Giannis And The Bucks Are Playing Historically Great Defense
Even before his 41-point afternoon in Charlotte over the weekend, Giannis led the NBA in points per minute, scoring more than James Harden, more than anyone. Why are his points per game numbers not quite as high?
His points per game numbers are lower in comparison because he is not playing as many minutes as superstars usually do.
Ah, but why is he not playing as much?
He is not playing as much as superstars usually do because the Bucks are blowing out teams at a nearly unprecedented rate. Giannis is leading the Bucks to a 70+ win pace while playing fewer minutes per game than Dennis Schröder. Schröder has started one game this year.
All of this reflects very well on him.
Does Giannis just score though? No. No he does not just score.
It is established that Giannis has been great offensively. But the Bucks are on pace for the third-best record in league history in no small part because they have the best defense in the NBA.
The Bucks don’t merely have the best defense in the NBA though. The Bucks have by far the best defense in the NBA. In recent league history no team has run away as the best defensive team in the league the way the Bucks are running away.
They have a Defensive Rating that is 3.8 points better than the next best in the league, the Raptors. Going back to 1996–97 (as far as the database goes), no team has finished a season so far ahead in first.
We are in an offense-led era. Scoring is up. Pace is up. So if you control for that and look at Relative Defensive Ratings and if you go back throughout league history, here is what you get.
Relative Defensive Rating — Single-Season — All-Time
Bucks: -8.9 — 2019–20
Spurs: -8.8 — 2003-04
Celtics: -8.6 — 2007-2008
Knicks: -8.3 — 1992-93
Knicks: -8.1 — 1993-94
Pistons: -7.5 — 2003-04
Pacers: -7.4 — 2013-14
Spurs: -7.4 — 2015-16
So the Bucks so far this season by this metric have the best defense in modern league history… just ahead of the best of Duncan’s Spurs, KG’s title-winning Celtics, Oakley’s bruising Knicks teams of the early 1990s, and the Pistons who smoked the Lakers 4–1 in the Finals (they held them to 75 points in Game 1 and 68 points in Game 3) who were led by Ben Wallace.
Note: These numbers were not tracked before 1973–74, and a couple Celtics teams from the 1960s would top this list based on estimates. But those would just be estimates.
But what about Giannis? We were talking about Giannis.
Giannis has been really hard to score against this season. He roams and so individual defensive metrics are even harder than usual to make sense of when it comes to him. But opponents are shooting 9.5% worse against Giannis than they would normally expect to based on where they shot from.
That is the best mark in the NBA this season. It is also the best mark since they began tracking the stat in 2013–14. He shares company high up on that list with guys like Anthony Davis and Rudy Gobert and Brook Lopez and Kawhi Leonard and Joel Embiid and Al Horford and Jaylen Brown and Draymond Green and Luc Mbah a Moute and Tony Allen and Serge Ibaka and Roy Hibbert and the point is it checks out as a relevant number.
It is not the only number that suggests Giannis is one of the best if not the very best defensive player in the NBA.
Giannis leads the league in Defensive Box Plus/Minus and Defensive Win Shares. He ranks third in the league Defensive Real Plus-Minus. The Bucks statistically play their best defense when Giannis is on the court. If you want to count defensive rebounding as part of defense then you might note that Giannis has the second best Defensive Rebound Percentage in the NBA.
If you watch him play you will see that the numbers all add up.
Giannis should win MVP again this season and he has all the reasons to win Defensive Player of the Year too. It is more than points per game and it is more than blocks per game. Dominating for a historically great defense is bigger than his block numbers being somewhat down. In the season opener this was his only one.