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Deer in the Spotlight

Forgot about Giannis? The Bucks superstar’s MVP momentum may have slowed as his team struggles, but his elite status was confirmed by the latest round of All-Star votes.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The #NBAVote era of the All-Star voting process created a digital graveyard. Ghost ballots roamed aimlessly, invalidated by poor spelling. With the rise of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the graveyard became a mausoleum—an exhibition of missing letters, of how easy it is to place the “m” before the “n.”

“I’d have a million votes if everybody could spell my name right,” Antetokounmpo told reporters in late December.

But those days are over. The single most challenging name to spell of any star in NBA history has forced the league to account for typos. And after leading in overall fan votes in the first ballot return, Giannis now trails LeBron James by fewer than 150,000 votes—a margin close enough for the idea of ballots slipping through the cracks to mean something. Antetokounmpo wants to be the leading vote-getter. He should; not only would he get to serve as one of two captains to pick his own team, he also embodies everything the event is supposed to capture. The 23-year-old is the same age Vince Carter was when he broke through as All-Star Weekend’s main attraction in 2000.

In a league where narratives shift daily, and arguably the greatest player ever is taken for granted, Antetokounmpo’s emergence as one of its biggest stars shows that we aren’t so jaded as to deny ourselves the thrill of wondering what Giannis is about to do next. In that sense, his parallels to Carter are evident. Carter was the league’s first true protoviral star, capturing the imagination of the basketball-viewing public despite the fact that he was leading a five-year-old expansion team in Canada. Carter is the best in-game dunker I’ve seen in my lifetime, each exhibition in his prime was an unearthly combination of violence and grace. The sheer freakishness of his physical talent dissolved barriers. We wanted to see Vinsanity, and we wanted to see it fully unleashed in All-Star Weekend’s deconstructed environment. That’s where we are, 18 years later, with Giannis.

The prospect of defending Antetokounmpo on a fast break unfurls itself like an ethical dilemma. He is the Trolley Problem made flesh. Defenders have no reasonable method of stopping a bullet train with the power of LeBron and the protracted strides of Kevin Durant. They have to make a decision: give up the layup, or give up the corner 3. But the Trolley Problem doesn’t offer a third avenue like Antetokounmpo does. It doesn’t consider what might happen should the trolley stop.

One of the most impressive things about Antetokounmpo is how far he forces us to reach for the words necessary to convey what it is he does. (There exists an entire New Yorker article titled “Trying to Describe Giannis Antetokounmpo.”) Actually, let’s rephrase that: One of the least impressive things about sports fans is how difficult it is for us to capture greatness when we see it.

Great athletes lure us into our flawed impulse of rationalizing things we don’t understand—like, for instance, the limits of the human body. The rationalizing falls on a spectrum: On one end, we regurgitate factoids of John Brenkus from Sport Science, and contextualize an athlete’s abilities into oblivion, which can obscure the very utility of their gifts. On the other, we are Denis Leary in every Ford F-150 commercial of the past decade, psychobabbling secondhand information about inherent physiology the way Leary moans about a high-strength, military-grade aluminum alloy body bolted to a high-strength steel frame. In 2008, after a historic eight gold medals in a single Olympics, one of the most common methods of explaining Michael Phelps’s success was zoomorphism—making him seem as fish-like as possible. Phelps possesses an elongated torso and abnormally short legs, mimicking the motor design of predatory fish; he has larger hands and feet than an average person of his height, and his feet are capable of flexing to a greater degree than most of his competition, which turns his feet into fins. At his peak, it would’ve been easier to convince someone that Phelps was the son of Poseidon than to convince them otherwise. But some physicians were dubious of Phelps’s “special” physiology playing such a vital role in his success; it’s not like we were gawking at a member of the X-Men, right?

Phelps, perhaps more so than any athlete in basketball, is Antetokounmpo’s closest comparison. He takes Phelps’s most characteristic feature—a stretched-out torso and stubby legs—and inverts it. (I said regurgitating the Scientific American was a flawed impulse, I didn’t say I was above it.) Length in the NBA almost always refers to wingspan. Arms create the trajectory of a ball, arms create deflections and steals in the passing lane. But Giannis’s 7-foot-3 wingspan, 4 inches longer than he is tall, isn’t nearly as freakish as his legs, which stretch past infinity. Phelps was built in the image of a swordfish; Antetokounmpo was built in the image of a giraffe after a year of squats and leg presses. Phelps has feet that bend 15 degrees more at the ankle than most people’s, giving him built-in flippers; Giannis has Achilles tendons nearly twice as long as the average male’s, which is one of the reasons why he can cover 10 feet per step on a fast break and 50 feet in a single dribble. And unlike Phelps, Giannis doesn’t have to stay in his lane. He’s spent the past five seasons learning how to invade and occupy everyone else’s.

We don’t call Antetokounmpo a point guard anymore. It’s not that he no longer serves as the Bucks’ hub for all activity, it’s that the team no longer has to promote it. It’s self-evident. Jason Kidd declaring Antetokounmpo a point guard last season was a PR campaign disguised as a positional overhaul. Yet, to say Giannis transcends position is almost dismissive of what he’s been able to accomplish within the boundaries of the game. He is the Bucks’ best point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center. He is everything the Bucks need him to be. The same can’t be said about the inverse.

There is no catch-all NBA metric that fully captures the impact of a single player on his team, but one stat does sketch an outline. The Bucks have outscored their opponents by 4.9 points per 100 possessions in the 1,429 minutes Giannis has been on the court; in the 501 minutes they’ve played without him, the Bucks dive straight to hell, getting outscored by 11.2 points per 100 possessions. That’s a minus-16.1 differential between Antetokounmpo’s on-court and off-court net rating. It is one of the largest disparities among star players this season—only Kemba Walker (minus-18.4), Jimmy Butler (minus-18.1), and Jrue Holiday (minus-17.4) have a larger swing. One of the biggest statistical arguments for LeBron as MVP last season was that the Cavs were 16.2 points worse per 100 possessions when he wasn’t on the floor; Kobe Bryant’s biggest on/off differential was 12.8 in the Lakers’ 2009-10 championship season (on/off numbers were first logged in the 2007-08 season, conveniently before his me-against-the-world seasons).

The MVP chatter for Giannis has died down since his luminous start to the season. Now, when the Bucks make the headlines, it’s just as likely a puzzling Kidd coaching decision gone viral as Antetokounmpo’s latest distortion of physics. Antetokounmpo is putting up stats that have been matched only by Russell Westbrook and David Robinson, but in the pseudoscience of MVP voting, numbers can only trump narrative when the numbers are the narrative. Westbrook set the bar in that regard, one that Giannis hasn’t quite cleared, as impressive as he’s been.

The Bucks are treading in place and are about to embark on an important four-game stretch against fellow conference playoff contenders, preluded by a game against the Warriors on Friday night. Giannis has made the rare leap into superstardom, and in theory, Milwaukee already has the blueprint to building the next great team around him. But the Bucks, even with the infusion of Eric Bledsoe, are still performing as if they’re trapped in a bubble of last season’s expectations. The league has a not-insignificant number of unicorns still figuring out what to do with their horns, and it will be receiving a new shipment in June. The Bucks have a Pegasus in flight, but even the divine can’t do it alone.