Giannis Antetokounmpo's Bucks Aren't Your Typical NBA Superteam

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 17, 2020

MILWAUKEE, WI - JANUARY 16: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks handles the ball against the Boston Celtics on January 16, 2020 at the Fiserv Forum Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images).
Gary Dineen/Getty Images

Every aspect of Giannis Antetokounmpo on a basketball court is unusual. His numbers, physical frame and nickname, the Greek Freak, all defy convention.

So there's a certain consistency in the fact that his Milwaukee Bucks, a league-best 37-6 following Thursday's 128-123 win over the Boston Celtics and on pace to set the all-time record for average margin of victory, don't conform to expectations, either.

They're their own strange brand of superteam.

Yes, everything starts with Giannis, who logged 32 points, 17 rebounds, seven assists and two blocks on what could legitimately be described as an off night. He set the tone early with bully-ball rim attacks against a Celtics defense wearied by playing the second night of a back-to-back set.

Antetokounmpo's relentless drives are the fulcrum around which Milwaukee's offense turns, but it was telling on Thursday that the Bucks expanded their leads during his rest periods.

Up a dozen when Antetokounmpo took a breather in the first quarter, the Bucks increased their lead to 16 points by the time he returned. In the third, Milwaukee inflated its advantage from eight to 19 points with Giannis on the sideline. That's how he wound up with a minus-seven plus/minus in a game his team won by five points.

Blinking-neon-sign caveat, complete with sirens to draw further attention: Nobody would ever make the case the Bucks are better without Giannis. They post a plus-14.5 net rating with him on the floor and a plus-8.0 with him off.

But that's just it: The Bucks go from great to very, very good when their best player rests. And they manage that feat without a clear second star—you know, the kind you'd find, possibly alongside a third one, on your typical superteam.

That's the first element that sets these Bucks apart. They possess a rare combination of otherworldly talent (Giannis) alongside a team-wide willingness to scrap for every available inch and advantage.

Players like Brook Lopez, Eric Bledsoe, George Hill and even Khris Middleton have all spent time on other teams, and they're playing now as though past experience has taught them how little is promised. These are hungry vets embracing their roles who also happen to be deployed in ways designed specifically to help them succeed.

There's another unusual aspect of these Bucks: They're effectively a system team. Though displaying more subtle wrinkles in their offense this season, they still orbit around Antetokounmpo, happy to shoot threes on offense, wall off the lane on D and trust the math to get them where they want to go.

What's odd is that when Antetokounmpo doesn't play, the whole apparatus keeps working. Non-Giannis minutes on offense feature a variety of pick-and-pops, handoffs and, if Donte DiVincenzo is involved, gunslinging confidence.

These aren't LeBron James' second-stint Cleveland Cavaliers, who had no offensive plan whenever their superstar sat. These role-filling Bucks are empowered, and it showed Thursday.

Lopez started the game on a heater, hitting three treys and denying Celtics attackers at the rim.

George Hill walked into clutch threes to ward off Boston comebacks.

Middleton, who finished with 23 points, continued his season-long trend of scoring on seemingly every after-timeout set head coach Mike Budenholzer draws up for him.

Collectively, along with Antetokounmpo, the supporting Bucks fought for most of this mid-January game like they were playing in June. And they actually had to, as the Celtics did that thing they've done so many times this year by erasing a massive deficit and turning a boat race into a game.

Maybe that's where the real distinction lies, in Milwaukee's totally absent sense of entitlement. The Bucks are special without acting like it. They're supremely dominant but rarely forget the old adage about hard work beating talent when talent fails to work hard.

Compare them to our most recent example of a superteam, the dynastic Golden State Warriors, and the contrast is stark.

Even the early iterations of those Warriors teams were defined by a casual style that spilled into recklessness. They coasted often, knowing they could channel a five-minute eruption that would reduce even the best opponents to ash. The top-end talent was overwhelming, which is sort of the foundational idea behind superteams: Accumulate enough stars to bury opponents on command.

That's not how the Bucks do things. They have an incomprehensibly talented MVP who plays with the competitive desperation of someone trying to earn a second 10-day contract and a collection of supporters who'd probably play hard anyway, but who have no choice but to match the intensity of their tone-setter.

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - JANUARY 16:  Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks is defended by Gordon Hayward #20 of the Boston Celtics during the second half of a game at Fiserv Forum on January 16, 2020 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User e
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Milwaukee does not coast. It habitually builds massive leads and rests after the work is done. That's why Antetokounmpo is on pace to become the first player to average over 30 points in under 31 minutes per game. Very often, he and the Bucks dispatch teams in three quarters, rendering the fourth an extended cool-down period.

Thursday's game was a bit unusual in that regard as the Bucks were up by as many as 27 points early on, only to find themselves in a fight down the stretch. But Milwaukee never relinquished the lead, underscoring its "take care of business" approach with its league-leading 10th wire-to-wire win.

Forget those bygone Warriors squads for a moment and appreciate how Milwaukee's makeup also distinguishes it from current superteams.

The Bucks are not the two-star Los Angeles Lakers, led by LeBron James, who has spent large portions of entire decades coasting on D and who, for what it's worth, effectively started the modern superteam trend into which these Bucks don't fit.

They're also not the mercenary Los Angeles Clippers, built by stars who chose to align and who aren't approaching the regular season with anything resembling Milwaukee's night-to-night urgency.

If you view those other superteams—built in ways that feel inorganic and unearned—as poison, these Bucks might just be the antidote. And even if you're not among those bothered by the way most great teams come together these days, it's still worth appreciating how Milwaukee has built something unique.

           

Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise indicated. Accurate through Thursday, Jan. 16. 

Related

    Watch Giannis Antetokounmpo go off for 32 points, 13 boards, lead Bucks rout of Thunder

    Milwaukee Bucks logo
    Milwaukee Bucks

    Watch Giannis Antetokounmpo go off for 32 points, 13 boards, lead Bucks rout of Thunder

    Kurt Helin
    via ProBasketballTalk | NBC Sports

    From a Real Game to a Blowout in a Matter of Minutes

    Milwaukee Bucks logo
    Milwaukee Bucks

    From a Real Game to a Blowout in a Matter of Minutes

    Matt Velazquez
    via Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

    Giannis Dominates as Bucks Blow Out OKC by 47 Pts

    Milwaukee Bucks logo
    Milwaukee Bucks

    Giannis Dominates as Bucks Blow Out OKC by 47 Pts

    Blake Schuster
    via Bleacher Report

    Pippen Admits Dunk Contest Judges 'Messed Up'

    NBA logo
    NBA

    Pippen Admits Dunk Contest Judges 'Messed Up'

    Blake Schuster
    via Bleacher Report