In all the NBA’s towering history, only two players have, at any point in their career, won both Defensive Player of the Year and a scoring title. The first, predictably, is Michael Jordan—one of the few guards to claim a defensive honor largely dominated by big men. The other is David Robinson, who earned his scoring belt in legendary fashion by holding off Shaquille O’Neal with a 71-point explosion in the final game of the 1993-94 regular season.
Giannis Antetokounmpo could be the third, if the next few weeks break his way, and also the only player in over 30 years to claim both honors in the same season. As things stand today, Antetokounmpo is among the betting favorites for Defensive Player of the Year and virtually deadlocked (at 29.8 points per game) in the scoring race with Joel Embiid (29.9) and LeBron James (29.5). Maybe one or both of those accolades will elude Giannis. Yet the fact that both are even in play this late into the season calls into question how, exactly, a two-time MVP and reigning champion who’s killing teams on both ends of the floor is getting edged out of this year’s MVP conversation.
The answer, ultimately, has less to do with Antetokounmpo than with his spectacular competition. It feels as if the MVP race has narrowed to Embiid and Nikola Jokic, whose performance this season is well beyond reproach. I, for one, welcome our new unicorn center overlords. Yet before they dominated the running, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant had their moment; back in December, Curry drew 94 of 100 first-place votes in ESPN.com’s straw poll of awards voters, and Durant ranked second by total points. Antetokounmpo, even then, registered as a somewhat distant third. As the race broadened, ESPN aired First Take segments a month apart declaring that Ja Morant and DeMar DeRozan were each the MVP favorite.
Through no real fault of his own, Giannis hasn’t really had that kind of narrative juice. His season—like Milwaukee’s—has been more of a slow burn, the kind that doesn’t easily lend itself to awards stumping until you look up with a month left in the regular season to find Antetokounmpo’s name dotted across the NBA’s statistical leaderboards and the Bucks in second place in the East. Although Jokic tops all competition in pretty much every advanced metric in existence, Antetokounmpo is uniformly right behind him, chasing down his lead like he would a guard running the break. Jokic has been brilliant. Yet for all his vision and bully-ball scoring and earned defensive improvement, it’s still hard to make the case that he has been definitively better than Antetokounmpo—a player so pervasive that he seems to have a hand in every possession.
Jokic does a ton on the floor, and certainly does his part defensively. But Antetokounmpo holds his team together on that end; even without Brook Lopez around (until recently) to help mind the rim, Giannis has propped up Milwaukee’s coverage this season by allowing a wider variety of schemes and shutting down options in every fashion. There is a constancy to Antetokounmpo’s defense that even Embiid can’t match. While the Sixers center subtly shapes possessions by dropping back and lying in wait, Giannis flies around the floor and through rotations, stretching a similar fear factor even further by covering even more ground. He just never stops.
If Jokic or Embiid enjoyed some overwhelming advantage on offense, maybe something like that wouldn’t matter as much. Yet for as overwhelming as Embiid has been, Antetokounmpo has scored just as much, and has done so more efficiently. And for all the magic that Jokic has worked to make ends meet for the short-handed Nuggets, Giannis is pretty much a modern offense unto himself. No player in basketball has scored more points at the rim or assisted more 3-pointers this season—not even Jokic.
Look closely and a two-man race becomes three. In a way, Giannis exists in the balance between Jokic and Embiid, marrying some of their best qualities in a more kinetic style. Depending on your view of the field, you could choose to see that as a compromise or as a point of leverage. Antetokounmpo doesn’t see the floor the way Jokic does and can’t work over a one-on-one matchup as assuredly as Embiid. Yet the full brunt of his game—on both ends, in top gear, all the time—still makes him the most undeniable matchup in the sport. Jokic and Embiid have survived their share of playoff tests, but Antetokounmpo took the book on how to counter him and ripped it in half last postseason. Then he came into this season playing completely free, empowered by all the clever plans he had laid to waste.
Maybe there’s an assistant coach out there with some top-secret strategy to keep Giannis from dropping 50 in a series-clinching game, but we haven’t seen the slightest hint of it. No one seems to have a clue of what to do with this version of the reigning Finals MVP—the version that trusts his turnaround jumper, but knows himself well enough to see just how easily he could toss aside his defender and walk into a layup instead. The reality is that there’s not really a scheme to contain any of these guys; sometimes all good defensive tactics give you is the illusion of control. All an opponent can really do with Antetokounmpo, Jokic, or Embiid is force them to make hard choices through all kinds of punishing obstructions, over and over, and hope that they get worn down by the weight of it all.
Best of luck with that against Giannis. There isn’t a wall he can’t run through these days, or a system he hasn’t already taken down. The case for Antetokounmpo as the league’s most valuable player can be made by the numbers, or with performances hand picked for your consideration, or by winning the league’s top defensive honor while also leading all players in scoring. Or, after almost a full season of demolitions, you could simply take note of all the rubble that Giannis has left behind.