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With his elongated strides, elastic limbs and ferocious athleticism, Giannis Antetokounmpo has turned the NBA into his personal plaything during the 2018-19 season. He’s erased any questions about his superstardom, replacing them with inquiries about his MVP chances and ability to carry the Milwaukee Bucks to an NBA title.
Antetokounmpo isn’t universally considered the best player in the league (see: Harden, James) or a clear MVP frontrunner. Though Basketball Reference’s NBA MVP Award Tracker, which is based purely upon historical precedent, does give him a 55.1 percent chance at the league’s top individual honor.
But the Greek Freak is doing all this having just turned 24. Bigger questions than MVP debates await Antetokounmpo.
The modern stars use Michael Jordan as the gold standard—a ghost some future Hall of Famers are still chasing. But LeBron James is the new barometer for those who grew up decades later and watched the four-time MVP torment foes for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers. He’s 2019’s gold standard.
To be clear, we’re not saying Antetokounmpo is already a G.O.A.T. candidate. We’ll give that debate a decade or so to simmer.
But everyone has to start somewhere, and keeping pace with The King is a tremendous achievement in and of itself. Looking at their full careers up to the end of their sixth seasons tells us Giannis at 24 vs. LeBron at 24 is a photo finish.
Level of Play Through Age-24 Seasons: It Ain’t Close
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These days, as the basketball-watching world collectively wonders whether James’ incomprehensible streak of eight consecutive Finals appearances will end with a lottery-bound whimper during his first season in Purple and Gold, remembering just the early portion of his career is rather difficult.
Sure, we can recall that he won the 2007-08 scoring title by averaging 30 points per game, or that he made the first All-Star appearance of his career as a sophomore. We can’t forget him dragging the ’07 Cavaliers into a Finals clash with the San Antonio Spurs, who thoroughly trounced an overmatched squad featuring Drew Gooden, Larry Hughes, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Sasha Pavlovic, Eric Snow and Anderson Varejao as the leading members of James’ supporting cast. Memories of his chase-down blocks will live on in perpetuity.
But separating the full picture from those early-career heroics remains difficult. Though he still racked up plenty of statistics and accolades, he wasn’t nearly as accomplished as he is today. He only had that lone Finals appearance by the time he wrapped up his age-24 season with a loss to the Orlando Magic in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals—a bitter end to a campaign that earned him the first of his four MVP trophies.
Rather than relying on our faulty long-term recollection, let’s instead look at the hard evidence. James’ resume through his first six professional go-rounds stands as follows:
- Averaged 27.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 1.8 steals and 0.9 blocks with a 55.5 true shooting percentage
- Earned 84.8 win shares (0.213 per 48 minutes) with an 8.5 box plus/minus, 50.7 value over replacement player and 2,939.62 total points added
- Five-time All-Star, one-time scoring champion, two-time second-team All-NBA, three-time first-team All-NBA, one-time first-team All-Defensive, one-time MVP (2.091 MVP Award Shares)
That’s just about unimpeachable.
It may already have been enough to get him some Hall of Fame consideration, considering those years alone would’ve placed him at No. 128 on the win-share leaderboard (which now excludes his present-day number), No. 33 in lifetime TPA and No. 23 in career MVP Award Shares, sandwiched directly between Steve Nash (2.429) and Stephen Curry (2.033). Of course, that’s saying nothing of the Herculean efforts required to drag Cleveland into the ’07 Finals as well as other subjective factors that positively color his legacy.
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At least for the time being, these factors should push him into rarified air that Antetokounmpo can’t come close to reaching. The Greek Freak’s impressive resume, as seen below, might push him into the stratosphere relative to the vast majority of NBA standouts, but that just means James is occupying exospheric territory:
- Averaged 18.4 points, 8.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.3 blocks with a 58.8 true shooting percentage
- Earned 49.9 win shares (0.163 per 48 minutes) with a 4.2 box plus/minus, 23.1 value over replacement player and 1,262.08 total points added
- Three-time All-Star, two-time second-team All-NBA, one-time second-team All-Defensive, zero-time MVP (0.081 MVP Award Shares)
There simply isn’t a case for Antetokounmpo here, despite the versatile frontcourt star submitting a combination of statistics and achievements 99 percent of players couldn’t earn in their wildest dreams. His work through six NBA seasons just isn’t the same, dragged down by a slow start and the adjustments necessary to perform at basketball’s highest level.
He’s a lock to drastically lift his MVP Award Shares tally, regardless of whether he staves off Harden and Paul George in that battle. Still, this comparison doesn’t tilt in his favor even if he adds the MVP trophy and first-team All-NBA/All-Defensive nods to his collection at the end of 2018-19.
But that’s only one way to look at this competition.
Level of Play During Age-24 Seasons: OK, This Is Interesting.
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Antetokounmpo is playing the best basketball of his career.
As I explained in detail while making his MVP case, his penchant for driving to the hoop and completing an unassisted dunk has become one of the sport’s singularly unstoppable moves, an iconic tool in a stupendously complete arsenal. The 24-year-old has rendered his (potentially disappearing) shooting limitations irrelevant, torturing foes with his smooth but explosive athleticism and preternatural skill with the ball in his hands.
Need an assist? Antetokounmpo is capable of finding an open teammate while navigating congestion in the painted area. Need a bucket? He’s among the NBA’s most effective scorers, currently grouped with the 16 qualified players in league history to average at least 27 points with a true shooting percentage north of 60 percent (he’s tallying up his 27.2 points per game with a 64.0 true shooting percentage). Need a stop? He’s one of the few players who can capably protect the rim with his Pterodactyl wingspan and use his lightning-quick lateral mobility to corral dangerous backcourt adversaries.
Over his last 10 appearances heading into Milwaukee’s Wednesday night clash with the Sacramento Kings, Antetokounmpo averaged a put-a-pillow-under-your-jaw-so-it-doesn’t-break-when-it-hits-the-floor 29.8 points, 12.3 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.6 blocks and 3.3 turnovers while shooting 60.7 percent from the field, 40.0 percent from downtown and 79.5 percent from the stripe. Everything has clicked, and he’s even made the Bucks 18.2 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the floor, elevating their net rating to an astronomical 17.1.
As demonstrated by NBA Math’s Rolling Player Ratings, which take the strength of opponents into account, this is the highest level he’s reached throughout his Brewtown tenure:
Adam Fromal @fromal09
LeBron James vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo throughout their careers in Rolling Player Rating: https://t.co/WNPNKt2n34
Looking at that graphic, you’re probably not worried about the current peak barely cresting his best efforts from the previous seasons, though he’s sustained the unmitigated excellence for a longer duration in 2018-19. You likely can’t help but notice James’ scores, which tower over most of the Association throughout the vast majority of his career.
But remember, we’re not concerned with what James has done past his age-24 season. So to make the comparison easier, let’s look at their score by equivalent career game rather than over the natural passage of time:
Adam Fromal @fromal09
But now, let’s look at what happens if we use career games on the x-axis rather than the date.
All of a sudden, Giannis appears to be on a rather promising trajectory…and he has been for quite some time. https://t.co/ngGdkoZPrP
This confirms what we established earlier: James’ first six seasons were unquestionably superior.
Except now we’re seeing an additional takeaway.
Antetokounmpo has hovered around a similar level for a while, overcoming his shakier start with a constant upward trajectory that highlights his interminable improvement. And as that trend continues, he’s now starting to take control of the two-man competition. Maintaining that is difficult (as seen here), but just putting himself in position to, at the very least, be considered the equal of age-24 James is quite the accomplishment.
Team success only helps his case, though it admittedly can’t be examined in a vacuum that doesn’t consider the strength of supporting casts and so many other factors. For that reason, take these upcoming results with a massive grain of salt.
James had willed those ’07 Cavaliers into the Finals, but he couldn’t repeat the feat during either of the next two seasons. Averaging 28.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks while slashing 48.9/34.4/78.0 in 2008-09, he was dominant enough to win MVP for the first time and push Cleveland to a 66-win season.
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And yet, even that team can’t stack up against this current iteration of the Bucks. Helmed by Antetokounmpo, it’s boasting the top score in Basketball Reference’s simple rating system (based on margin of victory and strength of schedule) among any squad from these two standouts’ first six seasons:
- 2018-19 Milwaukee Bucks: 9.02 SRS (No. 1 in NBA)
- 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers: 8.68 SRS (No. 1)
- 2006-07 Cleveland Cavaliers: 3.33 SRS (No. 7)
- 2005-06 Cleveland Cavaliers: 2.17 SRS (No. 8)
- 2004-05 Cleveland Cavaliers: 0.27 SRS (No. 15)
Raw net rating tells a similar story, as the ’19 Bucks (9.5) fall slightly behind the ’09 Cavaliers (9.6) and have been slightly less dominant with Antetokounmpo on the floor (13.2) than the Cavs were with James (14.8).
Either way, this is a close competition.
Both men were uncontainable individual forces for teams that sat atop the NBA hierarchy. Both could end up laying claim to the Maurice Podoloff Trophy. Both were starting to assert themselves as the sport’s supreme powers.
And if we’re splitting hairs to differentiate between present-day Antetokounmpo and 24-year-old James, then the Greek Freak is already succeeding. His career as a whole doesn’t yet stack up, whether compared to the totality of James’ resume or his accomplishments at the same temporal benchmark. He can’t be definitively called the better player during his sixth season.
But he can’t be definitively called the inferior player, either, and that just about says it all.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @fromal09.