King Slayer: Why Giannis Antetokounmpo will Dethrone LeBron James
Fans of the NBA have become numb to LeBron James’ greatness. We no longer see his historic accomplishments for what they truly are. We overlook him at every turn.
Last year, for instance, he became just the fifth player in NBA history to average more than 26.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 8.0 assists per game. Of course, it hurt his case that Russell Westbrook and James Harden also put up incredible numbers. We could get into James’ huge efficiency advantage, but we won’t. Despite his ridiculous statistics, he finished fourth in the NBA MVP voting. Are you friggin’ kidding me? This man received one damn first-place vote. He trailed Kawhi Leonard by 167 points. Get real!
James has more seasons with 26.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 7.0 assists than anyone in history (nine). He’s a four-time MVP. Three-time Finals MVP. Thirteen-time All-Star. Fifty-seven-time Player of the Week. Thirty-four-time Player of the Month.
Now, I’ll give you one better.
For the past seven years, only three things in life have been certain: death, taxes and LeBron James in the NBA Finals.
Hell, there are about 27.8 million kids in the United States alone who don’t know what they look like without him. What’s about to be the greatest dynasty of all time, the Golden State Warriors, was created solely to stop The King.
Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever. At 32 years old, he is, to some degree, beginning to slow down. His value over replacement level last season was 7.3—the third lowest of his career. His win shares (12.9), steal percentage (1.6) block percentage (1.3) and PER (27.0) were all down from 2015-16.
James’ total points added (TPA) of 470.37 also fell from the previous season (484.47), though it was still good enough to rank third in the NBA.
Right behind the Chosen One in the TPA standings is a young man out of Athens, Greece. The omni-improving Giannis Antetokounmpo finished with 425.68 TPA—almost quadruple his previous score and pushing him closer to James’ own early-career pace:
It won’t be long before Antetokounmpo usurps James as the best player in the NBA.
Giannis on the Rise
The league’s reigning Most Improved Player is one of the most unique players in history. He was also one of the biggest question marks in the 2013 draft, playing only one season with Filathlitikos B.C. in Greece’s second-tier league before Milwaukee Bucks general manager John Hammond made a career-saving choice by selecting the young man with the No. 15 pick.
Antetokounmpo’s body transformation has been unlike any we’ve ever seen. In June 2013, he stood only 6’9″ and weighed 196 pounds. After one year in the league, he hit another growth spurt. Gaining nearly two-and-a-half inches, he shot up to almost 7’0″. That alone is an impressive (biological) feat. However, what’s been a longer and more profound metamorphosis is the amount and type of muscle he’s built. Still just 22 years old, he now weighs in at 222 pounds.
— Nick Hernandez (@nick20XI) December 24, 2016
It’s this lean muscle, which allows Antetokounmpo to battle with more players on the interior while maintaining his speed and quickness, that makes him such a special product.
Throughout the first few years in the league, the Greek Freak routinely got pushed around down low. His lack of both upper-body and lower-body strength forced him to take shots from further than his range stretched. This led to a higher degree of difficulty in his attempts, thus decreasing his shooting percentages:
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Now, more chiseled than ever, he’s able to manufacture higher-quality looks at the basket. And getting to his preferred spots on the floor has led to a greater percentage of shots finding nylon.
The below play is a great illustration:
Antetokounmpo is able to get inside the restricted area on this drive thanks to a good ball screen. Though he appears to be stopped in his tracks by Marcin Gortat, he strongly rips the ball across the big man’s chest in an attempt to find space on the left side of the rim. When that isn’t there, he pivots back over his left shoulder for a baby hook. He accomplishes these moves and counters without being bodied out of the lane and while remaining on balance.
His footwork also looks damn good in the process.
Earlier in his career, he often found himself out of control on drives and in transition. Driving to the basket proved especially tough. During his rookie season, he only shot 29.6 percent on 2.5 drives per game. You combine that with a 15.8 turnover percentage and it spells disaster. If we fast forward to 2016-17, the numbers look a lot better, as he dramatically improved to a 51.1 field-goal percentage on 8.7 drives to go along with a turnover percentage under nine.
The fourth-year player’s track record in the advanced-stats department is even more remarkable. He’s improved his player efficiency rating, true shooting percentage, total rebound percentage, assist percentage, steal percentage and block percentage while decreasing his turnover rate every single season. Every. Single. Season. Not even James can say that. Oh, and did I also mention Antetokounmpo has almost doubled his usage percentage since his rookie campaign?
In 2016-17, Antetokounmpo became the fifth player to ever lead his team in all five major statistical categories. James just happens to be one of those players as well, accomplishing the feat in 2008-09.
When you put their age-22 seasons on a level playing field, the Alphabet surprisingly comes out on top—incredible, considering how raw he was coming into the league:
The last glaring weakness in Antetokounmpo’s game comes from the behind three-point line, where he’s shooting only 27.7 percent for his career. This is the only aspect holding him back from already becoming a top-five player.
After remaking his shot, he’s still working on getting the mechanics down. The hardest part is finding consistency with his long limbs. His shooting elbow tends to float further outside than he hopes, but it should eventually align with his shoulder on every attempt:
We’ve already started to see some positive results. He was able to knock down 27.2 percent of his three-point attempts—an increase for the third straight year following his low-volume-buoyed 34.9 percent clip as a rookie. He should only continue to get better, and if he ever becomes even a league-average long-range sniper, forget it. He’ll somehow be more than unguardable.
The Reign of The Alphabet is Coming…and Soon
During this day and age, athletes are playing at a higher level for a longer period of time. I mean, look at what Tom Brady is doing in New England. He’ll turn 40 years old on August 3 and is playing better than he was in his late 20s.
If anyone in the NBA can imitate what Brady’s doing, it would be James, right? Not so fast. He’s at the point in his career where he’s climbing up leaderboards everywhere. Every season, he’s making a significant jump in most points, rebounds, assists, etc. However, there’s also another category he’s climbing at a historic rate: total minutes played. He already ranks 25th in NBA history with 41,272. That’s not where his minutes end, though. The seven straight Finals has had a huge impact on his body, as he’s been playing basketball from October through June each season (and even longer when he suited up for the Olympic team). Due to that, he already ranks second with 9,127 playoff minutes.
Cleveland knows this, which is why it had a succession plan in place. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were supposed to carry more and more of the scoring burden as James got older., thus helping elongate his reign and keep the Cavaliers on top of the Eastern Conference for even longer.
Like any boxer will tell you, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.
The Cavs received that proverbial right hook when Irving requested a trade. Now, Cleveland is in shambles from its owner all the way down to the locker room.
Next year, James will be good enough to carry nearly any combination of scrubs to the Eastern Conference Finals. But how much further? Another question that remains: When will Father Time claim this victim? He is, after all, undefeated.
Guys like Kevin Durant (29 years old at the start of 2017-18), James Harden (28) or Russell Westbrook (28) may seem like the more obvious choices to succeed James on the throne. However, they are already in the latter parts of their respective primes. The King’s reign has coincided with each of their best seasons and will continue to do so for a bit longer. They will be worthy candidates when he’s ready to pass the torch, but only temporary ones.
In three years, those guys will all be on the wrong side of 30. Even though they will still be playing at a high level, their best basketball will likely be behind them.
Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo will just be getting started. He’s 10 years younger than James, which means the further the current leader continues to fall away from his prime, the closer the young Buck will get to his. Guys in his cohort such as Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Davis may also have a good case to lord over the NBA. They will both be top-five players for years to come. They will dominate the game, the boards and opposing defenses with supreme ability matched by few others in history.
The Greek Freak, on the other hand, can do things nobody else has ever done. He’s already doing them. He’ll be able to rule in an unprecedented fashion.
On one end of the floor, he’s the primary ball-handler and playmaker for a rising playoff team. His assist percentage (26.9) is in line with other star point guards such as Damian Lillard (27.7), Kyrie Irving (27.8) and Stephen Curry (28.7). On the other, he’s the menacing shot-blocker teams fear. He can defend any position with the best of them. His 1.9 blocks per 36 minutes was equal to DeAndre Jordan’s last season. His 1.7 steals was also equivalent to Patrick Beverley and just below Jimmy Butler (1.8).
The Milwaukee Bucks are also set up better than either the New Orleans Pelicans or Minnesota Timberwolves for long-term success. They have a plethora of young players with high ceilings on their roster. Guys like Malcolm Brogdon, Thon Maker, Khris Middleton and, yes, Jabari Parker (still) have a chance to make a difference in the East. I mean, that’s your 1-5 lineup right there.
If that core group is able to grow and learn together, Milwaukee will own the future.
James knows Antetokounmpo is a serious threat and has acknowledged as much. During a postgame conversation with ESPN.com’s Dave McMenamin back in December 2016, James was asked about potentially playing the Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs. His response was telling: “How far down the line? How far we talkin’? The next several years they could be really, really good.”
Antetokounmpo is something we’ve never seen before, and that makes him the ideal candidate to dethrone the King of the NBA.
Follow Brian on Twitter @BrianSampsonNBA.