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Denial: Exploring Giannis Antetokounmpo’s (Lack Of) MVP Momentum

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What does “most valuable” really mean, anyway?

NBA: All Star Game-Team Lebron vs Team Durant Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

At some point, we started taking Giannis Antetokounmpo for granted.

When I say “we,” I don’t necessarily mean Milwaukee Bucks fans (though even some of us don’t give him the credit he deserves); I mean followers of the NBA, basketball enthusiasts in general. The two-time NBA MVP has been underestimated, criticized, and denigrated for having “no skill at all” over the course of his career, but none of that stopped him from going back-to-back in 2019 and 2020.

Of course, at some level the criticism has carried some truth along with the rest of the nonsense. Giannis has been the best player on his team for a while now, and his team has continually failed to achieve the greatest success a team can: make it to the NBA Finals and bring home the championship. The disappointment didn’t really hit until the Bucks achieved regular season success, which raised both awareness and expectations to a level the team simply didn't meet in the postseason...but when it hit, it hit hard. Just like with the coaching staff, front office, or his teammates, Giannis deserves just as much blame for the result as he deserves credit for the process it took to get there, but narratives often take on a life of their own.

So here we are in late March, over halfway through the NBA’s modified regular season and the MVP debate rages on. There is no shortage of viable candidates this season; Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, LeBron James, James Harden, and Damian Lillard have all presented strong cases for themselves thus far. But what about the guy who won it last year...and the year before that? Depending on who you ask, he might be in the top-3, but almost unanimously across the media landscape the prevailing notion is that Giannis Antetokounmpo should not and likely will not win a third MVP this season, which would make him only the third player in NBA history to win the award in three consecutive years. The reason? His lack of playoff success, and the media simply doesn’t want to vote for him again.

In the context of the team’s success and understanding that individual accolades pale in comparison to titles, most Bucks fans will acknowledge this reality and simply accept it for what it is. After all, Giannis already has two of the dang things, we’ve gotten used to him ranking among the best of the best of the best. Giannis himself doesn’t seem too interested in winning MVP again before winning a championship. There isn’t much point to getting bent out of shape over it, unless getting bent out of shape is the point. Beyond that, rooting for Giannis to pull off the rare three-peat is probably a futile exercise, one that fans will still engage with but ultimately follow with less fervor than the first (or second) time around. If he somehow wins it, great! If not, it’s no big loss, it will be cool for someone else to win it and we care more about the playoffs anyway.

And in that, by coming to that conclusion, we (the basketball world) are taking Giannis Antetokounmpo for granted. Maybe we don’t mean to do it, and we’re certainly not trying to appreciate him less, but that’s where it ends up. We may as well be honest about it.


The phrase “most valuable” is conveniently vague, allowing for a myriad of interpretations and fuels discussion on social media and debate between talking heads on your favorite sports-centric acronym’s channel. Does it mean “the player who provides the most value,” or “the guy that the team falls apart without,” or “most important,” or “most productive,” or “most impressive,” or “best player on a winning team,” or some combination thereof? Is it a regular season award, or a regular season award that also takes things like the postseason, the narrative, and legacy into account? It’s all quite murky, probably just how the NBA wants it.

The MVP award is not like a championship belt in wrestling. To be recognized as the league’s “most valuable” player, you don’t need to specifically defeat the player who holds that honor to claim it for yourself. But maybe a part of the discourse surrounding the MVP race should contain some version of pitting the challenger against the champion. In viewing the question this way, suddenly Giannis’ brilliance shines through in a completely new light. For every candidate in the pool of players vying to win the title of “most valuable,” what are they doing better than Giannis? Let’s talk about it.

(Note: all stats are as of Sunday, March 21.)

Damian Lillard

Via StatHead / basketball-reference.com

Damian Lillard is one of the most beloved figures in the NBA; between his highlight reel and humble personality, fans absolutely adore Dame. He’s also one of the most well-respected players in the league, leading the NBA in total points while also ranking in the top-10 in assists, powering the Portland offense despite suffering some lengthy absences from Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum.

What does Lillard do better than Giannis? Strictly speaking as an offensive player, Dame is levels above Giannis in everything but scoring at the rim. He’s also one of the league’s premier closers, but Portland has desperately needed him to be that (the Blazers are 11-5 in games decided by 5 or fewer points). As a defender, the script is flipped; Lillard is not a turnstile, but he simply doesn’t have the same kind of defensive impact that he does on offense, while Giannis is every bit of an imposing defender as he is a productive offensive player. Perhaps the Blazers are more likely to flounder without their star than Milwaukee would, but the Bucks have been successful while Portland has remained stuck in the Western Conference’s second tier (firmly entrenched behind the Jazz, Suns, Lakers, and Clippers).

MVP Advantage: Giannis, by a lot.

Joel Embiid

Via StatHead / basketball-reference.com

Embiid was the front-runner for the award, and for good reason: his team was one of the best in the league, and he was having his best season by far...until a nasty-looking hyperextension sidelined him for a few weeks, more than doubling his total number of games missed already this season. The worry with Embiid has always been availability, and up until a week ago the 76ers had been able to maintain his schedule and harness his considerable basketball prowess. Injuries suck and aren’t fair, but missing games tanks your MVP stock valuation.

What does Embiid do better than Giannis? By the numbers, they’re fairly similar in almost every way, though Embiid is on a major hot streak with his shooting from both mid-range and behind the arc. The biggest difference is that Giannis is a far superior playmaker (Giannis’ assist-turnover percentage differential is +16.8; Embiid’s is merely +5.0). Comparing Giannis and Embiid is like comparing a sledgehammer to a battering ram; if you need to knock down a door, the battering ram (Embiid) might be the preferred tool, but the sledgehammer (Giannis) can do that and a bunch of other things too. The Sixers have certainly been knocking down doors lately (leading the Eastern Conference), but the Bucks are right behind them and gaining momentum.

MVP Advantage: Giannis, by a little.

Nikola Jokic

Via StatHead / basketball-reference.com

With Embiid sitting out, The Joker has rocketed ahead and leads the field for MVP. His offensive efficiency was already elite and took a step upwards this season, and while Giannis might be a great playmaker in the front court, Jokic’ playmaking is all-time. Few players can capitalize on passing angles the same way he does with the Nuggets, creating easy shots for his teammates (assist-turnover percentage differential is a whopping +27.2) and making tough ones himself when necessary. Jokic is also a far better defender than his reputation would suggest; some scoff at his lofty rankings in different defensive metrics, but his understanding of positioning and angles, quick hands, and solid communication makes a huge difference.

What does Jokic do better than Giannis? By and large, Jokic is an offensive force the likes of which we have not seen for generations. He and Giannis are both special, but Jokic’s impact is somehow more special this year. He has a clear path to the MVP award this year...if the Nuggets can keep up. In recent years, the only player to win MVP while playing for a team that wasn’t at least a top-4 seed was Russell Westbrook in 2017, and he had to average a triple-double to do it. The Nuggets have not been consistent winners this year and have lagged behind the pace-setters in the West, though Jokic has done his part while he’s been on the floor. Is Jokic’s performance so above and beyond anyone else that he should take home the award despite his team’s record? As it stands right now, that answer might be “yes” but all it takes is one slump for things to fall the other way, and the Bucks are only now seeming to hit their stride.

MVP Advantage: A coin flip but...Jokic, by the numbers.

James Harden

Via StatHead / basketball-reference.com

If we’re ignoring the stretch of eight games where Harden was a Houston Rocket and forced his way out via trade, James Harden would be a worthwhile bet for the MVP award. Harden’s evolution from score-first Sixth Man to devastating playmaker (sometimes for himself, sometimes for others) is one of the most interesting transitions in league history, and he’s putting his offensive prowess on full display with the Nets. Especially with Kevin Durant nursing a hamstring injury and Kyrie Irving on yet another absence, Harden captaining Brooklyn’s pursuit of the top seed in the East will propel him up the MVP candidate rankings. Should it?

What does Harden do better than Giannis? It’s a similar comparison as with the case of Jokic; Harden (a guard) generally has better playmaking and perimeter scoring metrics than Giannis (a forward), and while the Nets are winning more than Denver, Harden doesn’t have anywhere near the defensive impact that even Jokic has, much less the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. Harden’s efficiency is also a step below Giannis, making it difficult to make a strong statistical case for The Beard. The only angle that Harden has that Giannis doesn’t is that voters are wary of supporting Giannis for a third consecutive year...but voters also aren’t lining up to crown the guy who created turmoil in Houston. Only time will tell which narrative is stronger, but right now...

MVP Advantage: Giannis, by a fair amount.

LeBron James

Via StatHead / basketball-reference.com

Earlier in the season, LeBron seemed both poised to mount an unprecedented 18th campaign at an MVP level and shamelessly lobby for the award despite stout competition from his more youthful counterparts. At this point, though, with the Lakers struggling with Anthony Davis missing time and James looking at a lengthy injury absence himself (a rare occurrence indeed), the Lakers and LeBron’s MVP candidacy are both going to take a big hit.

What does James do better than Giannis? If we’re considering the question today, the answer is “not that much.” However, if the question were posed a few weeks ago, LeBron’s supporters would point to the aggregation of his scoring, his playmaking, his defense, with all the contributions coming in his age-36 season and 18th(!) campaign in the NBA. While impressive, “degree of difficulty” is a lesser driver when filling out ballots, and any credit due to James is partially undone by the presence of Anthony Davis, an All-NBA caliber teammate and premier mess-cleaner-upper. Luckily for everybody, LeBron’s ankle sprain will take the wind all the way out of his MVP sails, allowing “narrative voters” to focus on something else this time.

MVP Advantage: Giannis, even before LeBron’s injury.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Via StatHead / basketball-reference.com

Fair is fair, right? We can’t go through the list of candidates without comparing the big guy to himself, so let’s take a closer look at his candidacy this season compared to his most recent MVP season. He’s been just as durable as ever, as long as his recent knee issue isn’t a long-term thing. Based on his antics during the Bucks’ win over Indiana, it’s a safe bet he’ll be back shortly, even if the league is sleeping on him.

What does Giannis do better than last year? His own defensive impact has taken a hit, in no small part because the Bucks are taking him out of his weak-side “free safety” role and forcing him to do more switching and hedging; this has led to a marked increase in both his personal steal and block totals, but the team’s defensive rating has suffered during Milwaukee’s experimental first half. Moving the Bucks’ bigs away from the basket has also resulted in a downturn in Giannis’ individual rebounding; his overall percentage has declined by four points, and his per-game averages decreased by nearly two boards.

On offense, though, Giannis has made great strides; he’s scoring at a similar rate as last year but on better efficiency because he’s taking fewer shots (his field goal attempts per-36 minutes are down by over 3 this year) and letting his teammates do more (Giannis’ usage has gone down by nearly 5%, while his assist totals have climbed from 5.6/game to 6.4/game!). And remember, these improvements have all occurred during some rough stretches (including the Jrue-less 5-game skid) and on the fly, alongside serious structural changes to the Bucks’ schemes.

The real question becomes this, even if MVP voters won’t consider it: had Giannis not won his first MVP in 2019, would he be set to repeat as MVP this year? I think in that environment, the race would be squarely between Giannis and Jokic (with Embiid’s injury taking him out of consideration), and the winner would likely be the player whose team is winning more. And as it stands right now, that’s Giannis Antetokounmpo.


Altogether, basketball fans are pretty lucky to have so many compelling cases for the league’s top individual award. As stated earlier, Bucks fans have reason to simply acknowledge that the deck is stacked against Giannis for winning a third time, and our primary focus is on the team, not the player. Maybe it would be nice for the method to be more consistent and recognize the legitimate greatness that we’re seeing from the two-time reigning MVP. We probably won’t, and that’s OK. Perhaps we’ll be able to celebrate a different style of hardware shortly after the Most Valuable Player trophy is handed out, that’s a trade all Bucks fans can agree is worthwhile.

Poll

If you had a ballot and were voting today, who is your 2020-21 NBA MVP?

This poll is closed

  • 73%
    Giannis Antetokounmpo
    (545 votes)
  • 2%
    Joel Embiid
    (22 votes)
  • 1%
    James Harden
    (10 votes)
  • 1%
    LeBron James
    (8 votes)
  • 18%
    Nikola Jokic
    (134 votes)
  • 2%
    Damian Lillard
    (19 votes)
  • 0%
    Somebody else (comment below!)
    (5 votes)
743 votes total Vote Now