Well, it’s official. Giannis Antetokounmpo is your 2018-19 NBA Most Valuable Player. Per Malika Andrews of ESPN, Antetokounmpo received 78 out of 101 first-place votes, beating out Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden for the award. Antetokounmpo averaged 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds. 5.9 assists, and 1.5 blocks per game during the regular season.
The Buck organization was host to more than just one award winner on Monday night though. Head coach Mike Budenholzer won the Coach of the Year award. Budenholzer coached the Bucks to the best record in basketball this season as the team finished 60-22. The team was also one of the best defensively. The Bucks finished with the most rebounds and blocks per game in the league and finished with the best defensive rating (104.9). Budenholzer beat out Denver’s Mike Malone and Los Angeles’ Doc Rivers for the award.
Obviously, Monday night was very emotional for Antetokounmpo and it was great for the Bucks organization. However, this season was still a disappointment for the Bucks, Yes, they did take major steps toward becoming one of the best teams in the league, but they got destroyed by the Toronto Raptors after going up 2-0 early on in the Eastern Conference Finals. Nick Nurse ran coaching circles around Budenholzer and Antetokounmpo was outplayed and overshadowed by Kawhi Leonard. While Antetokounmpo was still able to put up 25.5 points and 12.3 rebounds a night, his field goal percentage dropped from 57.8% to 49.2% in the playoffs. In the series against the Raptors, the Greek Freak never led a game in scoring. Leonard finished with the most points in six of the seven games.
The Bucks have a lot of improvements they need to make if they want to actually make the Finals next year, but their focus has to be on free agency right now. The Bucks could potentially lose a lot of players in free agency. Malcolm Brogdon, Brook Lopez, Khris Middleton, and Nikola Mirotic are all unrestricted free agents. The Bucks do own the Bird rights to all of those players except Lopez, but that still puts the team at the risk of losing a lot of three-point shooters and defenders, both of which are crucial to the team’s system.
Obviously, I expect Middleton will be back in a Bucks uniform next season, but it’s harder to tell what moves the other players will make. If they’re offered better deals by teams with more money, then the Bucks might be left out of luck. It’s also worth noting that Antetokounmpo only has the 29th highest average annual salary right now at $25 million. That ties him with LaMarcus Aldridge and Steven Adams. For reference, former MVP, Russell Westbrook is making just over $41 million a year. Antetokounmpo will be a free agent after the 2020-21 season. The Bucks had better be ready financially.
I do want to say that what the Bucks need to do this summer largely hinges on what Leonard and the Raptors do. If Leonard heads to the Western Conference, then the Bucks have a lot less to worry about. If Leonard and the other free agents on the Raptors return for another run, then the Bucks will be under a lot more pressure to retain players and add some new pieces.
As for Antetokounmpo, he needs to round out his game. Defensively, he’s solid, as shown by his First Team All-Defensive selection this year. It’s Antetokounmpo’s offensive game that came up short in the postseason. There’s an excellent YouTube channel called Thinking Basketball that posted an informative video on how the Raptors stopped Antetokounmpo. It’s a great video and channel that really highlighted some of the MVP’s biggest weaknesses which defensive schemes can exploit.
Right now, Antetokounmpo can be stopped by defenders or walls of defenders strong enough to simply get in his way and keep him from charging the rim. A lot of the same concerns have been raised about Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons, except Antetokounmpo has shown a greater ability to develop new skills than Simmons. When Antetokounmpo is walled up, he has to pass or take a difficult shot. He’s not a bad passer, but he’s not on that LeBron James or even Simmons level yet either.
Also, Antetokounmpo’s mid-range and three-point games largely aren’t feared. It Antetokounmpo goes for a catch and shoot, most defenses will happily give him those looks as opposed to having to deal with his drive. This is where players like James and Kevin Durant have developed out to become threats away from the basket, forcing defenses to respect their jumpers and not just their drives. Antetokounmpo shot just 25.6% from three during the regular season. That’s worse than his teammate Eric Bledsoe, who shot 32.9% from three during the regular season but was exploited as an offensive liability by the Raptors. Even Joel Embiid (30.0%) and Draymond Green (28.5%) were better three-point shooters this season despite having some of their worst three-point shooting years yet.
Antetokounmpo also only made 72.9% of his free throw attempts. That number is down from his 2016 and 2017 totals. For a player like Antetokounmpo, who has been compared to Shaquille O’Neal in terms of his dominance in the paint, free throws are essential. In the playoffs, Antetokounmpo hit just 63.7% of his free throws, and his career percentage in the postseason is just 64.0%. To put things in perspective, if Antetokounmpo even hit about 80.0% of his free throws, which is about what Embiid makes, he would have scored 50 more points in the regular season and 27 more in the playoffs. All-world players like Durant and Stephen Curry shot 88.5% and 91.6%, respectively, from the free throw line this season.
Overall, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are in a good place. At the very least, they’re in a better spot that they’ve been for the past decade. That being said, if both sides don’t find a way to get better this offseason, they could fall short of the Finals again next year.