Ever since Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks fell in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals, much of the conversation surrounding him has centered on how he, individually, needs to improve. Acquire a jumper, develop a mid-range game, holster counters when your path to the rim is barricaded. None of this is inaccurate. He and the Bucks would benefit from him incorporating those wrinkles into his arsenal. The final point has already come to fruition this year.
Yet, simultaneously, too much of the focus rests on how Giannis must grow and not enough of the focus rests on how the Bucks can facilitate that growth or how they’ve fallen short structurally. Saying they failed him would be hyperbolic, but for long stretches of the last two years, his offensive usage has been detrimentally rigid. The 4-out approach around him, with shooters on the perimeter, has validity, though the degree to which it was relied upon was thorny; Giannis’ deficiencies against timely help and strong, long defenders exacerbated the issue.
An obvious and fruitful tactic is to leverage his finishing as a roller in ball-screens. But Milwaukee has discovered alternative scoring paths that still feature Giannis’ self-creation, while also deploying him in creative ways off the ball to spotlight his length and rim acumen. Between schematic tweaks and internal refinement, he and the Bucks are better prepared offensively for the postseason. Rather than rack up league-leading win totals during the regular season, they spent much of this year priming themselves for the playoffs by experimenting with varying usage. Giannis, in tandem with the coaching staff, has expanded the depths of his offensive exploits, whether it be as a scorer or distributor.
Although he is not a long-range threat, he’s quite scalable and versatile. He can be utilized as a roller or driving off the catch, thriving once others enact advantages. The Bucks have anchored him on the wing during side pick-and-rolls significantly more this season; whereas it arose organically last year, there’s concentrated effort to explore this avenue nowadays. With a few capable secondary handlers, typically Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton, in the fold, Giannis has more freedom to relinquish some of his on-ball burden and still assert himself offensively.
When passes are pinged toward him, he’ll attack from the slot, spanning swaths of space in a flash to convert inside. Sometimes, he’ll begin at the elbow instead of beyond the arc, either as an off-ball screener or just as a means of keeping him closer to the rim. Defenders aren’t concerned with his spot-up shooting, so Milwaukee’s retort is to simplify the options and guide him toward the basket as seamlessly as possible.
Slowing him once he’s built any head of steam is a difficult proposition, let alone when defenses are caught in rotation and not meticulously positioned to wall him off. The Bucks have come to that realization and the results are profitable. The lack of perimeter respect is a runway for him to overwhelm opponents.
On the ball, his anti-gravity is also parlayed into efficient possessions. The addition of Bryn Forbes, a premier off-ball shooter, has coaxed Mike Budenholzer and Co. to draw up more dribble hand-offs, where Giannis flows from initiator to screener. Forbes is his most common partner, but he’ll run a similar action with Holiday, Middleton and Connaughton (and sometimes Donte DiVincenzo). When his man is anchored in or near the paint, Giannis applies his size to carve out shooting pockets or driving lanes.
This is the most prevalent combatant to the “put your big man on Giannis and sag off” strategy defenses consistently attempt. When teams employ this gambit — and even regularly when they don’t — they’ll load up help from the wings, easing how ball-handlers gain separation for these plays. Such a philosophy is not particularly effective at this juncture and the increased volume of dribble hand-offs factors into that.
If Giannis transitions the space extended his way into a dribble hand-off and sets a disciplined pick, he’s likely generating a clean look for a good shooter. Middleton and Holiday can also manufacture offense off the bounce with Giannis loitering near the paint/rim or functioning as a roller, often against a mismatch.
Last season, George Hill or Kyle Korver and Giannis experimented with inverted pick-and-rolls. This season, it’s become a mainstay for Forbes and Giannis. The key to a successful inverted pick-and-roll, beyond the requisite personnel, is a punishing screen to force a compromised decision from the defense. Forbes sets those. When he does, he twists the opposition into a bind. They must either track a dynamic off-movement gunner like Forbes or protect the paint from Giannis’ locomotive-powered slashes.
With Forbes standing at 6’2″, defenders who might find themselves attached to Giannis in the event of a switch are ill-equipped to handle him. Pre-switching and proactively tinkering with assignments is the best idea to limit the action. Even then, that likely sparks a mismatch elsewhere, a risky proposition if Middleton or Holiday are on the floor and primed to pounce. The synergy Giannis and Forbes have fostered, in conjunction with Forbes’ gumption as a screener, leads to favorable outcomes.
While these dribble hand-offs and inverted pick-and-rolls formulate at the top of the key, an area Giannis routinely orchestrates offense dating back years, he’s enabled to conduct possessions from other optimal spots on the floor in 2020-21. Most notably, he’s functioning at the pinch post/free-throw line and mid-post, the inklings of which originated late last season (intermittently). In prior years, he still received post touches, but they usually came with his back to the basket following flex or cross screens. Now, he’s facing up, which is a more prudent implementation of his skills and physical tools.
Whether it’s adequate spacing or cleverly designed actions, Milwaukee does an excellent job clearing out the strong-side for him and letting him target guys one-on-one. If anyone is on the strong-side, it’s a credible shooter acting as an outlet or someone lurking in the dunker spot for drop-off passes, the latter of which is a new emphasis of the Bucks’ offense this season. They do not go 4-out around him every possession anymore. They’ve mixed it up with a 3-out alignment, placing the fourth teammate in the dunker spot.
Given his length and strength, all he requires is a couple space-consuming dribbles to reach the rim when his starting point is at or inside the free-throw line. He’s much more patient this year, too, seeking openings in a controlled manner. Trying to constantly blend strength and acceleration can steer him into trouble, so he’ll rely on brawn and his elastic limbs, burrowing into slivers of space and winding around defenders.
The merit of this change is amplified by Giannis’ own maturation. He’s more methodical and wired to achieve success. If Plan A stumbles, he’s comfortable turning to other choices. The pivot foot has become his best friend. If the paint is initially walled off, he’ll retreat and persist. He is not plowing into the lane and burping up hurried, off-balance shots or picking up as many charges on planted defenders. He drives and decelerates to a stop on two feet. Power and finesse are present, not just power, and the difference is evident.
Holistically, the shift for Giannis is Milwaukee commonly treating him as a big with ball-handling equity as opposed to primarily a jumbo-sized wing and perimeter initiator. There are more play calls to maximize the value of his mobility, length and strength on the interior that do not demand he be the catalyst of everything. After the All-Star Break, the alterations really clicked for him, when he averaged 27 points on 65.6 percent true shooting in 26 games. The 4-out attack that squeezed players into specified roles is not the bedrock of the offense; flexibility on a possession-by-possession basis has broadened and everyone gains from it.
These adaptations, both from him and the team, figure prominently into why he shot a preposterous, career-high, NBA-best 81 percent at the rim this season (min. 50 attempts), despite being assisted on a career-low 42 percent of those makes, per Cleaning The Glass. They’re also why Giannis and the Bucks are less susceptible to a playoff burnout. They’ve assessed their flaws and adjusted the offense. That should set them up well to reach their goals. Now, the time to deliver on these goals has arrived, with the perfect chance to show how much they’ve changed against the team that bounced them out of the playoffs last year.