Last season’s MVP was Russell Westbrook. He was Oklahoma City’s ball handler, and its outside shooter, and the one inside crashing the glass, and, arguably, the one calling the plays. The only duty not attached to Russell Westbrook with an and was benchwarmer, because when Westbrook did rest—like for six minutes in Game 5 of the first round against Houston, for example—Oklahoma City’s power cut out. It was like the end to every house party in [Insert Teen Movie Here]. Off goes the music, off go the lights, no more attacks to the basket. It was just Victor Oladipo, Andre Roberson, and Alex Abrines on the dance floor, and no one had any moves once the lights came back on. There wasn’t any winning it all with Westbrook, triple-double machinator, last season. But there was only tanking without him.
This season, Giannis Antetokounmpo plays MVP Russ for Milwaukee, though a less ball-dominant version, and therefore a more celebrated one. After selecting him with the 15th pick (still LOL) in the 2013 NBA draft, the Bucks wanted to see the 6-foot-11 unicorn at shooting guard, then announced he was a point guard, then suggested he’d spend time at center before deciding to throw away labels for good. Giannis is the full spectrum. He shoulders distribution duties, he shelters the rim, he hunts for deflections, and he folds the court in half in transition; if he isn’t the one tossing out an assist, it’s almost certainly because he’s on the receiving end of it. Or it’s because he’s on the bench, which, for the Bucks, goes about as well as it did for the Thunder when Russ sat last season. Riding the pine is the one role Giannis, who puts in the second-most minutes per game in the league, is rarely asked to take.
Heading into the season with the Rookie of the Year (Malcolm Brogdon) and Khris Middleton in tow, and with a then-healthy Jabari Parker, Milwaukee appeared to have one of the most promising young teams in the league. Danny Chau wrote about that mirage last week: “For a team that is hyperaware that Giannis is their only ticket to elite status, they seem awfully intent on crowding his runway. […] But even then, Antetokounmpo has proved himself so transcendent that almost none of this gets in the way of his two-way impact. I’ve gone entire games wondering about the Bucks’ issues without thinking about Giannis’s involvement once.”
You could easily have said the same thing about the 2016-17 Thunder. A number of playoff bubble teams from both conferences share DNA with that Thunder team last season, including the Bucks. They seem capable, possession to possession, under the one condition: that the ordained is on the floor. Advanced analytics sometimes tell little white lies. (Charles Barkley, without knowing why, just stood up somewhere and golf-clapped.) Especially with on/off court numbers—how many points per 100 possessions a team scores and allows while a player is in the game—that are served up without context. The Clippers, for example, allowed 80.8 points and scored 117.2 when Brice Johnson was on the floor this season. (Johnson, now with the Grizzlies, played 38.7 total minutes for L.A.) There’s also a distortion, though more subtle, for bench players, who as analytics heads regularly point out, are usually facing less challenging competition against another second unit.
But the Giannises, the Joel Embiids, the Jimmy Butlers, and the Anthony Davises are on/off lords by eye test, and that is seconded by Synergy. And each plays on a team facing the same Catch-22 that brought Westbrook an MVP award last season: overplay the reason for winning, or don’t win. The Sixers are 3-8 in games played without Embiid. Minnesota is an admirable 6-7 since Butler’s meniscus tear, but are now hanging off the playoff elimination cliff.
LeBron James is the icon for this level of usage and dependency. Ageless LeBron has never deviated from taking on that role because he doesn’t know injuries, and by proxy, we don’t know him as someone who ever has to be off the court. (Usually. Remember the cramp?!) At 33, he still leads the league in total minutes this season. He stays on the court, as he must, now more than ever. With him, they’re the Cavaliers. Without him, they’re the Browns.
What the over-reliance says for each team varies on playing style and surrounding cast. Davis is unquestionably shooting and rebounding and blocking the Pels to wins, but New Orleans doesn’t just turn into a ghost town of role players when he sits, thanks to Jrue Holiday, whose on/off net rating is actually higher than Davis’s. The Crescent City also has a surprisingly capable bench. Minnesota was starting an All-Star in Karl-Anthony Towns and a defrosting one in Andrew Wiggins before Butler arrived in town. Neither had trouble sliding back into their high-scoring, first- and second-option roles from last season when Jimmy went down after the All-Star break. But there are empty spaces where Butler’s knick-knacks used to decorate the court—selflessness with the ball, drawing in defenders and giving KAT and Wiggins open looks, and perimeter defense. With Butler on the floor, Minnesota is less than a point away from being a top-10 defense. Without him, the Wolves have a worse defensive rating than the league-worst Phoenix Suns. Having Butler made Minnesota a lock for its first playoff appearance since 2004; his being sidelined puts that accomplishment in jeopardy.
What Butler does for KAT is comparable to what Embiid provides for Ben Simmons—both younger players are obviously more than consolation prizes when they’re on the court alone, but the bump their teammates give them is the difference between escaping the first round and a five-game out. Embiid’s presence underneath the basket allows Philly to mask Simmons’s inability to shoot; when Simmons goes it alone, he’s forced to settle more, taking double the midrange jumpers and making them at a worse rate. With both the Sixers and Wolves, the on-court energy dilutes from three espresso shots with their star to half a B12 vitamin.
Of all the bubble teams, no dependence resembles last season’s Thunder problem as closely as the Bucks’ with Giannis. He does it all is one of the great sports compliments, and the Greek Freak, who leads Milwaukee in points, blocks, rebounds, and assists (and is second in steals), does do it all. The questions is what everyone else is doing. When the answer rolls around, at the very end of the first quarter and beginning of the second, it’s the kind of thing you wish you never asked.