Giannis Antetokounmpo didn’t shoot well in Boston. That much was predictable: The Celtics boast the league’s best defense, with waves of physical defenders to throw at the Bucks’ leading scorer. So he’s converted just 20 of 52 attempts in two games of the second-round playoff series.
Yet even as he struggled from the field, Giannis proved himself to be the most important player on the floor. In the Bucks’ Game 1 win, he recorded his second career playoff triple-double with 24 points, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists; he supplied typically stellar defense, helping Milwaukee wall off the rim; and he led the Bucks to a plus-23 scoring margin while he was on the floor, in a game they won by 12. Oh, and he provided one of the best highlights of the postseason in the fourth quarter, via a self-alley-oop off the backboard.
“I could probably do that on an 8-foot hoop,” Bucks guard Jrue Holiday marveled after the game. “He’s doing this on 10 feet with the best players in the world.”
Antetokounmpo’s Game 1 effort was just the latest entry in the ongoing saga of a no. 15 draft pick who transformed into the NBA’s most unstoppable two-way player. Over the past four postseasons, Antetokounmpo is averaging 28 points (which ranks seventh in the league) and 13 rebounds per game (first). Over that span, Milwaukee has 36 playoff wins—11 more than any other team—and, of course, a title.
But perhaps the most significant sign of Giannis’s impact comes from who the Celtics have used to try to stop his historic production. While Boston has sent some doubles, the bulk of the work has gone to bigger, mobile defenders—namely Al Horford, a one-time “Giannis stopper” whom league executives speculate was re-acquired last offseason with an eye toward a potential playoff showdown with Antetokounmpo.
Back-to-back MVPs marked Giannis for historical greatness, but the telltale sign of an era’s dominant force is front offices constructing their rosters knowing that the road to the title runs through that player. Michael Jordan inspired a wave of high-scoring guards. LeBron James turned every Finals for nearly a decade into a battle of big wings.
Now, Giannis has forced every title aspirant to think long and hard about how it will defend a center with the skill and mobility of a guard. And for the teams without a chance at a championship? They’re all desperate to find their own version of the reigning Finals MVP.
A quick history of the rise and fall and rise again of big men in the NBA looks something like this: Height is so important in basketball that the tallest players dominated for decades. Then, the influx of 3-pointers meant guards and wings gained supremacy for a bit. Finally, big men adjusted to the new normal and regained their advantage.
With that passage of time comes evolution. And compared to his predecessors, Giannis—along with fellow MVP contenders Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid—offers much more offensive variety. “All those guys are so hard to guard because they move all over the place,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said near the end of the regular season. “One time they’re on this block, one time they’re on that block; one time they’re on this elbow, one time they’re on that elbow; one time they’re picking and popping, one time they’re picking and rolling; and even with Jokic and some of those guys’ case, they’re handling.”
They’re so special, in fact, that they change how other teams approach their rosters. Some acquisitions of players to combat elite bigs (Horford to the Celtics) work out better than others (Andre Drummond to the Nets). But regardless of the outcome, the impetus is clear: Just as teams with championship aspirations in the 2010s needed an answer for LeBron, now they need an answer for Giannis.
That answer is frustratingly hard to find. As the Bulls experienced firsthand in a first-round shellacking, try to guard Giannis with a stronger post defender, and he’ll use his explosiveness to drive to the rim …
… or play him with a more agile wing, and he’ll bully his way to the basket.
“Once he gets in the paint, there’s not a whole lot you can do,” Bulls center Nikola Vucevic says. “I don’t think you can even name one guy that can just stay in front of him in the NBA.”
Bucks guard Pat Connaughton goes even farther with his assessment. “It’s tough to stop any NBA player one-on-one because of the talent,” he says. “It’s tough to stop Giannis two-on-one.”
The Bulls tried, to an extreme degree. They doubled Antetokounmpo on 45 percent of his post-ups in the first round, according to Second Spectrum—the highest proportion for any player in any series in the past five postseasons (minimum 25 post-ups). But Giannis shredded double-teams, as the Bucks scored a sizzling 1.3 points per possession on those plays.
No. 2 on that list also comes from these playoffs, as Toronto sent doubles at Embiid on 37 percent of his post-ups. For comparison, when the Raptors eked past Philadelphia in the 2019 postseason, they doubled him half as often, on 18 percent of his post-ups. That’s because, three years ago, Nurse still had Marc Gasol on his team, after the Raptors traded for the defensive-minded center with a potential playoff matchup in mind. Now, Nurse said, he has to use “three or four different guys” to defend elite bigs, with “four or five different schemes.”
The problem with double-teams is that the best bigs continue to develop as passers, meaning they can create open 3-point attempts with ease if the defense brings a helper. Antetokounmpo tied with Luka Doncic for the league lead in assists on 3s in the regular season, according to Second Spectrum, and he leads all players so far this postseason with 5.9 assisted 3s per 100 possessions.
“He does a great job delivering passes on the money after spinning, throwing a hook pass from across the court, throwing it over people,” says Grayson Allen, who’s received assists from Antetokounmpo on 10 of his 17 3-pointers in the playoffs.
Antetokounmpo’s partnership with Allen shows how the former MVP’s superlative skill has shaped his own team, in addition to others. Many of today’s top big men have the flexibility to slide between multiple roles, so their teams in turn have more flexibility in the kinds of players they can acquire for the supporting cast. Neither the Bucks nor Nuggets feature a traditional point guard, for instance, because Giannis and Jokic so often initiate the offense.
The return of Twin Towers lineups can also trace back to Giannis, as the rim-protection dominance of Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez, along with the Lakers’ pairing of Anthony Davis with either JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard, won titles and inspired other teams to follow suit. Every prominent two-big lineup this season included one member—from an established star like Giannis to up-and-comers in Evan Mobley and Jaren Jackson Jr.—who split his time between power forward and center.
“There’s a generation of positionless talent. I think we see that more on the perimeter with smaller, 6-foot-6 to 6-foot-8 guys,” says J.B. Bickerstaff, Mobley’s coach in Cleveland. “I just think that Evan happens to be that positionless player at 7 feet tall.”
Bickerstaff used to label players by position number—1 through 5—when drawing up plays, but now uses initials because his positions aren’t so rigid anymore. “We can just put [Mobley] wherever we need to on the floor,” he says.
The same principle applies to the Bucks—especially since Khris Middleton’s knee injury scrambled the playoff rotation. Now, the Bucks switch seamlessly in the middle of quarters from a supersized starting lineup with Giannis, Lopez, and Bobby Portis to a group with Giannis surrounded by four guards: Holiday, Allen, Connaughton, and Jevon Carter.
That’s because Giannis “can do pretty much everything,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer says. “He slides all up and down the court with the types of players he can guard defensively, how he can take care of the paint and the rim with [the small] lineups and guard on the perimeter with others.”
The Bucks thus reap the spacing benefits of small ball without suffering the sizing downsides of actually playing small. While other teams have to worry about handling Giannis at all times, the Bucks can easily shift to match up against any lineup they play.
Every star needs to shoot 3-pointers in today’s NBA, without exception. The league is that analytically advanced now, to the point that all of the top 40 players in scoring average this regular season attempted at least 1.9 3s per game—even the big men, who once upon a time would have remained firmly in the post.
Yet while pace-and-space principles have forced centers beyond the arc at least some of the time, the real revolution for the league’s best bigs comes from variety, not pure shooting prowess.
“I wouldn’t overstate that they’re perimeter-oriented guys,” says a senior member of an NBA team’s front office. “A lot of the reason that Embiid and Jokic and Giannis are so effective is because they can get to the basket. [They] still have some version of the traditional big-man skill set.”
Indeed, Giannis is the NBA’s king at the rim: He led in points in the restricted area in 2021-22, for the third time in the four seasons. Jokic and Embiid, meanwhile, recorded by far the most post touches in the league. Their ballhandling, passing, and shooting are merely tools in their offensive belt, to reach the same goals as their back-to-the-basket predecessors. The real difference for modern big men is how they look and move.
In the past, says Dan Barto, head of basketball development at IMG Academy, centers’ physical training was simple: “There was no method to the madness. It was just, OK, let’s get him as big and strong and fast and tough” as possible. But now, the league and sport science have developed in tandem. “There’s a much bigger emphasis on long-term mobility, long-term range of motion,” Barto says.
Gone are the days when plodding bigs like Enes Freedom and Jahlil Okafor were top-three picks. “We as a league don’t have a place for big stiffs anymore,” a personnel executive says. “It happened so fast. Less than a decade ago, dominant, low-post, back-to-the-basket scorers were still valued at a premium. Almost overnight, we kind of wrote them out of the league.”
NBA executives agree that big men entering the league are generally slimmer now, with quick-twitch muscles replacing overall bulk. “We want our centers to move like guards,” the personnel executive says.
Teams are still taking centers early in the draft—they’re just investing in different kinds of bigs. The draftees now fall in one of two broad groups: potential Giannis stoppers or potential Giannises.
The first group is made up of theoretical defensive anchors. Not everyone can emulate Jokic’s passing vision or Giannis’s physicality, but teams can find players with the ability to guard all five positions on switches against spread pick-and-rolls. Think of Bam Adebayo as the best of this archetype; the Heat center switched the most screens of any player this season, according to Second Spectrum. He also might have the best chance to slow Giannis one-on-one of any player in the league: Out of 27 defenders who have been the closest defender on at least 40 of Antetokounmpo’s shots over the past four seasons, Adebayo has allowed the lowest effective field goal percentage.
The second, even more exciting group is the potential future MVPs—the next Giannis or Jokic or Embiid. That group includes 7-foot-2 French teenager Victor Wembanyama, the projected top pick in the 2023 draft, whom ESPN draft analyst Mike Schmitz calls the “future of the NBA” and the “best prospect I’ve ever evaluated.” And it includes Gonzaga freshman Chet Holmgren, who might be the no. 1 pick in this summer’s draft, and whose college statistics place him in tremendous company alongside Davis and Mobley.
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An influx of proto-Giannises would tilt the balance of the league even more than Giannis himself already has. NBA execs say the next generation of big men could change the sport even further. “I know we talk ‘positionless, positionless, positionless,’” the personnel executive says. “That becomes a reality when guys who are 7-foot-2 operate as combo guards. That’s why Chet’s in demand. That’s why Victor’s in demand. ... They can do anything and you can put them at any position, and it makes sense.”
At this point, it’s probably necessary to pump the brakes for a moment. Sports trends are cyclical over broad spans of time, and NBA positional dynamics are no exception. “A lot of it is randomness—like I think some of it is player development, these bigs are learning these skill sets earlier,” the senior front office member says. “But I do think it just happens to be that there’s a special group of guys that have the ability at the moment.”
For most players, the limits of human ability will get in the way because the required combination of size and skill is so rare. The future will not look like the experiment envisioned by SB Nation’s Jon Bois when he populated the NBA 2K video game with draft classes full of 7-foot-2 superhumans with 99 overall ratings.
But the league doesn’t need 60 new goliaths to change dramatically; just a few world-beaters will do. Even just a few dominant centers has been sufficient to tilt the NBA’s axis whenever and wherever they played: George Mikan led the league’s first dynasty, followed by Bill Russell, who battled Wilt Chamberlain for years. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Willis Reed, Dave Cowens, and Bill Walton commanded the 1970s; then came Moses Malone, then Hakeem Olajuwon during Michael Jordan’s hiatus, then Shaquille O’Neal and the David Robinson–Tim Duncan duo.
And with more options than ever before, even if some promising centers fade, a medium hit rate on modern big men could still produce a competitive environment that rivals any from the golden days of the center position. Take Giannis, Jokic, and Embiid; add healthy versions of Anthony Davis and Zion Williamson; refine Adebayo’s offensive range and Karl-Anthony Towns’s defensive instincts; factor in continued development from Mobley and Jackson; dream on Holmgren and Wembanyama; and then the 2020s will have more than enough dynamic bigs to rule. All of those bigs are still in their teens or 20s, too, with plenty of room to expand their dominion across the league.
Barto predicts that the conversation about dominant bigs will soon extend far beyond Antetokounmpo, Jokic, and Embiid. “I think you could see, instead of us talking about just those three guys,” Barto says, “by 2027, you could have 10 to 12 of the top 25 players in the NBA actually be 4- or 5-men, guys over 6-foot-10.”
That forecast might seem optimistic. The league is flush with talent, and cracking a top-25 list—let alone realistically resembling the next Giannis—is a terrific challenge. But the personnel executive agrees there’s reason to believe in this near-term future. “I can’t say for sure that’ll happen, but I certainly think it’s more possible now,” he says when asked about Barto’s prediction. “Ten years ago, I would’ve said no shot. Shit, even five years ago, I would’ve said no shot. And now I would say: completely possible.”