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Giannis May Be the Next Shaq, but He Needs a Kobe in Crunch Time

To break through their postseason wall, the Bucks may be better off limiting their two-time MVP’s role in crucial moments

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Nets beat the Bucks in a thriller Monday night, and a whole bunch of players had a moment to shine down the stretch. Kevin Durant and Joe Harris made clutch 3s. James Harden and Jrue Holiday scored closer to the basket. Khris Middleton hit jumper after jumper. Everyone you’d expect participated—except Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Giannis led the Bucks with 34 points in the game, to be fair. But he wasn’t the Bucks’ leader for the final possessions, instead taking on a surprisingly secondary role.

It wasn’t just that the two-time reigning MVP took only a single shot in crunch time Monday. Nor was it just that the shot was a putback dunk, rather than an attempt within the flow of the offense. Rather, the greatest surprise of all was that that putback was the only time, period, that Giannis so much as touched the ball in the frontcourt in the final minutes of the game.

Although it came in just a single game—albeit a potential conference finals preview—that late-game development represented a stark change from how the Bucks typically operate in the clutch. Giannis led the league in usage rate last season—and he dominated the ball even more in clutch situations. Overall, he ended 36.3 percent of possessions with a shot, free throw trip, or turnover, per NBA Advanced Stats; when the score was within five points in the last five minutes of a game, that figure rose to 42.3.

That kind of pattern is common among no. 1 option across the league. For the 15 highest-usage players last season, their usage rates increased by an average of 5.5 percentage points in clutch situations, compared to their overall rates. The only high-volume player whose clutch usage fell a notable amount was Russell Westbrook—who shared his clutch time with an even higher-usage teammate in Harden.

High-Usage Players in the Clutch, 2019-20

Player Overall USG% Clutch USG% Change
Player Overall USG% Clutch USG% Change
Zach LaVine 31.2 44.9 +13.7
Derrick Rose 30.3 44.0 +13.7
Trae Young 33.9 44.6 +10.7
Donovan Mitchell 30.3 40.5 +10.2
Bradley Beal 33.8 42.7 +8.9
Damian Lillard 29.4 37.2 +7.8
Joel Embiid 31.5 38.7 +7.2
Giannis Antetokounmpo 36.3 42.3 +6.0
D'Angelo Russell 30.5 36.4 +5.9
Devin Booker 29.4 32.9 +3.5
LeBron James 30.8 33.6 +2.8
James Harden 35.6 36.9 +1.3
Kawhi Leonard 32.7 32.5 -0.2
Luka Doncic 35.5 34.9 -0.6
Russell Westbrook 33.0 24.2 -8.8

Yet this season, Giannis’s clutch usage is down 10.3 percentage points compared to his overall rate. He’s third in general usage (33.6 percent) but just 54th in clutch usage (23.3 percent). He’s using just about half as many clutch possessions as he did a season ago.

Granted, it’s still very early in the season, and the Bucks have already played in plenty of blowouts (in both directions). They’ve had only three games that meet NBA Advanced Stats’ “clutch” definition, the fewest for any team. But this change reveals a potentially novel approach to end-of-game offense for the Bucks, after two postseason flameouts in as many years.

I first compared Giannis to turn-of-the-century Shaquille O’Neal two seasons ago, in reference to his dominance near the basket, and that comparison is instructive here, too. Even though Shaq won an MVP and led the league in scoring, he still ceded to a teammate at the end of games. In the most important moments, Kobe Bryant was the Lakers’ lead creator.

In every regular season during the Lakers’ dynastic run from 1999-00 through 2003-04, Kobe posted a higher clutch usage rate. Comparing their overall to clutch usage figures shows how much more the Lakers relied on Bryant at the end of close games than any other time. (Usage rate isn’t a perfect statistic at the end of games because of intentional fouls by the trailing team, but Kobe also took many more clutch field goals, and the usage difference isn’t particularly close.)

Kobe vs. Shaq

Situation Kobe Shaq Comparison
Situation Kobe Shaq Comparison
Overall 29.5% 30.0% Shaq +0.5
Clutch 37.9% 25.1% Kobe +12.8

Giannis might need his own Kobe for the Bucks to thrive in clutch moments, too. This comparison is extra relevant now, as Giannis’s free throw performance is approaching Shaq territory, too.

Once comfortably settled around 75 percent from the line, Giannis fell to 63 percent last season, and he’s down to 59 percent this season, with a 1-for-10 showing against Dallas a particular lowlight. (Take out that one outlier game, and he’s at 63 percent again.)

Notably, Giannis’s only two shot attempts late in that game against Dallas—a 112-109 Bucks victory—were stepback 3-pointers as Willie Cauley-Stein played loose coverage; Giannis appeared to want no part of driving to the rim and potentially being sent back to the line. The team’s next game came against Brooklyn, when the Bucks’ best player never touched the ball in the normal flow of the offense down the stretch.

Instead, Giannis pivoted to a more standard role for a big man: setting screens for a perimeter scorer. This clip shows four different plays—two in the first half, two in the final minutes—from the Nets game in which a simple top-of-the-key pick for Middleton eased the way to a bucket. In all four, DeAndre Jordan, nominally guarding Giannis, hung back in the paint, giving Middleton 10 feet of runway to accelerate into a layup or pull up for an uncontested jumper.

Even if midrange shots are less efficient on the whole, they represent a valuable shot for a player of Middleton’s caliber. Since the start of last season, Middleton is shooting 52 percent on midrange jumpers—third best among 97 players with at least 100 attempts in that span.

The Bucks leaned heavily in this direction against Brooklyn. Zach Lowe noted on The Lowe Post podcast that, per Second Spectrum tracking, Giannis set 36 ball screens against the Nets; for context, his previous single-game high in the past two seasons was just 21 screens. And until the final shot with the clock winding down, the last six Bucks possessions in that game all involved a big man (Giannis five times, Brook Lopez once) setting a pick to free Middleton to make a play.

  • Middleton handles, Giannis pick, midrange jumper (make)
  • Middleton handles, Giannis pick, kickout to Lopez for 3-pointer (miss)
  • Middleton handles, Lopez pick, layup (make)
  • Middleton handles, Giannis pick, pass to a cutting Holiday for a layup (miss), Giannis putback dunk (make)
  • Middleton handles, Giannis pick, midrange jumper (make)
  • Middleton handles, Giannis pick, 3-pointer (miss)
  • Middleton receives inbounds pass, takes contested shot with time about to expire (miss)

Even with the Nets placing a superior defender (Durant) on Middleton and an inferior one (Jordan) on Giannis, the Bucks kept giving Middleton the ball and room to roam. And while the Shaq/Giannis comparison places Middleton in unflattering light next to Bryant, he is a capable closer in his own right. In the narrow win against Dallas, for instance, Middleton won the game with a pair of 3-point makes after the Mavericks had taken a late lead.

Middleton is a tremendous shooter with a rare knack for combining volume with efficiency. Last season, he posted 50/42/92 shooting splits; this season, he’s bumped those up to 53/44/93. Among players with a 25 percent usage rate or higher, Middleton ranked fourth last season, and ranks fifth so far this season, in true shooting percentage.

And he is particularly adept at creating his own shot—a crucial skill when defenses clamp down at the end of games. Over the past three seasons, Middleton ranks in the 92nd percentile of ball handlers in pick-and-rolls and the 85th percentile in isolations (among players with at least 100 possessions of the play type).

Those are both elite figures. The only players who have been better than Middleton at both play types are a who’s who of closers: Steph Curry, Durant, Kyrie Irving, Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard, and Chris Paul. (Look at Durant, Irving, and Harden all on that list; the Nets are absolutely going to set defenses aflame.)

Middleton is also one of the most accurate free throw shooters in NBA history—a strong contrast with Giannis, and something to consider when it comes to who might feel more comfortable driving into a thicket of arms with the game on the line.

He and Giannis aren’t the only Bucks players who can take the reins in crunch time. Jrue Holiday is another potential target for Giannis screens—a steadier and more threatening creator than Eric Bledsoe, the guard he replaced in Milwaukee’s crunch-time five. In either case, whether Middleton or Holiday has the ball, the defense is stuck choosing between untenable options if Giannis rumbles to the top of the key to initiate the play with a pick.

If the defense gives him space before he sets a screen, like Jordan in the above clips, Middleton or Holiday can scoot around the pick unencumbered. If the defense switches, Giannis can power through a smaller defender. If the defense tries to trap, the ball handler can slip Giannis a pass for a four-on-three situation with the most explosive paint scorer in the league—and a proficient passer on the move—rampaging toward the rim. Of course, the latter two options may result in more Giannis free throws; this setup alleviates the burden of making open 3s, but Giannis will have to hit some shots if Milwaukee wants to advance in the playoffs.

If the Bucks’ crunch-time approach continues, it would pose a stark shift from Milwaukee’s previous strategy in clutch situations—the one almost every other team uses: Give the best player the ball and get out of the way. Yet when Giannis handled the ball on the perimeter against a set and focused defense, he’d have to bust through a walled-off paint or else expose his own shooting difficulties. The Bucks weren’t a disastrous clutch team in recent seasons, but they depended more on their league-best defense than an offense that lacked imagination.

The new approach isn’t that much more imaginative, but it supplies a twist all the same, relying on a different element of the MVP’s skill set and turning him more into a Shaq than Kobe. That’s not an indictment of Giannis’s game, but a recalibration of how he fits best in the team’s closing lineup. Heck, Shaq won all three Finals MVPs from 2000 through 2002. But he still needed a perimeter scorer to lead the offense in the clutch.

Stats through Tuesday’s games.