No other two-time MVP has had to face the level of scrutiny that Giannis Antetokounmpo has thus far in his career. Popular narratives surrounding the Greek Freak in mainstream media have since gone sour, focusing on his unflattering history of playoff performances or his lack of shooting.
It’s certainly not without merit. His two trophies thus far ultimately meant very little in the wake of the Milwaukee Bucks’ two-straight playoff losses. In those playoff series, Milwaukee’s fundamental schematic weaknesses—and those of Antetokounmpo—were thoroughly exposed and exploited by better-coached teams.
Yet Giannis himself has been consistent as ever through the first quarter of the season. Though his impressive streak of year-to-year improvement by way of production seems to have tapered off, he certainly deserves to at the very least be part of the MVP conversation this year with how he’s been playing.
Here’s our case for the reigning MVP, compared to the current frontrunners in the MVP race so far.
LeBron vs Giannis: Production
In Year 18, LeBron James is still unquestionably The King. Year after year, he earns a spot in the MVP debate, and it’s really not hard to see why.
His game has also evolved gracefully with a fast-changing basketball landscape. He’s taking and making the most threes per game so far in his career with the second-best three-point shooting percentage so far. As in past seasons, his scoring has taken a bit of a backseat this time around. He’s dishing out the sixth-most assists of his career so far after having his best passing season a year ago with 10.2 assists per game.
The biggest argument for LeBron is still his unbridled production that has everything to do with the Los Angeles Lakers’ success. The defending champions only got better this past offseason, and they’ve been the best team in the league so far.
— First Take (@FirstTake) February 9, 2021
A year ago, one knock on James was that he played with another MVP candidate in Anthony Davis and thus was not even the best player on his own team. That narrative seems to be a thing of the past now.
However, if production is to be given strong consideration, Antetokounmpo’s name should absolutely be up there as well. Consider these statlines per 36 minutes so far this season:
- Jokic 27.0 PPG / 11.3 RPG / 8.7 APG / 61% eFG
- Embiid 32.7 PPG / 12.4 RPG / 3.2 APG / 58% eFG
- LeBron 26.5 PPG / 8.2 RPG / 8.2 APG / 57% eFG
- Giannis 30.6 PPG / 12.1 RPG / 6.0 APG / 59% eFG
Per 36, Antetokounmpo is fourth in the league in points per game and sixth in two-point field goal percentage. He’s been as efficient as ever in his production.
It’s a fact that LeBron’s Lakers have been rolling, while the Milwaukee Bucks have been on-and-off. But Antetokounmpo’s historic production is still here. It just means less after two trophies.
Embiid vs Giannis: Dominance
Not many big men command the respect of opposing defenses like Joel Embiid does. When he’s not taking defenders into the paint, he can just as easily pull up with an exquisite faceup game as his outside shots continue to fall with more regularity.
Ben Simmons on Joel Embiid being an early MVP candidate: "I think he realized how dominant he is down there and he continues to just get better"
— Kevin McCormick (@KevinMcC973) February 7, 2021
His dominance, it seems, has been integral to his MVP case. He’s averaging 29.6 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game on excellent 54.3/40.0/85.1 efficiency and is third in the NBA in points per game.
Embiid’s dominance comes in that he can score the basketball in a multitude of ways. He’s been practically undefendable in that regard.
But the past two MVP awards have proven that Giannis has also been dominant in his own right, and the rise of another contender does nothing to take that away. Though offensively limited, Giannis’ hyper-athletic skillset overwhelms most defenders and handily scores 20 on any given night. His FT shooting has jumped this year, too, which means Hack-a-Giannis is becoming less of an option as the season wears on.
The eye test tells us that Giannis’ freight train-esque attack contorts opposing defenses more, particularly on transition opportunities. In one-on-one situations, defending Embiid is harder to do, given the many scoring options he has at his disposal. He’s certainly the more well-rounded offensive player, after all. But it would be a travesty to leave Giannis out when he is just as if not more dominant.
Dwyane Wade on Joel Embiid:
“This is the best that I think we’ve seen Philly in a long time. Big Fella got that look, and that’s a scary look for someone as dominant as he is."
— Austin Krell (@NBAKrell) February 10, 2021
Jokic vs Giannis: Efficiency
The Joker’s efficiency seems to be his claim to fame in this year’s MVP race, and for good reason. He’s averaging career highs in points per game, but also in field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and free-throw percentage. Put simply, he’s making more than half of the shots he’s taking, while taking enough to lead his team. He’s also the only player in the league who’s top-10 in points, rebounds, and assists per game.
He’s always been a smart, crafty player. It definitely shows in his shot selection, but not just. The increased efficiency also speaks to his diverse bag as a scorer. For a big man, Jokic is practically a three-level scorer able to hit from three, the mid-range, or take it into the paint. He’s putting up averages of 26.9 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 8.6 assists per game on 56/40/85 shooting splits. That’s good for 60.6 effective field goal percentage and 64.8% true shooting.
The advanced stats speak very highly of the Nuggets big man more than any other MVP contender. He leads the league in offensive and overall win shares. He’s also #1 in box plus-minus and offensive BPM. He’s also the only big man in the NBA’s top ten assist leaders at #4.
Another double-double for Jokic in a W 🃏
27 Pts, 12 Reb, 6 Ast pic.twitter.com/GMAm2Y1Fnn
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) January 20, 2021
Of note, the top-two ranked players in Value Over Replacement Player has gone on to be selected as the MVP every other year since 2006 except for four times. Those four players were all LeBron James. This year, it’s Nikola Jokic who sits atop the league rankings in VORP.
If efficiency is the argument, the numbers say that Giannis has been more efficient than both of his MVP seasons despite playing three more minutes per game than his last season. He is only seven spots behind Jokic in effective field goal percentage at 59.4%. With Milwaukee’s retooled offense coupled with the shortest offseason in league history, the slight dip in efficiency was not unexpected.
However, his impact as a player continues to translate on both ends of the floor. As the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, he is arguably among the best help defenders in the league. He’s also the #1 player in Defensive Win Shares and Win Shares per 48 minutes.
On the other hand, Jokic gives up 49.5% of shot attempts taken when he is the sole defender. Against forwards, he’s given up 50.3%.
While The Joker’s overall value as a player diminishes on the defensive end, Giannis is still right there with Jokic in the Top Ten in all the aforementioned stats while being a two-way force. He’s not the same scorer and playmaker, but is, all things considered, equally impactful and efficient.
Narratives not on the Greek Freak’s side
It would be disingenuous to touch on the Greek Freak’s MVP case without mentioning the inevitable voter fatigue he will encounter. The fact of the matter is that narratives still do matter when media vote on the league’s Most Valuable Player.
To the credit of Antetokounmpo’s competitors, they do have narrative momentum on their side. Jokic, for instance, just led a team through two straight 3-1 deficits and was wins away from taking on the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. So far this season, Embiid is everything The Process promised the Philadelphia faithful and more. LeBron is showing no signs of slowing down this late in his career and is more than likely winning another ring.
Damion Lee wills this Giannis free throw in to an airball 😂 pic.twitter.com/xeYYbl8V3X
— ClutchPoints NBA (@ClutchPointsNBA) January 9, 2020
But for Giannis, the spectre of his limitations and playoff losses will hang over the Milwaukee Bucks for the foreseeable future regardless of their success in the regular season. It’s a perfectly valid reason too, as winning is still very much a factor in the MVP voting process. He also suffered a humiliating defeat not too long ago at the hands of the Miami Heat.
This year, MVP voters will rightfully be wondering if his game has grown enough to get his basketball club over the hump. It’s getting harder and harder to call a 63.8% free throw shooter the league’s Most Valuable Player.
Antetokounmpo might not be the MVP, but he’s still a contender
It’s tough being the league’s reigning MVP. It means a target is perpetually painted on your back. It means other stars and other contenders are looking for a chance to prove their worth against you. Being the king of the league means you have to earn and re-earn that title every night against other contenders looking for a piece of the crown.
He might airball a free throw now and then, but Giannis is the only player in the league who can do this:pic.twitter.com/jEvI8bE8ly
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) August 29, 2020
Behind him, the Bucks are looking hobbled. After a strong start, they’re coming off a West Coast road trip where they lost three straight. Mike Budenholzer’s squad very clearly has much to figure out on both ends of the floor. And this means bad optics for the reigning MVP, even when his individual production puts him up there with the best of them.
None of this is to say that Giannis should be the MVP. The competition is much stiffer this time around, and voter fatigue is a very real narrative as we often see with LeBron James. This is only to say that a dominant two-time MVP putting in a season on par, if not better, than his MVP seasons should still very much be part of conversations for the award.