For the 22nd time in his career, and first time this season, Giannis Antetokounmpo is your Eastern Conference Player of the Week over four other nominees (Jaylen Brown, Joel Embiid, Donovan Mitchell, and Jayston Tatum). If you weren’t expecting this, I don’t know what to tell you.
Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Dončić and Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo have been named the NBA Western and Eastern Conference Players of the Week, respectively, for Week 8 of the 2023-24 season (Dec. 11-17). pic.twitter.com/v0sQuHxdIK— NBA Communications (@NBAPR) December 18, 2023
You see the numbers above. You probably saw his franchise-record 64 points last Wednesday, or at least highlights. And hopefully, you rightfully place more importance on that than any of the hijinx that occurred postgame. 64 points is the most any player has poured in during the season to this point, after all.
So the conversation should really be about these two questions: is Giannis having his best season and is he getting enough love in the MVP race? To the latter point, I’d argue no, but national voices are starting to talk as Bucks fans start beating the drum. To the former point, the answer may well end up being yes.
While he established a new season-high with 31.1 PPG last season—his current 31.4 PPG narrowly edges that out right now—on his way to third in the MVP vote, few were arguing it was the best season of his career, though it was superior to either of his MVP campaigns in 2019 and 2020 in some ways. His efficiency took a hit to a still-elite 60.5% true shooting percentage as his FT% slunk back down to 64.5% on the league’s biggest diet at the line. Progress he’d made in the midrange over the previous two seasons (a career-best 42.1% between 3–10 feet in 2021–22 and a near-best 41.6% from 10–16 feet the year prior) regressed to numbers more in line with his first years in the league at 35.4% and 35.3% from the short and long-midrange, respectively.
While his 49.6% between 3–10 feet might be unsustainable, he’s currently shooting 61.8% from the field—he’s never finished a season above 57.8%—and his sensational 82.2% is better than both MVP seasons and only topped by his success rate in the title season. Over half his shots are coming at the rim, a figure only topped by the whopping 57.3% of attempts during his first MVP year. Since then, that number hasn’t exceeded 40.2%. His three-point rate is the second-lowest of his career, in line with his sophomore season. Put simply, he’s never been more efficient at scoring the basketball AND effective at attacking the rim. Heck, before shooting 5/11 at the line last night, he was a respectable 72.2% over his last eleven contests.
As his two-man game with Damian Lillard continues to improve, and it needed time to get there, it’s becoming clear that Dame is starting to complement his new running mate’s game in a way many imagined after the big trade nearly three months ago. What wasn’t obvious to some—including several of us before the season started—is that Lillard’s arrival wouldn’t detract from his chances at a third MVP. Does Dame enhance those odds? Quite possibly, with the holes opened up in opposing defenses that make it easier for Giannis to pounce.
But let’s not allow that truism to take away from Giannis is doing. 47% of his makes are assisted right now—a similar figure to his first MVP year—after years where it hovered between 41.% and 43.8%, so yes, he’s getting a little more help. His usage rate is down to a more rational 33.8%, in line with most other seasons since his first All-NBA appearance in 2017, after an outrageous 38.8% last year. In his second MVP year, though, it was up at 37.5%. So again, efficiency. With Dame and a healthy Khris Middleton next to him, the offensively improved supporting cast makes Giannis look better by allowing him to operate to his strengths.
Those strengths are not only better than ever, but weaknesses that emerged since his legend-making moments in 2021 show early signs of improvement, perhaps dramatically so. Giannis won’t need to be dropping more franchise records to keep this buzz up, and the Bucks should win enough games to keep him firmly in the MVP mix. In fact, with harder and higher-profile matchups ahead, Giannis has ample opportunity to add to his narrative. It’s still early to be talking about the race after barely a quarter of the season. But if you are talking about it, Giannis needs to be in the same breath as Embiid and Nikola Jokic.