Sometimes the biggest statements of the NBA regular season are made in the doldrums of March. Last Wednesday, Joel Embiid did everything he could to facilitate a thrilling Sixers win against the Celtics: He punched in 37 points and 22 rebounds over a hapless Boston frontcourt and effectively sealed the victory with a marvel of a defensive stop on Kyrie Irving. In a postgame interview with ESPN’s Cassidy Hubbarth, Embiid declared himself both the league’s best defensive player and its most unstoppable offensive force. It was a classic Embiid provocation in front of a national audience, sure, but it was also expressing a sentiment that ought to be extinct in this day and age.
While superstars like James Harden and Steph Curry are taking the entire sport on a magic carpet ride and making the most of a changing league that continues to prioritize and enable offense at the expense of defense, the allure of omnipositional giants like Embiid and Anthony Davis, or Swiss army Jordan acolytes in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, is simple: They are a tether to the waning reality of two-way dominance in the NBA.
It’s been 25 years since Hakeem Olajuwon took home both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1993-94; Michael Jordan (1987-88) is the only other player in NBA history to be awarded both distinctions in the same year. For a quarter-century, the illustrious club consisted of only the two best players from the legendary 1984 draft. And yet, in this season of all seasons, when the context of defense has become harder and harder to parse, the league may have found a worthy, even likely, new entrant.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the front-runner for the 2018-19 MVP award and he is among the cluster of four or five deserving DPOY candidates. His credentials are a testament to Occam’s razor: He’s the best player on the best team in the NBA; he’s the best defender on the best defense in the NBA. His explosive, ever-expanding game is like rocket science, but his impact is as easy to comprehend as basic arithmetic. Antetokounmpo is the only player in league history to average at least 27 points, 12 rebounds, and six assists per game since Oscar Robertson’s sophomore season in 1961-62; the only other player in recorded history to average at least six assists, 1.3 steals, and 1.5 blocks per game is Kevin Garnett in 2002-03. At only 24, Antetokounmpo has forged an unprecedented standard for the league—and he is still years away from his ball skills, court awareness, and instincts fully catching up with what is arguably the perfect NBA frame.
Tuesday’s matchup between the Bucks and Rockets pits Antetokounmpo and Harden, the two MVP front-runners, against one another in a clash of … semantics. The MVP race is a malleable construct often reduced to familiar themes: single-season achievement versus historical achievement; team success versus individual success. The winning formula shifts with every season, because every historic anomaly weighs differently in the minds of the public. Harden can claim to be a one-man offense not seen in the league in more than three decades; Giannis can claim to be the backbone of a top-three offense and defense—historically the mark of a true championship contender. They are both visions of the NBA’s future, but the Beard could suffer from narrative fatigue: Harden has either won or come in second place in MVP voting in three of the past four seasons. Giannis has never finished in the top five. The NBA is always in search of new blood (just ask Jordan or LeBron, two all-time greats who should have more MVP trophies than they own). Giannis could very well be the face of the league. And there might not be a better time for a coronation than now.
Giannis, at 6-foot-11 and 242 pounds, is a motorized diagram of what it means to play in the positionless NBA: Over the course of a single possession, he can glide through the positional responsibilities from 1 through 5 by initiating the offense by bringing the ball up the floor as a point guard, serving as a decoy along the baseline as a wing, or taking the ball straight down the lane as a rim-running center. What makes Giannis truly unique, however, is that he can assume the same fluidity on the other side of the court.
Antetokounmpo is Milwaukee’s best rim protector, but he doesn’t assume the role in a traditional sense. Giannis is often assigned to the opposition’s worst perimeter player, who is usually stationed in the corner, not as a way of hiding him, but as a way of enabling him to freelance along the baseline and around the paint. Having a fixed role down in the paint optimizes the abilities of traditional big men who are most effective when operating on the vertical plane, but by placing Giannis on the opponent’s weakest perimeter player, the Bucks install a sort of self-contained, one-man zone that takes advantage of Antetokounmpo’s length and ability to cover a remarkable amount of ground with just one step. And by giving Giannis enough of a runway, he’s able to protect the rim and the space around it from a variety of angles, in ways no player 6-foot-11 should be able to on an every-possession basis. It’s a gimmick entirely built around Antetokounmpo’s peculiarities, but it’s not really a gimmick at all. It’s what every defense in the NBA is built on: trust. And it’s the bedrock of what has made Milwaukee elite on that end of the floor. There are no easy comparisons for the kind of defensive player Giannis is becoming; my best effort is a fusion of Lakers-era Lamar Odom and peak Richard Sherman.
In the play below, the Sixers run a play to free up Embiid for an alley-oop dunk curling off a JJ Redick middle pindown screen, but Giannis sniffs out the play as Embiid rumbles down the paint for what he thinks will be an easy finish. The pass doesn’t quite have enough zip on it, which allows Giannis to leave his man (James Ennis III, in the left corner), and knock the ball out of Embiid’s grasp (and hit teammate Nikola Mirotic with a diving clothesline in the process):
In a similar play against the Pistons, Antetokounmpo plays off Blake Griffin in the corner in order to pick up a driving Andre Drummond after the Detroit center leaves Brook Lopez clutching his LifeAlert remote control:
Though unorthodox in appearance and execution, deploying Giannis as a massive free safety actually follows a very traditional thought process: Defense, at all levels of basketball, is often defined by the biggest physical anomaly on the floor. Look no further than March Madness and 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall (who has an 8-foot-4 wingspan), who made life a living hell for a vastly more talented Duke squad in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The Utah Jazz have had an elite defense for the past few years largely because Rudy Gobert’s 7-foot-8 wingspan allows him to tag both the handler and roll man in a pick-and-roll just by unfurling his arms and occupying space; being able to corral two players at once means the inherent advantage of a pick-and-roll (creating a two-on-one situation) is stymied, allowing the defenders around him to stay on their assignments rather than overhelping.
I think about Gobert’s impact on defense a lot when I think about Giannis’s—and not just because they both allow roughly 53 percent shooting around the rim, an elite mark among high-usage defensive players. While they could not be more different in style, ultimately what makes both such successful defenders is their ability to colonize space by virtue of their physical gifts. Having one defensive player capable of defending for two is an ultimate luxury in the NBA, but Gobert, for all of his brilliance, can only do his best work around the rim. Giannis has the potential to flex his defensive ability just about anywhere on the floor. Like any player his size, Antetokounmpo often gets himself into trouble when he’s switched onto faster scoring guards, but there are few players who can recover as quickly as he can. Even then, there aren’t any matchups for Giannis that would inspire dread.
Antetokounmpo is matchup-proof, which is the biggest compliment one can receive in this era. What makes Antetokounmpo the perfect modern defender is his lack of specialization: He isn’t strictly a rim protector, nor is he strictly a one-on-one defender on the perimeter or in the post. The Bucks are loaded with smart, capable individual defenders, and even those who don’t have that reputation have excelled in coach Mike Budenholzer’s system: Lopez has thrived in a drop-heavy scheme that asks him to defend the paint as though he were protecting his family from a grizzly bear (he’s done well in his role, allowing only 51.5 percent shooting around the rim, a better figure than either Gobert or Antetokounmpo). And given Budenholzer’s Spurs pedigree, players have developed an instinct for when to help off their man and when to rotate and recover—none more so than Antetokounmpo, who has become the best help defender in the league.
At a time when defensive success and value has become more nebulous than ever, individual brilliance is not as important as the schemes putting everyone in the right position. In that sense, Giannis, again, stands tall as an outlier: By playing selflessly within the Bucks’ scheme, he’s been rewarded with all the leeway he needed to emerge as one of the biggest defensive playmakers in the game. If there is a year for the MVP and DPOY awards to once again overlap, Giannis, in all his universality, has made a compelling case for 2018-19 to be the one.