NBA Power Rankings: Can Anyone Catch Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistFebruary 24, 2020

NBA Power Rankings: Can Anyone Catch Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks?

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    With the All-Star break in the past, the NBA is officially in the home stretch of the 2019-20 campaign.

    Standings are starting to crystallize, legitimate contenders are emerging, and tank engines are firing up.

    With the help of numbers like simple rating system (point differential combined with strength of schedule) and net rating against the league's top teams, as well as recent trends, we'll try to sort through all 30 teams and settle on a nice, tidy ranking.

    Obviously, this is all subject to change. The NBA landscape is as unpredictable as it has been in years. Think of this as a snapshot.

30-26

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    30. Golden State Warriors (30)

    The Warriors have the worst record in the league. They're 29th in SRS, 30th in points per 100 possessions and 25th in points allowed per 100 possessions. After half a decade of historic dominance, this team is atrocious. But the last few weeks have offered rays of hope.

    A four-game sample has to be taken with a mountain of salt, but this is one of the most effective stretches of basketball in Andrew Wiggins' career.

    "People have said that he's overrated the last couple of years, and now I think he's underrated," head coach Steve Kerr told reporters about Wiggins, who is averaging 22.8 points on a true shooting percentage near 70 for the Warriors. "... He's a damn good player.”

    Stephen Curry, meanwhile, could be back in March. That would give us a chance to see how at least three of the core players—Curry, Wiggins and Draymond Green—will coexist.

    This stopgap year is almost over. The home stretch is all about whatever positive signs they can drum up.

                  

    29. Cleveland Cavaliers (29)

    The John Beilein era is over less than a year after it started. And now, the Cleveland Cavaliers are a whopping 1-1 under J.B. Bickerstaff, who's somehow started his third stint as an NBA interim coach.

    It'll take a miracle for him to turn this ship around in the next two months, though.

    Cleveland has three players (Collin Sexton, Darius Garland and Kevin Porter Jr.) with a 20-plus usage percentage and a below-average true shooting percentage. And offense isn't even its biggest problem. The Cavs are 29th in points allowed per 100 possessions and trending toward one of the worst defenses in league history.

                 

    28. Detroit Pistons (27)

    Some of the numbers on the Pistons suggest they're closer to mediocrity than their placement here. But in the last three weeks, Detroit has traded Andre Drummond for next to nothing and waived both Reggie Jackson and Markieff Morris.

    This is a full-scale teardown, and what's left of the roster is going to have a whale of a time beating anyone, especially with Luke Kennard still out for the foreseeable future.

    Derrick Rose (if he isn't bought out like Jackson and Morris) and Christian Wood will likely have some big individual performances, but the rest of this campaign is mostly about draft position.

              

    27. Charlotte Hornets (25)

    Remember that hot start from Devonte' Graham?

    Through his first 20 games, Graham averaged 17.9 points while shooting 40.8 percent from the field and 41.1 percent from three. Some even whispered about a possible All-Star selection. But after going 1-of-17 in his first two games after the break, he's shooting 35.5 percent from the field and 34.8 percent from three in the 36 games since.

    And yet, along with PJ Washington, he may be one of the only legitimate pieces of a young core.

    Charlotte has signaled a rebuild in much the same way Detroit did (by buying out Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist), but it needs some luck in the lottery to find more star potential.

                 

    26. New York Knicks (24)

    Another organization that has wrestled with its share of dysfunction this season, the Knicks have actually been more competitive since interim head coach Mike Miller took over. Prior to his promotion, New York was 28th in net rating at minus-10.3. Since then, it's minus-4.4 and 23rd.

    Six points is a big difference, especially for a team that has been as bad as the Knicks over the last 20 years.

    And though, with the exception of Mitchell Robinson, the young crew's individual numbers are abysmal, you can still muster up moderate excitement for the size and versatility RJ Barrett and Kevin Knox can potentially bring.

25-21

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    25. Chicago Bulls (26)

    Like the Hawks, the Bulls are hanging by a thread. Perhaps the imminent return of Otto Porter Jr. could help them make one last push, but they're likely at least a season away, as well.

    The lineup of Tomas Satoransky, Zach LaVine, Porter, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. provided reason for optimism prior to this campaign, but it has only logged 251 non-garbage time possessions.

    Health is generally out of a team's control, but better luck should yield better results in 2020-21.

              

    24. Washington Wizards (18)

    Believe it or not, the Wizards, scoring 111.6 points per 100 possessions, still have an offense that ranks in the top half the NBA. When Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans are both on the floor, that number skyrockets to an absurd 122.3.

    But Washington is also within shouting distance of the worst mark for points allowed per 100 possessions in NBA history.

    That defense and the most difficult remaining schedule in the East (and second-most difficult overall) likely mean the Wizards are headed to the lottery.

                

    23. Minnesota Timberwolves (28)

    D'Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez have all shown encouraging signs in their first stretch of games for the Timberwolves. But with Karl-Anthony Towns at the outset of another prolonged absence, plenty more losses are on the way.

    This season, Minnesota is minus-1.1 points per 100 possessions with KAT on the floor and minus-5.6 without him.

               

    22. Atlanta Hawks (23)

    Atlanta has two of the most exciting young offensive talents in the NBA: Trae Young and John Collins.

    Young is on pace to be the youngest player in league history to average 30-plus points and nine-plus assists for a full season. Charles Barkley and Kevin McHale are the only players to match or exceed Collins' current marks for points per game, offensive rebounds per game and true shooting percentage.

    All that firepower helped the Hawks beat the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks in their two games since the break. And while they're almost certainly out of the playoff race, those two, in combination with the recently acquired Clint Capela, should help Atlanta play spoiler down the stretch.

    21. San Antonio Spurs (21)

    It's not hard to imagine San Antonio pushing the young Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans for the final playoff spot in the West. After 22 straight postseason appearances, the idea of this team missing out is sort of unfathomable.

    But these aren't your early-2000s or mid-2010s Spurs. They're 24th in points allowed per 100 possessions, and their top two scorers both have comfortably negative net rating swings.

    DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, flanked by a decent supporting cast, are good enough to prevent a total collapse. But the overall talent of Memphis and New Orleans, when healthy, feels like a safer bet.

20-16

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    20. Sacramento Kings (19)

    The Kings are showing signs of life. FiveThirtyEight only gives them a 5 percent chance at the playoffs, but they've won two straight and eight of their last 12.

    During this stretch, De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield are both averaging 20-plus points. Hield, Harrison Barnes, Nemanja Bjelica and Cory Joseph are all shooting over 40 percent from three.

    For perhaps the first time this season, Sacramento is looking like the young, exciting squad that pushed for a playoff spot in 2018-19. It's probably just happening too late.

    19. Portland Trail Blazers (17)

    The next few weeks of Blazers basketball could make or break the season.

    "Damian Lillard (right groin strain) did not practice today," Portland reporter Casey Holdahl revealed Thursday, "said he thinks he might miss three or four games."

    The Blazers have already dropped one crucial game to the New Orleans Pelicans since that news. If they continue to slip against the string of Eastern Conference teams they have coming up, their playoff chances could be doomed.

    Over the course of this season, Portland is plus-1.4 points per 100 possessions with Dame on the floor and minus-10.4 with him off.

               

    18. Orlando Magic (20)

    Orlando's 24th-ranked offense has been a problem all season, but a top-10 defense has helped it cling to one of the final two playoff spots in the East.

    If anyone wants to come along for the ride with Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier (the only two players on the roster with above-average offensive box plus/minuses), the Magic should be able to hold off the Bulls and Wizards.

    17. Indiana Pacers (16)

    Working Victor Oladipo back into the rotation has been a challenge for the Pacers, who are 3-7 since the All-Star returned on Jan. 29.

    Individually, Oladipo is averaging just 10.8 points and shooting 33.3 percent from the field. Among the 395 players with at least as many minutes this season, his box plus/minus ranks 392nd.

    After an absence that lasted over a year, the rough start shouldn't be hard to believe. But if team and player don't start to turn a corner together soon, Indiana could be in trouble in the first round against a team like the Toronto Raptors or Boston Celtics.

                 

    16. Phoenix Suns (22)

    Fresh off his first All-Star selection, Devin Booker now has a chance to beat the statistical projections and make one final push for his first playoff appearance. The odds are against the Suns, but with him and Deandre Ayton healthy, the gap isn't completely insurmountable.

    Phoenix is plus-6.1 points per 100 possessions (83rd percentile) when Booker and Ayton share the floor. And Ayton is averaging 22.0 points, 12.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.0 steals with a positive point differential over his last 10 games.

    Booker isn't a lonely star anymore.

15-11

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    15. Brooklyn Nets (15)

    The Nets have had roughly the same point differential per 100 possessions regardless of whether Kyrie Irving is on the floor. They're 8-12 when he plays and 18-17 when he doesn't. After the mess that was the 2018-19 Boston Celtics, these numbers will add fuel to the "Does Kyrie make your team better?" fire.

    With news breaking this week that Irving is set to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery, we'll get another extended look at the Kyrie-less Nets. Early returns are encouraging. Since the All-Star break, they've taken the 76ers to overtime in Philadelphia and blown out the Charlotte Hornets.

              

    14. Memphis Grizzlies (11)

    Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and the Grizzlies currently sit in eighth place in the West, but FiveThirtyEight gives them just a 7 percent chance to hang onto that spot. Given their youth and the fact that they have the league's most difficult remaining schedule, it's not hard to understand the math's skepticism.

    But this group has already made a habit of exceeding expectations. Memphis' preseason over/under was set at 25.5, a mark the Grizzlies have already beaten.

                 

    13. New Orleans Pelicans (14)

    The Pelicans are plus-10.1 points per 100 possessions with Zion Williamson on the floor and minus-1.5 with him off, giving him a 12.4 net rating swing that ranks in the 96th percentile. When Zion shares the floor with Derrick Favors, New Orleans is plus-15.7 points per 100 possessions.

    Of course, the sample sizes are small. Zion hasn't been back for long. But when he's in the game, the Pelicans absolutely look like a playoff team.

    Zion, specifically, has been every bit the athletic nightmare he was projected to be. Defenders bounce off him like he's some kind of MCU superhero in the paint. On the rare occasions someone is able to impede his progress, he shows touch around the rim that usually takes years for bigs to learn.

    With a handful of solid veterans and young stars (Favors, Jrue Holiday, JJ Redick, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, just to name a few) surrounding him, New Orleans looks like a team that could make the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers sweat a bit in a seven-game series.

    They still have plenty of ground to make up, but the Pelicans have a 67 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight.

            

    12. Miami Heat (10)

    Miami has cooled way down since its 31-13 start. The Heat have lost seven of their last 12 and five of their last seven. Recently acquired Andre Iguodala is minus-12 in five games, including a minus-33 dud in 23 minutes against the Hawks.

    There's plenty of time for the Heat to get back on track, though, especially since they have one of the East's easier remaining schedules. The addition of two switchy defenders in Iguodala and Jae Crowder should help the 13th-ranked defense, too.

               

    11. Philadelphia 76ers (12)

    Philadelphia has been a bit of a roller coaster this season. And news that broke Sunday could signal another dip for the Sixers.

    "After lower back injury on Saturday, Ben Simmons underwent initial evaluation in Philadelphia today and will undergo further testing tomorrow..." ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted. "He will be out for Monday's game vs. Atlanta."

    Simmons was in the midst of a dominant stretch. Over 19 games from the turn of the calendar to this injury, he averaged 21.3 points, 9.4 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 2.2 steals, though Philly was actually minus-14 in his minutes.

    With Joel Embiid healthy, the 76ers should be able to survive his absence. Over the course of the season, Philadelphia is plus-10.3 points per 100 possessions when Embiid is on the floor without Simmons, compared to plus-2.8 when Simmons is on without Embiid.

    With the Hawks, Cavs and Knicks next up on the slate, the Sixers might actually be able to make up some ground while Simmons recovers.

10. Utah Jazz

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    Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

    Last Week: 7

    Few teams have been as volatile as Utah this season. Just check out the breakdown of the schedule since Nov. 25.

    • Nov. 25 to Dec. 9: 2-6
    • Dec. 11 to Jan. 25: 19-2
    • Jan. 27 to Feb. 5: 0-5
    • Feb. 7 to Feb. 12: 4-0
    • Feb. 21 to now: 0-2

    When they're right, the Jazz look like a thoroughly modern team on both ends of the floor. The ball moves around, generally finding open shooters. The pressure Rudy Gobert puts on the rim opens things up for the shooters outside, which has helped lead to the league's No. 1 three-point percentage.

    But in far too many games this season, Utah has appeared disengaged. The egg laid at home against a sub-.500 Spurs squad this week was particularly concerning.

    "They don't really respect us," Gobert told reporters after the loss to San Antonio. "They come out. They push us around. They deny us. We don't react. They take us out of what we want to do."

    Utah has to be better at dictating how games are going to flow moving forward, particularly on the defensive end. Gobert has done his part on that end for years. In 2018-19, he had more help with Ricky Rubio and Derrick Favors on the roster.

    The Jazz likely knew they'd be surrendering some of that when they made the moves they did this summer, but Donovan Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles and Mike Conley all have to be better on the perimeter if anyone is going to take this team seriously.

9. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Last Week: 9

    Chris Paul's steady hand has made the Thunder the NBA's most consistent team this season, according to NBAstuffer's consistency rating.

    When he's on the floor, OKC is plus-7.0 points per 100 possessions, compared to minus-6.0 when he's off. That 13-point swing trails only those of Rudy Gobert, Devonte' Graham, Bojan Bogdanovic and LeBron James among players with at least 1,000 minutes.

    CP3 is also the leader of one of the most efficient five-man lineups in the league.

    "OKC's preferred closing group —[Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schreder], plus center Steven Adams and power forward Danilo Gallinari—is the best lineup in the NBA by net rating with a minimum 150 minutes (plus-30.2 per 100 in 159 minutes)," ESPN's Royce Young wrote. "And 52.8% of those minutes have come in the fourth quarter."

    That lineup is an NBA-best plus-61 in fourth quarters. And that's in just 84 minutes. As the battle for playoff positioning heats up, all these high-leverage possessions played by OKC's closing lineup will come in handy. This is a battle-tested team that could absolutely pull off a first-round upset.

    At this rate, the Thunder even have a shot to finish fourth and be a favorite at the start of the postseason.

8. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

    Last Week: 8

    Entering 2019-20 as a surefire title contender opened the Clippers up for heightened scrutiny throughout the season. This current three-game losing streak may turn scrutiny to alarm bells.

    "Just got to keep fighting," Kawhi Leonard told reporters after a nine-point home loss to the Kings. "It is about the right team peaking at the right time. I don't think we have even got there yet. It feels like we are getting close, but we just need guys to get healthy."

    From a lot of players, that might sound like a star trying to throw water on the fire. Based on what we've seen from Kawhi over the years, there's a solid chance he does think L.A. is "close" to peaking despite the losing streak. And he's certainly onto something on the health point.

    He, Paul George and Patrick Beverley have all missed time with injuries. When all three are on the floor, the Clippers are plus-10.5 points per 100 possessions. For context's sake, the Los Angeles Lakers are plus-10.6 points per 100 possessions when LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Danny Green are on the floor.

    This is a team that can justify load-managing its way through a season. If everyone is healthy by the time the playoffs roll around, there's a good chance we look back on this stretch as a blip on the radar.

7. Dallas Mavericks

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Last Week: 13

    The Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors are the only teams in the NBA with a better SRS than the Mavericks, and stars Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis just now seem to be figuring out how to maximize each other's games.

    Over the course of the season, KP has averaged 18.7 points per 75 possessions with a 51.2 true shooting percentage when sharing the floor with Luka, compared to 26.0 points with a 57.7 true shooting percentage when Luka is off.

    But in their last two games together, both have gone off. Against the Kings on Feb. 12, Doncic and Porzingis combined for 60 points, 25 rebounds and 13 assists. Against Orlando on Feb. 21, they went for 57 points, 20 rebounds and 13 assists.

    Finally, this is the duo many expected to see when Dallas first traded for Porzingis just over a year ago. When Doncic is running the offense, Porzingis spaces the floor and pulls big men out of the paint. That gives Luka plenty of room to operate in the paint, finish himself or kick out to KP or other shooters.

    If both can stay healthy from here on out, this is another team, like OKC, that could put a legitimate scare in just about anyone in the playoffs.

6. Denver Nuggets

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Last Week: 5

    Denver is one of just five teams that have a positive net rating against the league's top 10 in net rating. The Boston Celtics (plus-7.0), Milwaukee Bucks (plus-2.5), Houston Rockets (plus-1.9) and Los Angeles Lakers (plus-0.9) are the only teams ahead of the Nuggets (plus-0.5).

    This squad shows up for big games and is led by a bona fide superstar in Nikola Jokic.

    For the fourth time in his career, Jokic has a box plus/minus over 7.0. Only 12 players in NBA history have had more in an entire career. Charles Barkley, LeBron James and Michael Jordan are the only other players who had four in their first five seasons.

    With a historically great player and a deep supporting cast, maybe it shouldn't be all that surprising that the Nuggets are in that group outlined above. Some may be hesitant to take them seriously due to the market they're in or their relative inexperience, but this team has the ingredients for title contention.

    If Jamal Murray can find a bit more consistency and Gary Harris can rediscover his form from 2016-17 and 2017-18, Denver can play with anyone.

5. Houston Rockets

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    Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

    Last Week: 6

    Small-ball is working for the Rockets. In nearly 1,600 possessions with P.J. Tucker at the 5, Houston's net rating is plus-7.0, a mark that ranks in the 87th percentile.

    And things have been even better since the Robert Covington acquisition. The sample size is small, just over 300 possessions, but Houston is plus-20.7 points per 100 possessions when RoCo is on the floor and Tucker is at the 5.

    The move has been especially helpful for Russell Westbrook, who has been dominant when the floor is completely spread and the paint is his to attack.

    Over the course of the season, when Russ is in the game without a traditional center, he's putting up 30.0 points and 6.6 assists per 75 possessions with a 61.8 true shooting percentage.

    The strategy still feels radical. We've just been programmed to see at least one player in that 6'8"-plus range on the floor for NBA teams. But so far, the Rockets have pushed past about every issue you might think would accompany these lineups.

    They're holding opponents to a low offensive rebounding rate, and they're allowing a below-average effective field-goal percentage. Switchability and a commitment to boxing out have made this work on the defensive end. The offensive benefits are obvious.

    The ball-dominant guards, James Harden and Westbrook, are free to attack in space. And surrounding that with as much shooting as possible is yielding 121.0 points per 100 possessions.

4. Toronto Raptors

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    Last Week: 3

    The loss of Kawhi Leonard was supposed to relegate the Raptors to the middle of the Eastern Conference's playoff picture. Their preseason over/under was set at 45. They're now on pace for 60 wins.

    Somehow, their 2019-20 SRS of 5.84 tops last season's 5.49. Pascal Siakam started the All-Star Game. Nine players have at least 500 minutes and an above-average box plus/minus.

    Losing the superstar may have galvanized the reigning champions in a way nothing else could.

    These Raptors appear to play for each other like few other rosters do. The ball flies around on offense. They're ninth in assists per game and first in secondary assists per game. They have connectivity on the other end that leads to solid rotations. And when Marc Gasol is healthy to back everyone up, they have an elite defense that allows just 101.0 points per 100 possessions.

    The Milwaukee Bucks are a full-fledged juggernaut, but Toronto overcame the odds last season. We've reached the point at which the Raptors getting back to the Finals wouldn't be shocking.

3. Boston Celtics

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    Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    Last Week: 4

    In a way, Boston beat Houston to the small-ball punch. 

    The Celtics have played plenty of minutes this season with Daniel Theis and Jayson Tatum, both 6'8", as the tallest guys on the floor. Those lineups just weren't covered as small-ball ones because Theis plays a bit more like a traditional big than 6'5" P.J. Tucker.

    When Theis and Tatum are on the floor with Gordon Hayward (6'7"), Jaylen Brown (6'6") and Kemba Walker (6'0"), the Celtics are plus-14.3 points per 100 possessions. And a lot of the positives that can be said of Houston's small-ball philosophy can just as readily apply to this Boston lineup.

    The switchability of Brown, Tatum and Hayward on defense is key. Theis can hold his own on the perimeter, as well, but he's certainly not afraid to mix it up inside. And Walker, of course, brings a dynamism to the point of attack that Kyrie Irving did previously, only without the unnecessary drama.

    Add solid bench contributions from Marcus Smart and Enes Kanter and it's pretty easy to see this team as a legitimate title contender.

2. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Last Week: 2

    In most seasons, this Lakers squad would be considered a runaway favorite for the title. Even with the Milwaukee Bucks' dominance, some may still see L.A. that way.

    Three-time Finals MVP LeBron James is leading a team with another superstar to a 64-win pace. The Lakers' current SRS is top-50 all-time. This is a powerhouse that just happens to be racking up wins in the same season Milwaukee is on pace for a historic win total.

    There may also be a slightly more obvious hint of vulnerability with the Lakers than there is with the East's No. 1 team. When LeBron leaves the floor, L.A.'s net rating plummets from 10.8 to minus-2.8. When Giannis Antetokounmpo leaves the floor, Milwaukee goes from 15.8 to 6.7.

    There's no question the Bucks are the deeper team, but the last 15 years have taught us to count LeBron out at our own peril.

1. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Last Week: 1

    What else is there to say about Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks?

    After destroying the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday, their pace bumped back over 70 wins. They have to go 22-4 the rest of the way to join the 1995-96 Bulls and the 2015-16 Warriors as the only 70-win teams in league history.

    Given the way they play each and every game, 22-4 seems eminently gettable.

    Milwaukee doesn't have a single player with at least 500 minutes and a negative net rating. Eight Bucks are hitting at least one three per game. Nine Bucks are posting above-average box plus/minuses. And they're led by a player having one of the greatest individual campaigns in NBA history.

    In just 30.9 minutes per game, Giannis is posting 30.0 points, 13.6 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.1 blocks. Adjust for pace and playing time and he's averaging 33.3 points, 15.1 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.2 blocks per 75 possessions.

    LeBron James' career high for points per 75 possessions is 30.6. Rudy Gobert's career high for rebounds per 75 possessions is 15.1. Allen Iverson's career high for assists per 75 possessions is 7.1.

    These are basically prime Kareem Abdul-Jabbar numbers with more passing. And Milwaukee has surrounded Giannis with what appears to be an ideal roster for him.

    It may be natural to gravitate toward those who've already won it all when discussing title chances, but the Bucks are exactly the kind of team that should crush that talking point.

              

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass and current heading into games on Feb 23. 

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