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What Happened to the Giannis Triple-Double?

In the year of the triple-double, where are Giannis’ and does it even matter?

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Sacramento Kings Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

After the All-Star Break last season, Giannis Antetokounmpo played on a perpetual triple-double watch. Seemingly on a nightly basis, telecasts flashed graphics as early as the first quarter alerting viewers to the impending, “GIANNIS TRIPLE-DOUBLE WATCH!” I recall feeling a bit of admittedly petty annoyance at this. Basically:

Zip to the present, and Giannis is objectively a superior player to the one he was after the All-Star Break last year. Some wondered whether Giannis’ statistical balloon may’ve been the product of an end-of-season run devoid of stakes, but it’s yet to Hindenburg this season. Indeed, in almost all facets of the game he’s improved upon that run last year. However, one thing is noticeably absent from that improvement: the triple-double.

In a year that’s come to be defined by statistical peaks, this venerable stat combo is becoming practically normalized by its proliferation throughout the season. The league even broke the record for most triple-doubles in a season, and that happened four weeks ago. Russell Westbook just recorded his 37th last night, and might average one for the whole season. James Harden is dipsy-dooing his way around defenders in Houston for 19. Nikola Jokic is in the midst of a similar second half ascendance similar to Giannis a year ago, notching five. Giannis though, despite getting five in just 26 games last year, sits only at two. His last one came way back on December 7th against the Portland Trail Blazers, when he had 15 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists.

So what gives? With Giannis seemingly a larger part of the Bucks’ offensive strategy than ever, why has the league’s most sought after stat combo eluded him? He’s still averaging around the same number of rebounds, so that’s clearly not an issue. Part of the answer is quite simple: he needs to score.

As a starting point for all this, the Bucks are playing at a pace merely .12 percentage points slower than the 28 game post-ASB stretch last year. Additionally, this year’s team is only averaging .7 more assists per game and roughly two more passes per game. For the purposes of this examination, it’s relatively apples and apples.

One year ago the Bucks boasted a triumvirate in Middleton, Giannis and Parker that buoyed a Bucks offense still ranked in the bottom ten in the league in terms of offensive efficiency. Even when they handed the beat up keys to Giannis for those final 28 games, they still only wound up at 21st with a 103.3 rating. This year, they haven’t even had the luxury of a big three. Instead, injuries have forced them into dominating duos with Giannis as the linchpin. Someone needed to take on the scoring load, and Giannis has done precisely that, leading them to a near top-ten offense.

Here’s a smattering of statistics laying out what percentage of the team’s key categories Giannis was responsible for during last season’s Post-All Star Break and thus far this year:

Giannis Usage Rate Stats

Usage Stats 2015-16 Post-ASB 2016-17
Usage Stats 2015-16 Post-ASB 2016-17
%USG 24 28.3
%FGM 23.7 29.3
%FTM 29.4 43.2
%FTA 31.7 42.8
%AST 39.4 30.4
%STL 19.8 26.6
%BLK 39.8 43.7
%PTS 24.1 30.1

Really, the only statistic that’s altered dramatically in a negative way is the percentage of team assists he’s garnered. That’s clearly a factor in lessening his triple-dubs, but almost every other category illustrates his more demonstrative involvement in bucket-getting. Not only has Giannis improved his points per game this year, but he’s coupled that with improved efficiency, upping his true shooting to 60.3%. GM’s drool over that type of progression curve, and Giannis continues to ascend at a 45 degree angle.

With that ability, Giannis has little reason to pass up scoring opportunities. He’s still willing to make an extra pass and find an open shooter, but every time he touches the ball defenses are forced to adjust to him. That’s a rare quality, and one that logically should only make finding assists easier if he’s able to better adapt to twirling through and around multiple defenders to find open passing lanes.

Another piece of the solution is that last year the Bucks were almost entirely devoid of a point guard capable of creating offense. Michael Carter-Williams injury opened up the avenue for Giannis to take over point guard duties, and the Bucks surrounded him with guards for whom point guarding was mostly optional. Tyler Ennis played the most significant role over those 28 games, and he’s basically a hangnail at this point. The few other applicants, Greveis Vasquez, Jerryd Bayless, OJ Mayo (R.I.Point Juice), only played in a handful of those games, each beset by injuries or a cumbersome stairway.

Within that toxic backcourt brew, Giannis had carte blanche to lead the way. He took full advantage, averaging around 2.5 more potential assists last year at 12.9. This year though, he hasn’t been asked as often to initiate offense as a traditional point guard, and as illustrated above, is looking to score more often. Another small indicator is the fact he’s receiving 58.7 passes per game and only making 56.7. Not only is that that nearly ten less passes per game than last year, but he was also throwing two more passes than he received after the All-Star Break last year. Minute differences, but it seems subtly indicative of a shifting, aggressive scoring mindset.

Additionally, Giannis has been given the ball more in opportune spots to create his own offense. Despite averaging nearly 10 less touches per game than last year’s post-ASB stretch, his elbow, post and paint touches are up from 5.6 to 10.2 this year. Again, that doesn’t preclude him from netting assists in these spots, particularly in elbow get sets, but Giannis’ deadly efficiency from those areas, coupled with his propensity for drawing fouls, have increased his points percentage in each of those areas.

Their current crop of point guards certainly fit a similar mold as last year’s guards who can function off-ball, but they’ve been given more run as lead ball handlers this year. Here’s a breakdown of the assist numbers and usage rates of the most prominent members of that dubious list:

Nominal Bucks’ Point Guard Stats

Player Assists/Game Usage Rate
Player Assists/Game Usage Rate
Brogdon 4.1 18.60%
Delly 4.8 15.90%
Vasquez 2.9 16.50%
Ennis 3.2 16.90%
Mayo 2.1 12.30%
Bayless 2.5 14.40%

Jerryd Bayless in particular became an adept off-ball player last year, and his ascension to one of the most deadly catch-and-shoot players in the league gave Giannis a prime dancing partner to knuckle home jumpers and tally assists. The fact Tyler Ennis has a comparable usage rate as Brogdon or Dellavedova but provided paltry impact is all you need to know about why he’s commandeering the tanking Laker’s Yellow Submarine. Meanwhile, Vasquez and Mayo only played seventeen games combined in that stretch.

Brogdon and Dellavedova have had extensive opportunities to handle the ball and initiate offense. Giannis occasionally brings the ball up now, but it hasn’t felt nearly as embedded within their identity as it did during the latter half of last year. Delly remains just a guy, a backup capable of knocking down an open shot or facilitating the ball around the perimeter. Brogdon however has shown a bit more capability as a finisher at the rim, but he’s still in the bottom third among guards in terms of finishing. His nifty rapport with Greg Monroe around the basket has been valuable though, and his higher usage is indicative of his willingness to pound the rock and create something in the halfcourt.

Because of that, Giannis’ role as a shot creator hasn’t been quite as prominent. He’s making a smaller percentage of the teams’ passes this year, and players are attempting around four less shots per game off those passes. On drives, Giannis opts to finish slightly more this year than finesse a pass. His trademark hook pass underneath the basket around a defender for a corner three was as delightful as it was inconceivable. However, Giannis is exuding sublime patience underneath the hoop this year. He still searches for the occasional cutter or dump-off, but oftentimes he’s pivoting and pump-faking defenders until he finds a modicum of space to flush his stretchy limbs through the hoop.

The delirious assist-hunting Giannis that reared its frustrating head at points last year (the Lakers game was particularly egregious) hasn’t seemed to make an appearance yet this year.

Perhaps the most important question to ask in this pursuit is: Does it even matter? In short, no. These are arbitrary numbers, and not a very useful measurement of a player’s impact on winning. Counting stats tell a story, but they’re better used as a single chapter in that tale. Essential to this discussion is the fact that Giannis’ statistical splendor is consistently stacking wider this year. That’s created a more impactful player, and one whose all-around effect is more important than spending his energy snaking around screens in the fourth quarter hunting assists.

He had similar steal and block numbers last year, but maintaining that level of defensive impact over a whole season if a far different task than just 28 games. He’s nearly on pace to be among the top-20 NBA players in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. Here’s the list of players to accomplish that feat before:

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That alone speaks to the difficulty of what Giannis is doing, affecting every facet of the game whenever he steps on the court. Look no further than his game-sealing block at Portland, or the defensive save he made against the Hawks on Friday.

Stat stans may bemoan the lack of Giannis in conversations regarding the gaudy triple-doubles defining this year, but Giannis’ overall impact is far more important than reaching double digits in three statistical categories. Nikola Jokic’s triple-doubles are fun, and his passing is sublime, but I guarantee the organization would gladly swap out some of those numbers to make him anywhere near the defensive menace Giannis became. So next time he only gets four assists in a game, peer a little further down the stat sheet. With Giannis, there’s no shortage of ways to illustrate his effect on games.