Giannis Antetokounmpo won MVP in 2018/19 in historic fashion. He was installed as favorite to win MVP in 2019/20. The Greek Freak has taken his game to another level from last season as the Milwaukee Bucks have racked up the wins, and many of them comfortably.
Antetokounmpo’s points and rebounds per 36 minutes have increased. After years of pondering what he would be if he developed a reliable three-point shot, the speculation is required no longer. Antetokounmpo is shooting just under 33% from beyond the arc on nearly six attempts per game (for reference, that’s a better percentage than Luka Doncic and only marginally worse than LeBron James).
In his age-25 season, Antetokounmpo has elevated his game to a standard that has rarely been seen in NBA history. His current Player Efficiency Rating for this season is 34.54, which would be comfortably the greatest individual season ever, beating Wilt Chamberlain’s 31.82 from the 1962/63 season when he averaged over 44 points per game.
As would be expected with individual numbers like that, team success has followed. Despite the loss of Malcolm Brogdon, the Milwaukee Bucks are a better team than they were last season and currently own a 27-5 record. They are joint-favorites to win the NBA title at +275.
Only 10 teams in NBA history have put together a better winning streak than the Bucks’ 18 games. Their dominance is not all about Antetokounmpo, of course – they are still +6.9 without him on the floor – but this is a team built around him, built for his unique skillset. Milwaukee’s chances of winning the title depend almost entirely on Antetokounmpo, something that doesn’t follow with the other MVP candidates to the same extent.
James Harden is considered to be Antetokounmpo’s closest contender for the award at this stage. He has a similar situation – the Rockets are very much his team. Harden has Russell Westbrook, a player who can pick up the slack on occasion, as he did with 40 points in a recent win over the Clippers. Khris Middleton, in comparison, has only passed the 30-point mark four times since the start of last season and only twice in his career has he scored 40 or more in a game.
LeBron James has Anthony Davis and vice-versa. Like with the Golden State Warriors in recent seasons, the existence of their co-stars hampers their MVP chances.
In an award about ‘value’, teammates matter. When Westbrook won MVP in 2016/17, the way he elevated that roster to a mid-playoff seed was important. By the same logic, the presence of Westbrook alongside Harden, and Davis and James sharing a team, plays into Antetokounmpo’s favour.
Luka Doncic is currently +450 to win the award, having returned from a short injury absence on Boxing Day. Doncic is only 0.4 rebounds and 1.2 assists shy of averaging a triple-double, and has – like Westbrook three seasons ago – guided his Mavericks to overachieve.
With a comeback year Kristaps Porzingis as second-in-command, Doncic’s situation is comparable with Antetokounmpo’s. Porzingis has been inconsistent this season, and he’s not been a player that can take over a game in the same way as Westbrook, Davis or James. In fact, Porzingis’ win shares per 48 over .102 is considerably worse than Middleton’s .197.
It’s easy to focus on offensive numbers when comparing superstars, particularly when their individual statistics are so outrageous. Antetokounmpo has the edge offensively, but it’s when defence is considered that his case becomes almost unbeatable.
The betting markets currently have James, Harden and Doncic are the main challengers for the Greek Freak’s crown. Davis is out at +1000 with SugarHouse and PointsBet. James has played his best defence in years, but Harden and Doncic are hardly renowned for their work at that end of the floor.
In contrast, Antetokounmpo is one of the favourites to win Defensive Player of the Year. He can defend all five positions and is averaging 2.5 deflections per game. Of players to have played 15 or more games, only five have a lower defended field goal percentage on shots from six feet or closer than Antetokounmpo.
To have improved on an MVP campaign speaks volumes for Antetokounmpo’s drive and application. He is putting together one of the greatest individual seasons in NBA history, and even an area like scoring – which is the bedrock of Harden’s MVP case – isn’t a clear-cut win for the Rockets guard. Antetokounmpo is averaging just 1.1 points fewer per 36 than Harden.
Only Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon have won MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. Antetokounmpo has a chance to do just that, and as it stands, it’s only the latter of those two awards that anyone else has a credible case to win.