Giannis Antetokounmpo has been playing at an MVP level for so long the media stopped giving him the award. It’s a level that very few players have reached. Depending on their side of the argument, people lament that Michael Jordan and/or LeBron James should have considerably more MVP trophies because they were the best player in the league for most of their careers.
After we wrote Joel Embiid should be the favorite to win the MVP, his campaign has taken off. Our trendsetting ability and my upcoming leading question aside, which player’s stats are better between these two options: 29/11/4, 49 percent from the field, or 29/11/6, 54 percent from the field? The former is Embiid, and the latter is two-time MVP Antetokounmpo.
I’m not here to discredit my own work, so let me say Embiid is the evolution of Hakeem Olajuwon while Antetokounmpo is Shaquille O’Neal 2.0. Watching the 76ers’ center is like watching Fred Flintstone bowl or a panda bear ice skate. Someone that big should not be that graceful or skilled. Then he dunks all over Jarrett Allen and you forget what multiverse you’re in.
With Giannis, it’s more like the Bucks made a deal: We’ll let you do everything a big man dreams of doing — run the break, shoot turnarounds and 3s, handle the rock — if you do everything a big man should do. My favorite aspect of Antetokounmpo’s game is that he loves to bully guys.
The reason he put up 50 on 17-21 shooting against the Pacers on Tuesday is 48 percent of his attempts this season have come from within 3 feet of the hoop. For context and comparison, Embiid only takes 28 percent of his shots from that range, which also speaks to why he’s so mesmerizing to watch. (As you might imagine, both players are essentially unstoppable that close to the hoop, finishing 73 to 74 percent of those attempts.)
Antetokounmpo evokes the same “what the fuck are we supposed to do with this guy,” feelings that poured out of Shaq like sweat in his prime. No team has a single player who can guard Giannis, and few teams have the requisite platoon of big men and stretchy wings to slow him down.
Embiid gives off that can’t-guard-me vibe, too, but he doesn’t dunk on your head repeatedly until you quit or foul out. It almost seems like he gets bored and shoots a step-back to challenge himself.
He won’t have to worry about complacency tonight as the Bucks and 76ers face off. It’ll be the 10th overall meeting between the two, and the first this season. It’s oddly rare that these two share the court together. You’d think the sample size would be bigger across six seasons with each residing in the East, but such is life in the era of load management and with Embiid’s injury history.
Antetokounmpo is 6-3 in games against Embiid, and the stats reflect that, with the Greek Freak holding the per game high ground in points (33 to 26), rebounds (14 to 11), and assists (6 to 5). The last time Embiid beat Antetokounmpo was Christmas 2019.
This year feels different, though, because we’re getting both “traditional” big men operating at their peaks. I agree the old-school big man is probably dead or getting played off the court somewhere; I meant traditional in the sense that they’re doing back to the basket post moves, protecting the rim, rebounding, and generally imposing their will near the hoop.
Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett imposed their wills on the game, but you didn’t see a ton of drop steps and baby hooks out of them. Big isn’t the right word to describe the kind of players I’m talking about. I think “hulking” is a more apt adjective.
The last time two hulking MVPs, who also were the best players on their respective teams, met in the playoffs was Shaq versus Tim Duncan in the early aughts. If Embiid captures the award this year, and we’re lucky enough to get four, five, six, hopefully seven games/battles of epic proportion in the postseason, it would be a rarely seen combination of spectacle and substance. Think the Mountain versus the Hound in Game of Thrones, or a heavyweight bout that isn’t two overweight behemoths constantly grappling to catch their breath, or a T-Rex fighting a Giganotosaurus. (It’s a real dinosaur. Google it.)
If previous matchups are any indication, we’d be in for entertaining games and insane stat lines, like the March 17, 2019 contest when they combined for 92 points, with Antetokounmpo notching a career-high 52. There was the April 4, 2019 meeting when they managed to only put up 79 points between the two of them, Giannis tallying 45 to Embiid’s 34.
While each player might not be on-ball against one another the entire series, there will be stretches where they at least attempt to check one another. And let’s not forget the at-rim collisions that inevitably happen whenever two men of their stature share a court; there will be a few clashes over dominance of the paint, and let’s hope they’re as visceral as possible. (I fear James Harden might just bounce after witnessing so much testosterone.)
This kind of phenomena doesn’t occur often, so pray to whatever basketball gods you worship that we get a Bucks-76ers playoff battle. Tonight will be fun, but hopefully it’s just a precursor to the main event.