The generally accepted theory is that there are six conceivable best players in the NBA; players that if someone was to claim are the best in the world you wouldn’t look to place them under psychiatric supervision. Those six players are Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, James Harden, Giannis Antetokoumpo and Kawhi Leonard. Over the next few weeks I will attempt to express the argument for each player as well as some of the factors that detract from their case.
The arguments presented in this piece, are not necessarily supporting my own point of view, rather, the feasible arguments that support a player’s case to be regarded as the best player in the world. The criteria for the best in the world include but are not limited to:
- Team success
- Influence on the sport
- Individual performance
- “Eye test”
- Peak of their powers
It’s been 14 years since the league has seen anything remotely close to Giannis’ physical dominance, and if he has as big an impact as Shaq then we will be looking at one of the all-time greats let alone contender for best in the league. To call Giannis a force of nature doesn’t quite do him justice. The 2018-19 MVP has elevated his game again this season, he has increased his scoring and rebounding whilst playing two less minutes a game. He is on track to have the 7th highest single season PER (Player Efficiency Rating) ever. At just 25 years old Giannis has only just entered his prime. In the three seasons since he announced himself as an elite player in the league he has made the All-NBA teams every single year. For two of the past three seasons he has also made the All-NBA defensive teams.
Giannis is the exact definition of a ‘do it all’ player. At the end of the 2016-17 he became the first player in NBA history to be top 20 in all five of the major statistical categories (points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks). Despite his all-round ability, it is whilst attacking the rim that The Greek Freak enters the upper echelons. When less than three feet from the basket he shoots 76.7%. Furthermore, due to his extraordinary athleticism he can get to the rim for 48% of his shots, making him even more effective.??? So far in the 2019-20 season Giannis has led the Milwaukee Bucks to 53 wins and just 12 losses, putting them 6.5 games ahead of the second place Raptors. Antetokounmpo leads the entire NBA in net rating. More impressive than leading the league in net rating is the fact that he also leads the NBA in Player Impact Estimate, despite playing 4 minutes less per game than the second placed LeBron James.
Defensively, Giannis is one of the most versatile players in the NBA. He spends most of each game guarding the forward position, however when asked to switch onto guards or centres his length and athleticism allow him to play elite defence regardless of the player. Guards only shoot a meagre 38.9% from the field whilst being guarded by Giannis. At 6’11 he has the ability to defend the rim like very few in the current NBA; within six feet of the rim opposing players shoot a massive 19.5% below their average field goal percentage. Furthermore, during clutch time Giannis’ defensive efforts stand out even amongst the league’s best. When the game is closer than 5 points with less than five minutes left his defensive rating is the best in the league (amongst qualified players). Throughout that period of time, his personal defensive rating of 75.3 is impressively 26.3 points below the best defensive team’s season average.
Whilst watching Giannis play the most impressive thing is how much he cares. I challenge anybody to find a single game in which he has not done every single thing in his power to lead his team to victory. When you combine this with his outstanding natural gifts it suddenly seems incredibly obvious why he earned his nickname – The Greek Freak. If he has any kind of momentum built up when driving the basketball, there is a tension in the air as everybody that bears witness to it believes wholeheartedly that only an act of God can slow him down. Nothing keeps a rim protector awake at night like the prospect of having to face Antetokounmpo.
If you needed any further proof that Giannis is a physical phenom like no other, here it is. In december 2018, Shaquille O’Neal made him his successor and passed on the mantle of the NBA’s Superman, despite having previously stated there would never be another. The problem with being Superman, however, is that there is always a kryptonite, and if Giannis is indeed Superman then Kawhi Leonard is definitely his Lex Luther.
The single biggest criticism of Antetokounmpo relates to just a single player. After going up 2-0 in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals, Giannis proceeded to get thoroughly outplayed by the eventual Finals MVP. Context is, of course, key. Following the game 2 victory, the Bucks were about to suffer a very brutal lesson in Playoff tactics. Over the next four games, the Raptors set their stall and made it their entire mission to make sure that Giannis would not be the player to beat them, thus forcing the role players for Milwaukee to make shots if they wanted to win. In the first two games of this series Giannis averaged 27/16/6, whereas in the next four games he would average 21/13/6 whilst shooting nearly 4% lower from the field. Some of the blame for the loss of the Eastern Conference Finals certainly falls at the feet of Giannis. However, when playing against the best defender in the league in addition to an opposing team set up to counteract what you do best then you have to expect a dip in production, especially for a player barely entering their prime.
The most obvious flaw in Antetokounmpo’s game is his inability to shoot the three. However, a testament to his talent is that this has only ever haunted him on one occasion, the aforementioned ECF against the Leonard led Raptors. Over the duration of Giannis’ career he has shot a poor 28.5% on two 3-pointers a game. This year it is clear that he has made a conscious effort to improve his shooting , and it is working. His three-point percentage has risen 3.1% whilst shooting a career high 4.8 threes a game. If The Greek Freak can continue to improve his shooting to match or exceed the league average then the NBA will truly be in peril.
At the age of 25, with an MVP to his name already and another well on the way, the future of the NBA lies surely in the hands of Giannis. In an era where small ball is the trend it may very well be the case that, as Giannis continues to develop as a player, there is simply no way to stop him. If he isn’t the best player already, it would take a brave man to bet against him in years to come.
To see other players’ argument follow the links below: