Considerations for an NBA MVP usually center around the best player on the best team.
Win-loss records aside, Giannis Antetokounmpo is easily the first person who comes to mind for me.
Fresh off leading the Milwaukee Bucks to an NBA championship, Antetokounmpo’s relentless approach this season makes one think that he is still trying to end a 50-year title drought for his team.
This of course does not mean there is a lack of prudence, as the two-time MVP sat out the Bucks’ recent 133-127 win over the Sacramento Kings, which was the second game of a back-to-back set. Their slow start to the game, where Milwaukee struggled out of the gate and fell behind the Kings in the first quarter, only pointed to both Antetokounmpo’s value and how the Bucks primarily run things to him. Thankfully, a strong second quarter led by Khris Middleton allowed Milwaukee to take the lead, one they wouldn’t relinquish the rest of the way.
Antetokounmpo sitting out was warranted as less than 24 hours before, he played 37 minutes in a hard-fought 94-90 win over the Chicago Bulls. He finished with 30 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two blocks, and a steal, outdueling DeMar DeRozan in a game between the two of the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference. This was also Antetokounmpo’s 19th 30-point game of the season and eighth in his last 10 games.
Halfway through the season, it’s fair to say that The Greek Freak is making a strong case for his third MVP trophy, which would put him among the likes of Hall-of-Famers Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Moses Malone.
The five-time All-Star’s averages of 28.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, a career-high 6.0 assists, 1.5 blocks, and a steal through 39 games puts him in the MVP discussion, but it’s how Antetokounmpo gets his production and its value in the grand scheme of what Milwaukee does that adds depth to the conversation.
The 34.4 percent usage rate Antetokounmpo has on the season, which is second in the NBA behind Joel Embiid’s 36.1 percent, points to his great involvement within the Bucks’ offense. He shares playmaking duties with Jrue Holiday and has learned to locate his teammates as they cut and when they get open thanks to his drives to the basket.
Antetokounmpo’s physical gifts also call for a more nuanced defensive game plan and even when that’s the case, it remains a challenge to contain him. That he has worked on a jumpshot and found new ways to score from around the basket likely means coaches may have to go back to the drawing board with their defensive schemes for the five-time All-NBA Selection.
That Antetokounmpo is attempting a career-best 10.8 free throws per game and making 71.4 percent of those attempts only adds to the narrative of how he isn’t afraid to attack the teeth of the defense, which often ends up with them fouling to stop him. In fact, his 7.7 makes per game from the free throw line are second in the league behind Embiid, who himself is making 8.8 of his 10.8 free throw attempts per game.
On defense, Antetokounmpo can pretty much extend his defensive coverage all the way to the three-point line. Aside from being able to guard perimeter players and big men, the 2019-2020 Defensive Player of the Year and four-time All-Defensive Team Selection can provide rim protection and even when he is drawn out of the paint, he can easily recover and make crucial defensive stops.
One would think that Antetokounmpo would sit out more games this season considering the hyperextended left knee he suffered in Game 4 of the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals. In fact, he has missed 10 games in the 2021-2022 campaign so far owing to right knee soreness, a non-COVID illness, and COVID-19 health and safety protocols, among other things.
Antetokounmpo will likely sit out more games as Milwaukee’s playoff seeding gets more secure and as preserving his health for the postseason becomes more of a priority for Bucks management. Him resting against Sacramento was an opportunity Milwaukee took considering that their next game will still be on Thursday Manila time, which will be a contest against the upstart Cleveland Cavaliers. From there, three of their next five games will be against squads poised to be at least in the play-in if the season ended today.
LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Nikola Jokic, and Joel Embiid continue to come up with insane performances, but let’s not forget that Giannis Antetokounmpo is the reigning Finals MVP who had a 50-point performance in the closeout game. If his last few games are any indication, this season will likely be one of his best and the sky still remains to be the limit for the 27-year-old.