Predicting the NBA awards during the offseason is always tough to get right, but everyone loves whacking together a few bold predictions to see how wrong they are this time next year.
Few athletes go from nothing to everything as violently and majestically as Giannis Antetokounmpo.
He drives to the rim but is forced baseline, in a ‘safe’ space for the defence. There’s a maze of limbs around him and there is nowhere to go. But then he remembers, if he ever forgot, that the other limbs are human, and his are not, and all of a sudden he’s dunking, in a way that makes the rim seem as pathetic as the defenders.
Stephen Curry might be more poetic and LeBron James might be more historic, but the experience of watching Antetokounmpo on a nightly basis is the most magnificently absurd in the NBA right now. In the past few years, Curry has re-invented the game by doing things that were thought to be impossible in basketball. Antetokounmpo is doing things with his body that were thought to be impossible in human life.
His strides are so comically long, his speed so alien, his elevation so mean that he never feels real. If Hakeem Olajuwon was The Dream, then Giannis is The Hallucination.
His athletic ridiculousness and human incongruity have always been there, but this season they are being weaponised like never before. Now, Antetokounmpo scores 30 by accident. His game is more nuanced – his footwork more developed, his moves more fluid, his passing more advanced. He does more work in the post, hitting fade-away bank shots. He reads the defence, and takes from it what he can – which is everything.
On defence he is a force, a free safety and a strong safety, the rare talent who can both jump passing lanes and protect the rim. If Antetokounmpo had a three-point shot, it would not be unreasonable to call him close to the most complete player basketball has seen. And even if he doesn’t develop that range from deep, he will still soon be the best player in the game.
The question becomes, how far can his team go, and how quickly?
The Bucks are an odd collection, a crew of super long, talented players who don’t really seem to do much together beyond being super long and talented.
Khris Middleton is a wonderful player, one who moves like a nimbler, frailer, vastly less iconic version of Paul Pierce. Like Pierce, he drives at a brilliant half-speed, feeling the court, calmly taking mid-range turnarounds and floaters in the lane. He could fit on every team in the league and immediately make them better.
Malcolm Brogdon is pesky to infinity, Tony Snell fits snugly into the craved three-and-D archetype, and Eric Bledsoe, with his strength, grit, bevy of hesitation moves and powerful drives, gives the Bucks a much needed extra dimension, another playmaker who can penetrate the defence and reduce Antetokounmpo’s load.
Jabari Parker and Thon Maker are the two great swing pieces, unknowns for totally different reasons. We don’t know how good Maker is, but have a solid idea of his theoretical fit on the roster. We have a reasonable idea of how good Parker is, but little idea of his theoretical fit on the roster.
Right now, even before Parker returns to add more upheaval to the rotation, all the talent isn’t computing. The Bucks are 11-7 with Bledsoe in the line-up, but the wins have come against a soft schedule, and some of the losses have too.
The 24th-ranked defence is a mess, with Jason Kidd’s brazen commitment to trapping becoming this season’s version of Phil Jackson’s commitment to the triangle. Yes, the Bucks are long and seemingly should be as well placed as any team to execute a trapping scheme. But the court is more spaced in late 2017 than at any other time in NBA history, and the Milwaukee defence constantly springs leaks, allowing elite offences to pick them apart and find wide-open threes.
There is too much defensive talent for the team to continue to be this bad on that end. Whether a coaching change is required for the team to regress to its talent remains to be seen.
Until then, though, there will still be Giannis, and his presence will both alleviate Milwaukee’s issues and put more pressure on them to win than ever before.