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Is the Dame-Giannis Pick-and-Roll a Work in Progress or Just an Afterthought?

The two-man game between Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo seems like an easy path to face-melting offense, yet the Bucks have been oddly reluctant to turn to it. Will the two superstars be able to find a rhythm?

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

It can be hard to grapple with the feeling of absence—with the way it nags and follows, a constant reminder of something you can’t quite place. But watch the Milwaukee Bucks play, and that feeling will probably find you. Milwaukee is a clear-cut championship contender reeling off wins behind the recent union of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard, two of the very best basketball players in the world. Most superstar partnerships in the NBA begin the same way: buzzing with eagerness, as competitors who have wanted and waited and anticipated having that level of teammate finally get the chance to play out the dream. Two months in, that tension hasn’t really dissipated for the Bucks. They’re in second place in the East, and still, it’s as if they have yet to arrive.

There hasn’t been much real friction in Milwaukee—perhaps because the Bucks have largely avoided putting the on-court collaboration of their best players to the test. For two perfectly paired stars, Lillard and Antetokounmpo do a shocking amount of their work siloed apart, attacking in so many other ways as to make their lack of pick-and-roll reps together one of this season’s most fascinating subplots. What isn’t happening has become a core part of the Bucks experience. Eric Nehm of The Athletic deftly reported on why that’s been the case, with Giannis, Dame, and Bucks coach Adrian Griffin speaking candidly to the growing pains involved. A learning curve is understandable. “But the go-to is definitely going to be the pick-and-rolls,” Griffin told Nehm. “When we need a basket, you’re going to put those two in action.”

The only catch: Milwaukee hasn’t really done that. In big moments, the Bucks veer into pick-and-rolls for Dame with Brook Lopez, for Khris Middleton with Giannis, and for Giannis with Bobby Portis. They go to an array of handoffs and isolations and other actions, often with Lillard and Antetokounmpo a skip pass away from each other. The two Bucks headliners run more direct action together now than they did at the start of the season, but almost never in succession—there might be a random pick-and-roll between them in the middle of the first quarter, then a scripted one toward the end of the second, and a one-off revisit in the thick of the fourth. Milwaukee’s offense is less predictable than it used to be, but in a way that has actively prevented its two best players from creating any real momentum in the work they do together. Their collaboration has been a bit more abstract.

So far, that’s more of a quirk than an actual problem. The Bucks have lost role players to injury and managed a minutes limit for Middleton and still rate as one of the most productive offenses in NBA history. They’ve absolutely demolished teams in the half-court and—living up to Lillard’s reputation—they’ve been aces in crunch time. This may be the best scoring season we’ve ever seen from Antetokounmpo, whose blunt-force dominance in the paint has veered into absurdity. The career-high 64 points that he dropped on the Pacers last week turned out to be a performance that launched a thousand memes, but all the commotion over the game ball distracted from the most unstoppable shot distribution you’ll see all season:

What’s more: The Bucks have been one of the most efficient teams in scoring out of the pick-and-roll this season, according to data from Synergy Sports. They’ve just been oddly reluctant to maximize that action with their two best players or, frankly, to even try. The games when Giannis and Dame work the pick-and-roll with any kind of consistency—like their tournament win over the Knicks—feel like a vision from another universe. All of Milwaukee’s primary stakeholders refer to the Dame-Giannis two-man game as a work in progress, but that framing implies a practiced regularity far beyond what the Bucks have been willing to do. It’s not a work in progress if you don’t work at it on a consistent basis; it’s just an afterthought.

Maybe that’s OK. Maybe dwelling so much on the pick-and-roll is thinking too small—reducing some of the most dynamic players in the league to their most obvious applications, like wondering why a supercomputer isn’t optimized to send emails. It took Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant years to fully flesh out their pick-and-roll game in Golden State, and even when they did, it was more of a fail-safe than a way of life. Joel Embiid and James Harden, on the other hand, rode the league’s most prolific pick-and-roll connection all of last season, up until the moment their offense ran aground in the playoffs. There’s no one way to championship solvency. Yet at this point, you can at least see the intention behind Milwaukee’s decision to deliberately work around the threat that all of us—Giannis and Dame included—have been anticipating.

In their current form, the pick-and-rolls between Milwaukee’s two stars can be a literal stretch, with Antetokounmpo reaching or lunging to field passes he wasn’t quite expecting. This is his first time playing with a guard of Dame’s caliber, and it’s clear that Giannis is still getting up to speed with all the practical realities involved. The fact that Lillard gets trapped as often as he does means that the ball comes to Antetokounmpo earlier and higher on the floor than he’s used to, a world apart from the slow-played lobs he’s used to converting from Middleton. You can also see Lillard adjusting to the way Antetokounmpo screens in real time. Lillard’s instinct, as he approaches a ball screen, is to linger—to hesitate behind the screen just long enough to terrify a defender with the thought that he might pull up for the kind of long 3 that has become his signature. That’s easy to do with a brick-wall screener like Lopez, who sets his feet, makes contact with the defender, and holds his position for a beat before going anywhere. It’s less intuitive with a teammate like Antetokounmpo, who will often sprint into a screen and then dive straight to the rim before Lillard can fully tease out an advantage.

One of the game’s most lethal long-range shooters banking a turn around one of the most undeniable finishers in NBA history seems like it should be an easy path to face-melting offense—if not the evolutionary end point of the modern pick-and-roll. For now, it’s effective in a way that underscores how much room there is to grow. When the Bucks finally do run a pick-and-roll with their cocaptains, the two look like dance partners in search of a rhythm rather than counterparts in lockstep.

What Dame and Giannis can offer each other in any two-man action will ultimately depend on their mutual understanding. Antetokounmpo has to know what’s coming for Lillard on the other side of every screen. Dame has to see beyond the pressure in front of him to read the defense in front of Giannis. These things take time, which is why Lillard emphasized to The Athletic that the Bucks need to run more pick-and-rolls—not to win more games in December, but to establish the kind of connection that can be tapped into when it’s needed most. The partnership between Harden and Embiid didn’t end well, but the reason they hammered those basic actions over and over was because they needed to. Those two stars had no real context for how to play with each other. They also had their own timing issue, like Milwaukee’s in converse: Embiid was accustomed to getting the ball early, around the top of the key, and Harden had his greatest success driving hard to lob passes up late. The only way to synchronize their internal watches was to put them through their paces.

There has to be some kind of middle ground between that sort of league-leading pick-and-roll frequency and the outright reluctance the Bucks have shown thus far—a means for Dame and Giannis to develop a feel for what it means to play together without co-opting the entire offense. The pick-and-roll, at its best, isn’t just a two-man action. Opponents will force the ball out of Dame’s hands, they’ll reconstruct the same old walls in front of Giannis, and they’ll guide possessions toward Milwaukee’s cast of trial-balloon role players. The Bucks are getting mixed results from the likes of MarJon Beauchamp and Andre Jackson Jr., but in terms of process, Antetokounmpo—despite the heavy rationing of his reps—is already getting a better read on how to collect a pass from Lillard and quickly parse the spacing of Griffin’s system to find his teammates. The more Dame and Giannis can optimize their pick-and-roll game, the more defenses will wind up serving the diversity of offense the Bucks have been patiently trying to build. When you’re facing down two stars who can wreck a defense all by themselves, what else can you really do?

The beauty in having these specific superstars is that Milwaukee doesn’t have to pick and choose. Giannis and Dame can do it all. Griffin can choreograph all sorts of preludes and setups and misdirections and still have room for twice as many star-to-star pick-and-rolls as the Bucks run now. He could even invert those pick-and-rolls to take advantage of Antetokounmpo’s momentum and Lillard’s gravity in a different way. Milwaukee hasn’t really explored that option yet, even as Giannis runs plenty of those actions with other partners.

Whatever the Bucks run, however, leads to the same natural end point. Griffin laid it out himself: “When we need a basket, you’re going to put those two in action.” And when that time comes in May or June, the two leaders of the Bucks will fall back either on something they know or into something they’ve long waited for.