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One Man Against the System

What if a team built a system around a star, and he was the only piece that didn’t seem to fit in?

NBA: New York Knicks at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The undefeated 2018 Bucks are fun. No qualifiers and no screaming red flags. The whole team seems revitalized in the new system, everyone from Khris Middleton to John Henson is tossing up threes with abandon. There’s only one player seemingly left out of the fun, and it’s the man the team built around.

The new era has dawned in Milwaukee, and so far Giannis Antetokounmpo has played like a man possessed by the spirit of systems past. He’s good. He’s great. He’s a quantum threat, averaging 25 points, 6 assists, and a mind blowing 15 rebounds a game. Yet there’s that nagging doubt, that voice that says he can be so much more, and we all know it.

But you don’t have to take my word for it:

That’s right. Giannis knows that right now, in the midst of his takeover season, he’s playing his B ball. It shows in his body language and tangles the rhythm of his play. The cracks are subtle and the frustration deep beneath the surface, stirring the primal fire that drives the greatest to perfect their game.

Giannis is forcing it.

Putting the Team on His Shoulders

It was clear from the opening tip that Giannis was out to prove he is the among the best. Not merely the best in the East, or even the NBA. He spent his offseason working out with Kobe Bryant. That was Giannis sending a message. Jabari Parker’s gone, and he’s the Man. He’s aiming to write his deeds in the stars.


Giannis has an absurd 36.7 USG%, placing him amongst the most heavily featured offensive threats in NBA history.

Giannis is averaging 7.2 FTAs per game, low considering his usage, the Buddy ball Bucks’ pace, and career numbers, yet still the 16th highest in the NBA. What has been more noticeable is his drop in efficiency from the charity stripe as he has adjusted his motion throughout the season.

You might not realize it, but Giannis is shooting a career high in three pointers. Unfortunately it’s not much of a strategic option when you’re shooting 6%. That’s worse than Donte DiVincenzo, a man who was cold as penguins to start the year.

Giannis has the green light even now. If John Henson (41 3P%!) has the green light, it’s on for everybody. It might be Giannis and four shooters in the platonic world, but surely that still means we want him to shoot outside. As the mantra goes, then he would be unstoppable.

Ah, but does Giannis want to shoot the three? On the surface he does. He consciously wants to become an all rounder like LeBron James or Kevin Durant. But the subconscious is a tricky beast, and his formative ego was shaped by a mad tyrant. You can’t shoot threes, the tyrant whispers, You’re too young. Maybe when you’ve bounced around a bit, and you’re chasing a ring in Texas.

Giannis hesitates, and that hesitation is enough to close the gap in this league. The opportunity passes, and so he resorts to his old bag of tricks.

A Tale of Two Giannises

This season it seems like we are watching two Giannises, one within the system and the other opposed to it. Within the system Giannis is the key cog in the NBA’s best offense. He is a nightmare in transition. He can get to the basket in a flash and his awareness of teammates can be off the charts. On the break he is even faster when he doesn’t have to worry about dribbling and can focus getting into scoring position ASAP.

Interestingly he’s seemed his best not as the primary facilitator but off the ball, able to exploit gaps that the defenders cannot perceive on cuts that would make Sweeney Todd weep. He’s also able to use his massive frame to set the perfect screens for co-stars Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton. We have seen flashes of Point Giannis, but truly that seems like a half-baked experiment from an era best forgotten.

For there are the moments that seem outside of the new system. Giannis gets the ball up top, but he runs no offense. His teammates slow down, freeze in place. The defenders flock to Giannis, but there’s no clever dish forthcoming. He puts his head down and charges into the fray like a medieval lancer. Owing to Giannis’ greatness, it often works. It’s a bad play, but it’s still ‘high efficiency’. Like a strongman lifting a great boulder over his head, it is not impressive because it has to be done, it is impressive because it should be impossible.

It should be impossible for a man to go from midcourt to the basket on two dribbles, but Giannis can. It should be impossible for a man to take on four defenders and emerge triumphant, but Giannis can. It should not be real life the things we have seen this man do with the team on his back, but that doesn’t mean the best strategy is to strap in and watch the Man do his thing. Giannis and Coach Bud have to learn there is a difference between what Giannis can do, and what he should do.

You know Giannis really wants to go at Isaac, because he’s a young player, but when you look at it, moving the ball just yields much better plays.

– Steve Novak

There is one final concern that needs to be expressed after the Gordon Elbow, one of player coach dynamics. Giannis didn’t like it when Bud told him he had to sit out even in a blowout, and eventually he got back into the game.

I know it’s common in the NBA for superstars to get their way, but if it endangers the player that’s troubling. If the team’s medical staff can’t identify the hot button sports injury of today, that’s troubling. In any case, as a fan that is interested in Giannis’ overall wellbeing, it’s best to play it safe in blowouts like Saturday’s.

Giannis is a unique individual who can only learn so much from what came before, and right now he’s in transition. To define his role on this modern team, he will have to work with Bud to create the position. Sure, Khris Middleton might look like the Buck to benefit the most from this system, but his skillset was built for this role. Incorporating Giannis’ abilities and exploring the possibilities will take time.

Bud has never coached a player like Giannis. It is possible no coach ever has. In order for the Bucks to grow into a contender, Giannis can’t look back. Kobe can offer pointers, but he can’t be the guide on this journey to greatness. When you embody the future, there’s a point where only you can drive the next steps on your path forward. Giannis will have to adapt to the system, but the system also has to adapt to Giannis. The only way for Giannis and the Bucks to evolve into the next stage is through a delicate symbiosis.