The Eastern Conference is as wide open as the Western Conference. Although the Raptors are still slated to be a playoff contender, they are not strong suitors to take home the Larry O’Brien trophy for the second year in a row. That opens up things for Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Milwaukee Bucks, who met an early end to their season at the hands of Kawhi Leonard in the Eastern Conference Finals. The 2019 NBA MVP was no match for the more well-rounded team and the more determined superstar forward. Meanwhile, separate from Milwaukee’s championship hopes are those for a repeat MVP run from Antetokounmpo.
Well… sort of.
The NBA’s MVP race is all about narrative, and last season it was one that finally came to fruition for the young Bucks superstar. Every year it seemed we had heard about how Antetokounmpo was going to take the leap; how he grown taller; how he’d added additional muscle, and that it was going to be his time to shine. The 2018-19 NBA season was all of that, and more. Antetokounmpo was a revelation, the most important player on both sides of the ball for any one team. And yes, that included James Harden with the Houston Rockets.
But just as Antetokounmpo was the thing that kept Milwaukee going, so too was he partially responsible for their downfall in the playoffs. Teams were able to game plan for Antetokounmpo’s inefficiencies — most notably 3-point shooting — and rely on a dip in performance by his Bucks supporting cast.
Milwaukee lost to Toronto in six games this past May. By the time the Eastern Conference Finals were over, everyone had agreed: Antetokounmpo was the most valuable player in the regular season. But the best player in the playoffs? That alone belonged to Leonard.
It’s not just that Antetokounmpo has to battle the fact that he’s already won an MVP — this is a league that doesn’t hand out a second, consecutive crown unless that player’s team wins the championship (LeBron James, 2013) or is a revolutionary player attaining new heights on a championship-hopeful team (Steve Nash from 2004-06, LeBron from 2008-10, Stephen Curry in 2016).
Coupled with this historical context, there’s also the idea of narrative. Before last season even began, Antetokounmpo was the leader in that department. We enter 2019 with no player at that helm. In fact, Antetokounmpo deficiencies may be the thing that could turn the narrative against him.
There’s no denying that defenses in the playoffs operated differently against the Bucks because they knew that Antetokounmpo could not shoot the three. It’s the one thing missing from his game, and it’s missing by such a disproportionate amount. Antetokounmpo shot 25.6% from beyond the arc last season, elevating to 32.7% for the postseason. That just wasn’t good enough, particularly compared to some of his more envelope-pushing contemporaries.
Antetokounmpo will be one of the most electrifying players in the NBA this season. He has another year of experience under his belt, and time spent figuring out exactly what teams did to him in the playoffs should help him next spring. But even in a league that defined by each player being their own brand, Antetokounmpo cannot stop the groundswell that will burble up underneath of him this season if he can’t shoot reliably.
If Antetokounmpo can’t at least find his way to league average in 2019-20, Twitter, opinion columnists, and folks around the water cooler will lament the idea that a modern, game-changing forward can do so much that we’ve never seen before… but can’t keep up with trends in 3-point shooting. Eventually, that narrative could turn against him and be what keeps him from repeating as MVP.
This takes us back to where we started. Despite the Raptors no longer being the favorites to return to the Finals, the East will be quite difficult to traverse for Milwaukee. The Philadelphia Sixers strengthened themselves this season with the signing of Al Horford. In Boston, the Celtics will have a full year of a healthy Gordon Hayward along with freshly-minted Kemba Walker. The king it may be out of the East, but usurping the throne won’t be easy for Antetokounmpo.
As a team, the Bucks were middle of the pack in terms of 3-point shooting last season. It helps that guys like Brook Lopez have stretched opposing defenses in ways that have made up for Antetokounmpo’s efficiencies. But this year, if Milwaukee wants to make a true championship run they will need Antetokounmpo to find a way to shoot the three-ball. Ironically enough, that’s also same thing that could propel him to a second straight MVP.