1 in 56 minutes by the same metric, well below their overall season mark of 105.6 and also below the team's overall figure of 101.9. While replacing MCW with Mayo is far from the only factor here, this isn't exactly a new trend. At times this season we've seen Mayo in place of Carter-Williams in the lineup, most of which came in December following MCW's demotion. This iteration of the lineup that still featured Greg Monroe is currently at a 103.0 offensive rating in 113 minutes.
While it's significantly worse than the same lineup with Miles Plumlee, part of that can probably be summed up to Monroe still using a significant amount of the teams possessions (not that Monroe is by any stretch bad on that end -- the offense just looks much different when he's not on the court). Without two ball-dominant players like MCW and Monroe in the lineup, we've seen the emergence of Giannis, Khris and Jabari as players who can dictate the offense in the absence of those types of players, and for the most part do it successfully (amongst some expected growing pains). Just as importantly, the new lineup has been far stouter defensively, with a defensive rating of 96.6 since the break and 99.4 overall. Compare that to the MCW/Monroe starting iteration's 112.4 defensive rating on the season, and it's not surprising why the Bucks felt a change was needed.
All that said, being able to go to one of MCW or Monroe at the end of games for a simple pick-and-roll or post up remains an underrated part of their value. When games slow down in the fourth, you almost need to go to a basic play like these, as the defense tightens up and standard sets get less run. In fact, we've even seen this recently in the games against Charlotte and Atlanta; the "new" Bucks looked great offensively, until the fourth quarter, when Giannis and Jabari weren't seeing as many open looks, the game slowed down, and the offense started to rely on Middleton to create against defenses keyed to stop him. If this team is to succeed without a point guard that can successfully run a pick-and roll or isolate in crunch time, they'll need some combination of Giannis, Jabari, and Khris to become good enough in those situations.
Of course, we can also look outside of the current team to gain a little more insight. Nylon Calculus has a 'Playmaking Usage' metric that estimates "the percentage of offensive plays on which a player contributes to the end result while he is on the floor." This stat essentially aims to distinguish between point guards who play a typical ball-dominating role and those who play more off-the-ball. Using the following parameters, here are the players that have assumed this described role.
It's not hard to see how rare this kind of role really is in today's NBA. In the past three seasons, only seven players have qualified, and they're familiar names to this conversation. Of them, only Beverley's Rockets have boasted a top-10 offense, which is less surprising given the ability of James Harden to be a high-usage, high-efficiency scorer and playmaker.
Still, there finally is some reason to believe the Bucks' supporting cast will be able to lead the offense on its own. As we've explored, the "core" of Antetokounmpo, Parker, and Middleton have done just that since the lineup change, and two of those guys are still 21 and under. If Khris and Giannis can find success in creating for teammates in their first time they've been asked to do so, and if Jabari can score at this high of a clip (20.5 PPG since the lineup change), it's not hard to envision the trio being capable of carrying a top-10 offense in a few years when all three are entering their primes. Parker and Antetokounmpo expanding their range will presumably also be a key prerequisite, but in many ways their ability to score efficiently without teams respecting their perimeter games only adds to the upside of the current group.
Furthermore, if this core can replicate any semblance of this sample of eight games in the future, it's fair to wonder if there will even be room for a ball-dominant point guard. Dating back to the Brandon Knight era, Bucks fans have consistently complained when the point guard over-dribbles or 'steals' shots from Giannis and Jabari. If a .556 true shooting percentage point guard (Knight) or one that is just fourth on the team in usage (MCW) dominates the ball too much for our pleasing now, just imagine how that'll feel four years down the line when this increasingly attractive core is reaching the peak of their basketball abilities?
While the sample remains small, the Point Giannis era suggests that the Bucks' offense can not only survive without the archetype of an on-ball point guard, but in many ways thrive. That's especially important with a decision on Carter-Williams likely coming this summer and a number of potential point guards available in the lottery and via trade. In the words of Giannis himself, it may well prove an indicative "taste from the future."