Giannis Antetokounmpo Isn't Enough to Lift the Bucks

Giannis Antetokounmpo did everything he could to give the Milwaukee Bucks a head start this season, but he can't carry this team alone.
November 16, 2016, 2:43pm
Photo by Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Several players around the NBA this season are putting up numbers that can best be described as totally bonkers. A few examples:

  • James Harden just became the first player in NBA history to score at least 300 points and dish out at least 120 assists during his team's first ten games of the season. He's averaging 30.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 12.6 assists a night playing point guard for Mike D'Antoni.
  • Russell Westbrook is averaging 32 points per game and is within 0.3 rebounds and 0.1 assists a game of being the first person since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double. He also already has three triple-doubles this season—and he scored 51, 33, and 41 points in those three games.
  • DeMar DeRozan entered Tuesday night's play averaging 34 points per game and having a chance to become the first player to score at least 30 in nine of the first ten games of the year. He wound up scoring just 26—but that means he still sits alone with Michael Jordan, Elgin Baylor, Jack Twyman, World B. Free, Tiny Archibald, and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players to top the 30-mark in eight of their first nine games of the year.

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Then there's Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak has jumped out to a blazing start, with averages of 21.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.0 steals, and 2.1 blocks through the Milwaukee Bucks' first nine games. Every one of those numbers is an improvement from last season, despite the fact that he has played fewer minutes per game so far in 2016-17. In fact, he has raised his scoring, rebound, assist, steal, and block averages every season of his career.

Those numbers may not sound all that incredible to you—plenty of guys average 20 points or eight rebounds or five assists or two steals or two blocks per game. You know how many have ever done all of those things at once, though? None. Giannis would be the first player in NBA history to have a 20-8-5-2-2 season if he keeps this up, per Basketball-Reference. Not only that but he'd be just the fourth player standing 6'11" or taller to even hit those 20-8-5 marks. You may have heard of the other guys on the list: Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Kevin Garnett.

The physical gifts Giannis has are, obviously, extraordinarily rare. His combination of height and length allows him to do things others cannot, and the way the Bucks thrust him into the role of primary ball-handler and playmaker has allowed his full skill set to flourish. That process started last year, when they made him their point guard during the second half of the season; he had five triple-doubles in 28 games after the All-Star break on his way to averaging 18.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 7.2 assists a night. The Bucks didn't make the playoffs, but they did find a clearer direction for the team: they would unleash Point Giannis full-time and reap the benefits of an otherworldly talent.

The playmaker at work. Photo by Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The first part really can't have worked out any better. Giannis is exactly what the Bucks want him to be, and he's only going to get better. The problem is they need more than that, and they're not getting enough from everyone else. Jabari Parker looks good offensively (19.1 points per game on 47-35-87 shooting) but still appears totally lost on defense. Matthew Dellavedova has worked well as a ball-mover on the perimeter (5.9 assists) but has shown none of the high-level shooting touch he had in Cleveland when playing next to LeBron James. Tony Snell is the only other rotation player averaging more than 22 minutes a night, and he's still Tony Snell. Malcolm Brogdon has been a nice surprise, Rashad Vaughn has made some jumpers, Michael Beasley hasn't gone crazy yet, even Greg Monroe has bounced back a bit, but the old shooters (Jason Terry and Mirza Teletovic) have only occasionally shot well and the second and third prongs of the three-man center platoon (John Henson and Miles Plumlee, who started the first eight games but is averaging south of 14 minutes a night) are giving Milwaukee practically nothing.

And what they have got hasn't translated into enough winning. The Bucks are 5-4 through their first nine games, and have played what can charitably be described as a light schedule so far. (Basketball-Reference pegged it as the easiest in the league prior to Tuesday's play.) The five teams they beat (Nets, Pelicans, Pacers, Kings, Grizzlies) have a combined record of 19-28 against opponents other than the Bucks. The four losses came against teams (Hornets, Pistons, Pelicans, Mavericks) with a combined record of 12-23 in such games, and only one, the Hornets, is over .500.

When it's not getting any easier. Photo by Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Milwaukee's schedule is not getting any easier. This week brings games against the Atlanta Hawks (7-2) and the Golden State Warriors (8-2 and heating up), sandwiched around an eminently winnable date with the Miami Heat (2-7). Sure, the Bucks get to play the struggling Orlando Magic (4-7) twice, but the first of those games is followed by one against the Toronto Raptors (7-2) and the second precedes a visit from the Cleveland Cavaliers (8-2, have LeBron).

The Bucks open December with a home-and-home against the Nets, who have been surprisingly pesky so far, but the final 28 days of the year bring only games against teams that can be described as playoff hopefuls or title contenders.

The closest thing to a break the Bucks get is playing the Wizards two times in four days, and the second of those games is the start of a four-game road swing. The time to take advantage of an easy early season has passed, and they only came out of that stretch a game over .500. Now they're in a thicket of nine East teams with between four and six wins.

Look, losing Khris Middleton to a torn hamstring for most of this season was probably a death knell for the Bucks' playoff hopes, but they at least had a chance if they sprinted out of the gates and gave themselves some breathing room. Giannis did everything he could to help get them there, but he didn't get enough help. In the end, that will probably wind up being the theme of this team's season.

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