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Making a Most Valuable Player

Why Giannis Antetokounmpo fits the new MVP archetype in today’s NBA

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You think you’re hype for Giannis Antetokounmpo? You are not hype for Giannis Antetokounmpo. Or, at least, you are not as hype for him as D.J. Wilson. The rookie has quickly positioned himself as the Flavor Flav of the Bucks bench. Maybe Wilson doesn’t scream “Yeeaaaaah, boy!” after each Giannis basket, but you can watch him have something approaching a full-body spasm after almost every Greek Freak highlight.

Wilson is hardly alone. If you haven’t yet booked passage on the Pro-Giannis Express, you’re screwed. You overslept. It boarded days ago and is presently thundering along without you at incredible speed.

The Bucks have played four games, which represents not even a full 5 percent of their regular-season schedule. But what a first four games it’s been for Giannis. He scored 30 or more points in all four outings—and six straight going back to the playoffs. His 147 points to start the season set a franchise record. In the process, the league-wide Giannis chatter has mushroomed into full-throated support. Giannis Twitter is already out of control, and every media outlet from the Washington Post to Sports Illustrated to our very own NBA-obsessed site has accelerated the overarching take from “Giannis is sooooo good” to “Giannis for MVP.”

Fans and media members aren’t the only ones swooning over him. Celtics coach Brad Stevens flat-out called Giannis “an MVP candidate,” and Hornets coach Steve Clifford basically got the vapors when talking about him. During the offseason, Kobe Bryant issued Giannis one of his exclusive MVP challenges. And before the Cavs battled (and ultimately upended) the Bucks in Milwaukee last weekend, LeBron James was asked about whether Giannis—who at that point had played precisely one game this season—is a legitimate MVP candidate.

LeBron would have been forgiven if he had shrugged off the question as little more than silly shootaround fodder. He is LeBron, after all. He has won four MVP awards—and five more if you count the two All-Star Game MVPs and three NBA Finals MVPs. The man is a walking MVP trophy, and frankly a more statuesque version than the current model. But LeBron did not blow off or belittle the question. On the contrary, he afforded it his full consideration.

“I’ve seen some of the numbers,” LeBron said. “I’ve seen some of the highlights. He’s a very dynamic player, a very good player, on the path to greatness, that’s for sure, if he’s not already there.”

At first glance, it seemed a flattering (if routine) quote from LeBron—until you consider the attendant qualifiers. LeBron admitted he didn’t see Giannis’s first game, only the highlights. And while he placed Giannis on “the path” to greatness, he still had to wonder “if” Giannis had arrived at the desired destination.

LeBron’s remarks provide some interesting nuance in a conversation that largely lacks it at the moment. We’ve been so busy shouting about Giannis’s amazing early-season performances that we sometimes miss—or willfully ignore—the rest of the story. Consider that game against the Cavs. Giannis was masterful. He had 34 points (on 15 of 22 shooting), to go with eight rebounds, eight assists, three steals, and a block. He was also minus-17 in that game and caught an L. That usually stands for loss, but in this case, it could also be short for LeBron.

LeBron was a plus-13 and helped the Cavs to a 19-point win over the Bucks. Along with that statement recovery block, it was a good reminder that, for all our understandable drooling over Giannis—and he really has been amazing—the league’s pecking order hasn’t changed.

The real question isn’t so much whether Giannis is a legit MVP candidate. He is. Even the oddsmakers now place him as the front-runner. No, the better question is why we’re all so seemingly eager to push Giannis out front right now, right this very second. What is it about the next big thing that makes us so quick to overlook what we already have?

In retrospect, it’s not surprising that the collective NBA community has become consumed with all things Giannis. He checks all the boxes that kick-start these sorts of conversations: appointment League Pass viewing, eye-popping stats, a physical frame that’s already cartoonish and getting stronger, and a fantastic nickname that speaks to all of it. Plus, the Freak is fun. (He even has dad jokes!)

He also called his own shot. Over the summer, Giannis sat down with Bucks broadcaster Jim Paschke to talk about all sorts of things. During the course of the conversation, Paschke posited that Giannis would likely not win Most Improved Player again this season since he it won it a year ago. Giannis thought about it for a second.

“I might be the MVP this year,” Giannis replied.

Paschke reminded him that he said “most improved.”

“OK, but,” Giannis continued, “if I win the MVP, I can win the Most Improved.”

Then Giannis tilted his head to the side, shrugged and smiled—as though no one could wiggle out of the logic trap he had just set. As Greek philosophers go, he’s pretty good. As a basketball player, he’s even better.

He is averaging 36.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.3 steals, and 1.0 blocks per game. He’s shooting 65.9 percent from the field on 22 attempts per game, and doing it all while averaging 38.5 minutes. Through Tuesday, he led the league in PER, box plus-minus, win shares, and VORP. He absolutely blows out box scores.

But for all the excitement surrounding Giannis at the moment, there is an obvious potential impediment to his candidacy (and, no, it’s not his lack of an outside shot, though that still clearly needs a lot of work). Russell Westbrook chased stats and averaged a triple-double last season, but there were debates about whether the electorate would or should vote for someone from a team that probably wouldn’t go very far in the playoffs. That’s exactly what happened. Westbrook won the award, but the Thunder got bounced from the postseason after it was barely underway. Not to mention that Westbrook was criticized for stat-padding and stealing rebounds from teammates.

The Thunder won 47 games last season. It was the fewest wins by an MVP’s team (not including the strike-shortened 2011-12 season) since Moses Malone claimed the award with the 1981-82 Rockets, who mustered just 46 victories. After talking to a handful of league executives this week, the consensus was that Giannis is for real, but no one is sure if the Bucks are. Doubts about the Bucks’ depth were repeatedly expressed, and rightly so. The bar is pretty high for Giannis because of his team—which is why it’s so impressive when he leaps over it each night to dunk on someone.

Jabari Parker isn’t expected back from his second torn ACL until after the new year. The combined averages of the Bucks’ second-leading scorer (Malcolm Brogdon, 16 PPG) and third-leading scorer (Khris Middleton, 15.3 PPG) still don’t match Giannis’s gaudy points per game to this point in the season. And, remarkably, coach Jason Kidd is presently playing Tony Snell 33.3 minutes per game and Matthew Dellavedova 24.8 minutes per game—which works out to 58.1 minutes more than any team that might call itself “good” would want from those two. Meanwhile, Giannis’s usage rate has exploded from an already-significant 28.3 last year to a Westbrookesque 35.9 this season. As LeBron neatly summarized last week, Giannis has the skill set and the talent to win MVP, but “at the end of the day, it’s all about team success.”

Of course, “One Player vs. the World” certainly worked for Russ. Westbrook’s one-man barrage, in the wake of Kevin Durant’s departure, became the story of the NBA last season. Obliterating the lowered expectations heaped upon the Thunder made some of us—if, notably, not all—like him more, especially given the fireworks that came with every big performance. Maybe voters will demand more. … Or maybe they’ll demand more of the same, just from someone new.

It’s legitimate to wonder what the Bucks might ultimately achieve later on; it’s also a lot less enjoyable than letting Giannis entertain us right now. He’s the latest shiny object to hypnotize us. That’s not a knock. I’m as mesmerized as anyone. I frequently find myself marveling at his latest highlights and stats. It’s fun—in part because of how good he already is, but also because it lends itself to forecasting how much better he can still become. We always want to identify the next guy. And we have. The next guy is this guy. It’s just that we don’t want to save any part of him for later, we want it all right now.