How very rich to talk about ways that Giannis, of all people, can get better. The chap is a month away from having the best season by a Bucks player since Kareem! He jumped from debates about whether he was the most valuable player on the team (people whom I respect argued that Khris Middleton was better overall last season) to the top-10 of leaguewide MVP lists by December this season.
He leads the Bucks in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. He increased his points per game from 16.9 to 23.2, in roughly the same number of minutes. He ranks in the top-10 in the league in both blocks and steals, and might be in the mix for an All-Defense spot.
Giannis is still in the Most Improved Player discussion. Yet he can still get better. This is a good thing. This is a scary thing. Onward, with simple subheads for complex issues.
Shooting – from any type of distance – is the first, big, easy one. But maybe not in an obvious way.
Giannis is a devastating slasher and transition scorer. Of the top six players on the dunk leaderboard (DeAndre Jordan, Rudy Gobert, Dwight Howard, Giannis, Clint Capela, Hassan Whiteside), Giannis stands out as the only non-center and the only player who can even vaguely create his own shot (dunk) or create for others. Roughly half of his shots this season are at the rim – in line with the previous two seasons, and up from his rookie year.
Last season, when he was emerging as a star and starting to rack up triple-doubles, it was popular to wonder how good (/great) Giannis could be if he had a jumper.
Turns out, he turned into a superstar without one. Long twos? He has cut down on attempting them compared to the past two seasons. His accuracy on those long jumpers is about the same. If he turns into Sam Cassell circa 2001 in the mid-range, great. But it is no prerequisite to his superstardom. At this point, the more of those he attempts, the more his efficiency will dip. He smartly has kept playing to his strengths, staying away from long twos.
Threes are a different story. This is one of the most efficient shots, and this season will (again) set a record for most 3-pointers attempted in league history.
Giannis has talked about practicing threes. And he is attempting substantially more of them. But he is also one of only three players (along with Jeff Green and Andre Roberson) to have attempted 140+ threes and converted at under 28.0 percent this season.
There is value in keeping defenses honest, in making them respect you from beyond the perimeter. But if you shoot them with Dwyane Wade-like accuracy, you may also be suited to shoot them with Dwyane Wade-like frequency. (Which is to say, not often.) Especially if you are about the best in the world at a few other things. This can work. Ask prime Dwyane Wade.
This doesn’t mean Giannis shouldn’t shoot threes (he should) or that it wouldn’t help for him to get better at shooting threes (it would). But there is a balance to be found.
Two seasons ago, when the Bucks flustered offenses with hyper-aggressive double-teams and switching, they ranked fourth in the league in defensive efficiency. And they ranked third in the league in personal fouls committed. On their own, fouls are not necessarily a bad thing. That season, fouls were a side-effect of an aggressive but effective defense. That same season, the top-five foul leaderboard included Andre Drummond, Draymond Green and DeAndre Jordan – just three of the best defensive players in the league.
This year, the Bucks are middle-of-the-pack in fouls, but in the lower-third of the league in defensive efficiency. And for the third straight season, Giannis is on pace to finish in the top-five of the foul leaderboard. Partly this is inevitable; Giannis has so much defensive responsibility, and is so active, and so aggressive (and often, so effective) that he is bound to pick up fouls. That is fine.
But the Bucks cannot afford to be without their transcendent star. They cannot afford Giannis to pick up an unnecessary foul, become frustrated, and pick up another one – or let it affect his overall (offensive and defensive) play as a result.
Take the home loss to the 76ers in January. Giannis fouled out in 28 minutes after Philly went to Embiid with Giannis defending. The Bucks have lost all three games in which Giannis fouled out this season. Maybe it is a coincidence. But the numbers below don’t feel altogether coincidental.
And last season? The Bucks went 14-12 when Giannis committed 0-2 fouls and went 3-12 when he committed 5-6 fouls. So, there is some precedence here.
There is also some correlation versus causation to parse. Naturally one may commit more fouls against good offenses and good teams, and therefore lose more games when that happens. The Bucks won’t find success simply by Giannis cutting down on fouling, if it comes at the expense of playing his integral role as an aggressive free safety on defense. But when he can keep things in control, he can control the whole game – that is when he is at his best, and therefore the Bucks, too.