Before the NBA suspended the 2019-20 season because of the coronavirus pandemic, Giannis Antetokounmpo was on pace to win his second straight MVP. He has powered the Milwaukee Bucks to the best record in the NBA (53-12), and he has been even better this season than he was last year.
LeBron James has been making a push for the MVP, with the Los Angeles Lakers only three games behind the Bucks for the NBA's best record. But as great as James has been all season, Antetokounmpo has been better on both ends of the court.
The Bucks lead the league in point differential by nearly four points. The last team to have a double-digit point differential was the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors, who went on to win the championship that year.
Although Antetokounmpo is averaging only 30.9 minutes per game because the Bucks blow so many teams out, that hasn't adversely affected his MVP chances. In fact, it has only enhanced them.
Giannis' Offensive Dominance
Antetokounmpo has been an offensive force in a variety of ways.
He's averaging 5.8 assists per game this season, continuing his recent trend of being a facilitator. With defenses sending multiple defenders at him, he always finds the open man, like center Brook Lopez in the corner for a three-pointer or All-Star forward Khris Middleton cutting to the basket.
Head coach Mike Budenholzer has utilized Antetokounmpo as both the ball-handler and the screener in pick-and-rolls. Aa the ball-handler, he uses his agility and long strides to get around defenders.
Here, even with Lopez setting the screen so high, he crosses back on Serge Ibaka and gets to the rim in only a handful of steps
Antetokounmpo has also worked on his three-point shooting. After shooting only 25.6 percent from deep last season, he's improved to 30.6 percent this season on a career-high 4.8 attempts per game.
The Bucks have been the NBA's most dominant team, which all starts with Antetokounmpo.
Giannis' Defensive Dominance
The team's paint defense is particularly stifling. Opponents have been shooting 9.8 percentage points below their average on shots within six feet of the basket against Milwaukee.
The defense collapses on any paint penetration, like when Antetokounmpo slides off his man in the corner to send Kendrick Nunn's shot away.
Antetokounmpo has also perfected James' chase-down block in transition. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson thinks he has an opportunity for an easy bucket, but he does not notice that Antetokounmpo is sizing him up for a big block.
Blocks are only one part of Antetokounmpo's defense. He does a great job of using his long arms to get deflections and steals, too.
Here, Kelly Olynyk thinks he has Goran Dragic open on a back cut. That is, until Antetokounmpo extends his arms into the passing lane, forcing a Miami Heat turnover.
One-on-one, Antetokounmpo does a great job finding his positioning. He can go from covering the pick-and-roll to helping on a post-up before recovering to his man.
Against Bam Adebayo here, he does not overcommit on the pump-fake. Instead, he stays in front of the drive, forcing a charge. Stellar defense comprises a large part of Antetokounmpo's MVP candidacy. He's among the front-runners for Defensive Player of the Year as well.
Fewest Minutes Ever
In 2014-15, Stephen Curry averaged 32.7 minutes per night for the Golden State Warriors, which is the record for the fewest minutes ever averaged during an MVP campaign. That just edged out Antetokounmpo's 32.8 minutes per game last season, when he won his first MVP.
Before Curry's 14-15 season, legendary Portland Trail Blazer Bill Walton averaged the fewest minutes in his MVP campaign during the 1977-78 season, with 33.3 minutes per night across 58 games.
Minutes per game
(Stats from Basketball-Reference.com)
After averaging 27.7 points, 12.5 points and 5.9 assists in 32.8 minutes in 2018-19, Antetokounmpo is averaging more points (29.6) and rebounds (13.7) in fewer minutes (30.9) this season.
Antetokounmpo ranks third in the NBA in scoring, trailing only James Harden and Bradley Beal. Harden leads the league with 34.4 points per game, but he's second in minutes played (36.7). Beal is second in points (30.5) and tied for fifth in minutes (36.0).
In other words: Antetokounmpo is playing five fewer minutes per game than the league's top two scorers and is nearly averaging 30 points regardless.
The only real threat to Antetokounmpo's second straight MVP is James, who has been great in his own right. He's averaging 25.7 points per game and leads the league with 10.6 assists per game. However, he's playing four minutes more than Antetokounmpo.
On top of that, James has not been as good on defense as Antetokounmpo. The Bucks allow 7.7 more points per 100 possessions with Antetokounmpo off the floor, while the Lakers allow only 3.6 more points per 100 possessions without James.
If the NBA is able to resume the 2019-20 season at some point, Antetokounmpo could become the first player to win MVP while averaging less than 31 minutes per game.
Mo Dakhil spent six years with the Los Angeles Clippers and two years with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator, as well as three years with the Australian men's national team. Follow him on Twitter, @MoDakhil_NBA.