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Giannis' Epic 2021 NBA Finals Sparks New Debates Among Legends, Historians

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJuly 23, 2021

MILWAUKEE, WI - JULY 20: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks holds the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP Award and Larry O'Brien Trophy after defeating the Phoenix Suns in Game Six to win the 2021 NBA Finals during Game Six of the 2021 NBA Finals on July 20, 2021 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 2021 NBAE (Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images).
Barry Gossage/Getty Images

Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn't turn 27 till December. He just wrapped up his eighth season and ranks 523rd in league history in minutes played.

For most players, those numbers would mean it's way too early to analyze their place among the all-time greats, but not for Giannis. After three seasons that included two MVP wins, a Defensive Player of the Year nod, a Finals MVP and one of the greatest postseason performances of all time, he's earned a spot in the discussion.

"It's more than a title," Bill Simmons said of Giannis' championship on The Bill Simmons Podcast. "At some point, you're talking about legacy and history. And we're going to have the 75th anniversary coming up. He was not on that list. He was not one of the best 25 players ever. He wasn't going to be mentioned with [Shaquille O'Neal] and Hakeem [Olajuwon] and Moses [Malone]. And now, he's there."

That doesn't mean he's suddenly in the GOAT conversation with LeBron James, Michael Jordan or fellow Milwaukee Bucks champion Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but he could be in that top 25-30 range, depending on what you emphasize.

Those who are impressed by peaks are likely more inclined to move Giannis up the ladder. Those who are big on accomplishments like individual awards and titles are closer to them than the next group. And then there are those who care more about longevity.

Of course, that is where Giannis is behind most of the all-timers. And that should be obvious. He's 26, and unlike any player we've seen before, which raises the question: Should we even be doing this at all?

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"Right now, let's just appreciate him," four-time All-Star and National Basketball Retired Players Association board member Shawn Marion told Bleacher Report. "He's an anomaly."

"We need to stop comparing players to players," Marion added. "Let's be real right now. His skill set is so dynamic, so unique, that you can't really compare it to anybody. When was the last time you saw a big go coast-to-coast and dunk the way he does? When you look at him, you look at him as a center guard. He's big enough to play center, but he also handles the ball enough to be a guard. That's the uniqueness about him."

Hall of Famer, two-time champion and 1978 MVP Bill Walton shared similar sentiments.

"Everything has to be ranked," he told Bleacher Report. "Everything has to be compared to something else. And that's just not the life that I live. I enjoy every champion. And I really enjoy Giannis. Skill, talent, work ethic, passion, imagination. He's really a gift from the gods. He represents all the things that I really love."

Tensions between the approaches of analysts like Simmons and former players such as Marion and Walton in these discussions aren't new. On the media side, there's a desire to break everything down. Starting debates is fun. For the players who've experienced a level of basketball most fans and analysts can only dream of, pushing appreciation over argument makes sense.

Giannis has more or less forced our hand, though. Over his last three to five seasons, he's filled up his resume faster and more thoroughly than anyone could've imagined before this run started.

"He'd no doubt be top 50 if this was re-done, and you can look at that top 30 to top 20 group to get an idea of where he's going with some more MVP-type seasons," Back Picks' Ben Taylor, who has his own all-timer list, told Bleacher Report. "From a resume standpoint, he's already going to be ahead of all but, like, 20 or 30 dudes in league history (assuming too much isn't placed on career totals and longevity)."

Depending on how you frame that resume, the list might not even be that long.

Giannis is one of just 14 players in league history to win more than one MVP award. Of those 14 players, 12 have championships (Steve Nash and Karl Malone are the two on the outs there). Then, Giannis and Michael Jordan are the only two of those 12 with a DPOY. Of course, that last award wasn't given out till the 1982-83 season, which rules out all of Bill Russell's career and most of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's.

Still, even if you want to add those two and Tim Duncan (who's lack of a DPOY is almost inexplicable), Giannis is in very limited company in terms of accolades. Add five All-NBA selections, four All-Defense selections, five All-Star nods and a Most Improved Player of the Year award, and it's easy to see why Basketball Reference's Hall of Fame probability model already has Giannis at 67.9 percent (and that model assumes the player would retire today).

In terms of numbers, Giannis' peak is already about as high as any power forward you can think of. Over the last five seasons, his box plus/minus is a whopping 8.6 (BPM is "...a basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player's contribution to the team when that player is on the court, according to Basketball Reference).

That's better than all but one of the following legendary big men:

  • Kevin Garnett: 8.6
  • Charles Barkley: 7.8
  • Karl Malone: 7.4
  • Tim Duncan: 7.2
  • Dirk Nowitzki: 7.0

And if you narrow the peak to three years, Giannis' 10.2 is up there with some of the best players ever, regardless of position. Stephen Curry's three-year BPM peak is 9.7. Kevin Durant's is 10.1.

That Giannis finished off this run with a title, 35.2 points, 13.2 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.2 steals in the Finals, the block on Deandre Ayton's attempted alley-oop in Game 4, his alley-oop over Chris Paul in Game 5 and 50 points in the closeout game wasn't just a cherry on top. It was a pile of cherries on top.

It was a vivid display of Giannis' unique brilliance. He brings a combination of the traditional, physical dominance we saw from bigs of earlier eras with the athleticism and explosiveness of today's top-end guards and wings. As Marion said, it makes him an anomaly.

And contrary to what some of his critics, including James Harden, have said, there is plenty of skill layered on top of the physical gifts.

"Absolutely more skilled," former Buck and five-time All-Star Marques Johnson told Bleacher Report when asked what some of the public may be missing about Giannis. "Outside Shooting is the first thing often used to evaluate skill. Giannis was 13-of-13 in the Restricted Area [in Game 3]. Those weren't just point blank uncontested dunks. He had to find ways to beat defenders over and over. You watch Giannis dribble, the double through the legs, crossovers, etc. Giannis has said he played point guard when he was younger in Greece, you can see a lot of that in his game today. And to be able to do it at 7'0" and 250 pounds [the Bucks list him at 6'11" and 242lbs] is remarkable."

After eight years in the league, we may now take the way Giannis moves for granted. The list of players across history with his build and mobility may be limited to him. If you wanted to expand it, you might include KD and Kareem.

"I would like to see a physical comparison between Giannis and Kareem, in terms of size and length," Walton said. "Because Kareem was the greatest player I ever played against, by far. By far. You can't even get to second place for the greatest players I ever played against. And he had that magnificent, perfect body, which Giannis has as well."

Kareem was listed at 7'2", while Giannis is 6'11". And when you watch highlights of either, you can see why Walton wants that physical comparison. The smoothness with which they bound up and down the floor, the sinewy build and the sheer size are all comparable. And interestingly enough, their statistical profiles aren't far off either.

From his age-23 season to now (age 26), Giannis has averaged 30.2 points, 12.7 rebounds and 6.0 assists per 36 minutes. At the same age, Kareem put up 26.1 points, 13.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists per 36 minutes. Both were defensive forces, as well.

There's a reason Walton wants to limit the comparison to the physical side and Marion wants to avoid them altogether, though. The differences between various eras of NBA basketball are massive (and probably incalculable).

One might be quick to bring up that most of Russell's 11 titles were won when the league had fewer than 10 teams. Someone else in the same argument might rightfully ask what Russell could've done with today's pay scale and knowledge on training and nutrition.

A more recent comparison that has surfaced is one between Giannis and Shaq. That's easier, simply because they peaked about 20 years apart, but there are still massive differences in style of play. The pace of the game in the 1990s and early 2000s falls well shy of today's NBA. The way the floor is spaced for Giannis is something Shaq could only dream of as he analyzes today's action.

There are real advantages that help Giannis dominate, statistically and physically, the way he does. But he absolutely deserves credit for how he's set himself apart from his peers. BPM is relative to league average, and Giannis led the league in 2019-20.

He can score, own the glass, distribute to teammates, defend all over the floor and protect the rim. The only weakness is his outside and free-throw shooting, but even there, he's not afraid to try.

Some might argue whether this is a good thing, but he attempted 3.6 threes per game this season. And even as opposing crowds throughout the playoffs raucously counted to 10 (and beyond) when he was at the line, he aggressively sought contact and trips there. In his absurd 50-point closeout game against Phoenix, he went 17-of-19 from the stripe (tied for the fourth most makes ever in a Finals game).

After that performance, there aren't many questions left to ask about Giannis' game and his impact on the Bucks and the NBA.

All the boxes he's already checked are how we got to the lofty topic of this article. Is it too early to talk about where Giannis ranks among the all-timers?

"Well, that depends on how high up the mountain you want to go," Walton said.

             

All statistics courtesy of Stathead unless otherwise stated.

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