Giannis Antetokounmpo is a Defensive Menace

As is typical during the terminal stage of the regular season, media figures are beginning to turn attention to awards ballots; at least for those awards and All-NBA designations that are somewhat still in flux. Defensive Player of the Year and the All-Defensive teams are drawing particular interest. Consensus seems to be that—while still elite—Draymond Green’s play on that end has waned significantly enough as to not warrant top-ballot consideration. Rudy Gobert seems like a lock for many, unless you’re queasy about handing it to a guy who will end up with 56 games played. Kevin Durant and Paul George have gotten their share of hype throughout the year for shot blocking and disruption on the wing, respectively.

Lost in all the talk (except for Zach Lowe bless his heart) is Milwaukee Bucks Swiss-Army defender Giannis Antetokounmpo. Three national articles during this past season have promoted George’s candidacy while Durant has enjoyed a seemingly season-long parade of adulation in the press: Antetokounmpo has zero mentions.

Looking at the numbers it’s hard to see why. For all of George’s active wing defense, opponents actually shoot 2.2% better when he’s guarding them while Antetokounmpo’s matchups shoot 4.6% worse. Durant garnered early attention for his rim protection, while over the course of the season Antetokounmpo has proven more impactful. When Durant defends a shot within 6 feet of the hoop, opponents shoot 6.1% worse as opposed to 7.2% worse when Antetokounmpo contests. Giannis also defends a larger share of shots at the rim, 41% as compared to 35% for Durant.

Taking a broader view of their impact as measured by Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) the divide becomes even starker. When Durant is off the court, the Warriors defense is 6.2 points better while during George’s absence the Thunder defense remains roughly the same. Antetokounmpo taking a rest brings disastrous results for Milwaukee. The Bucks are 8.7 points worse on defense with him on the bench, by far the largest impact on the team.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is a Defensive MenaceGiannis Antetokounmpo is a Defensive Menace

But what about compared to the reigning DPOY? Despite league-wide recognition of a slight dip in effort, Kevin Pelton of ESPN selects Draymond Green as his First Team All-Defense Power Forward. Pelton says Giannis has “the most defensive upside…when fully engaged” while he excuses Green whose “intensity hasn’t been the same” when awarding him First Team honors, citing his being 28th in deflections per-36 and “a plus rim protector for the position”. (Notable names ahead of Green in the deflections per-36 category are Russell Westbrook and Corey Brewer; two players not generally lauded for defense.)

Antetokounmpo and Green have nearly identical steal percentages and Giannis rates as a better rim protector. Differences in defensive ratings show Giannis as the superior player, with a positive impact more than eight points better than Green’s and a Defensive Player Impact Plus-Minus (DPIPM) much higher than Green’s as well. (DPIPM is a statistic from Nylon Calculus’ Jacob Goldstein which measures +/- accounting for opponent quality and other factors). In the defensive categories of overall shooting, 3pt shooting and shots within 6 feet, Antetokounmpo holds opponents to a lower percentage across the board.

All of this is not to say Antetokounmpo is deserving of the award hands down, but simply of consideration rivaling that of his peers. Rudy Gobert and Joel Embiid have been tremendous on the season while each having the additional bump of anchoring a Top-5 defense. Milwaukee’s defensive struggles make overlooking an elite defender on a middling team somewhat understandable, but it is encouraging to envision that with a schematic overhaul and defensive team success a DPOY could easily be in Antetokounmpo’s future.

By: Daniel Gaenslen