Friday , April 16 2021

We never should have expected Giannis Antetokounmpo to dominate internationally

Giannis Antetokounmpo is the reigning NBA MVP and the player most expected to dominate the NBA in the near future. He was supposed to lead Greece deep into the FIBA World Cup tournament, plowing through more decorated opponents the same way he did while leading the Bucks to a 16-win improvement last season.

Instead, Greece is out before the knockout round, and Antetokounmpo had almost zero magical moments outside of maybe one half against New Zealand. Greece head coach Thanasis Skourtopoulos didn’t play him in the fourth quarter against Team USA. Skourtopoulos’ official reasoning was to save Antetokounmpo’s legs, but Greece also cut eight points into Team USA’s lead without Antekounmpo on the floor. An opposing coach crowed that he had the blueprint to stopping Antetokoumpo and was more concerned about two of his non-NBA teammates. Two teams with one combined NBA player (Czech Republic and Poland) advanced further than Antetokounmpo’s.

Why was the best player in the world last season so ordinary in a signature international tournament? There are many answers to this question, but they all revolved around the same theme: Antetokounmpo just isn’t built for FIBA’s style of play, which tends to be slower, more rigid, more compressed, and more physical than that of the NBA. Slow, rigid, compressed, and physical are not words to describe Antetokounmpo’s brilliance. Even his physical strength manifests itself best when he’s on the run, something that happens far less often in a FIBA setting.

FIBA’s rule differences are particularly challenging for Antetokounmpo. FIBA does not have a defensive three-second violation, so opponents can plant their best rim protector right at the hoop to block Antetokounmpo’s easiest path to scoring. Throw in the shorter three-point line and more relaxed zone defense rules, and Antetokounmpo has less open space on every play in a FIBA event than he has in Milwaukee.

The current NBA disincentives clogging the paint with bodies via its rules and tactical trends (like shooting a lot of threes, especially deep ones). FIBA offenses use less of the court than their NBA counterparts, and so players bang into each other more often. More banging means more no-calls for physical play, as well as many sequences in which fouls are more difficult to identify than they would be in the wide-open NBA.

Consider this moment in Greece’s group-stage loss to Brazil. While posting up Brazil’s 6’4, 39-year-old guard Alex Garcia, Antetokounmpo attempted a spin away to the baseline. Officials caught Antetokounmpo wrapping his arm around Garcia and called an offensive foul. That was clear to see. What they either missed or ignored: Garcia jabbing his beefy forearm into Antetokounmpo’s ribs before the spin occurred.

The call was overturned, but still. It’s hard to believe that an NBA official, who sees that type of contact less frequently in a spread-out game, would have possibly missed it. (It’s telling that when the ESPN broadcast panned to Brazilian coach Aleksander Petrovic, the announcer characterized him as complaining “rightfully so” to the official.)

More significantly, FIBA’s cramped spacing means that opponents have an easier time sliding into position to cut Antetokounmpo off — or at least, appear to do so in the official’s eyes. Antetokounmpo’s best attribute is his agility — those long, sideways Eurosteps that turn head-on collisions into glancing blows that become highlights and/or blocking fouls. Antetokounmpo drew a whopping 4.81 two-point shooting fouls per game last NBA season, well ahead of second-place Joel Embiid (3.98), and nearly 1.5 more per game than whistle-magnet James Harden. He also averaged 1.43 two-point and-1s per game last yearLeBron James was the only other player to draw more than 0.9. Those plays happen because of the extra half-step that NBA defenders have to take to beat Antetokounmpo to a spot.

But in FIBA, those plays tend to end one of two ways. Like this:

Or like this.

Worse, Greece’s roster and overall strategy aren’t exactly optimized to maximize Antetokounmpo’s strengths. The only other Greece starter to nail at least 36 percent of his threes for his club last year was center Ioannis Bourousis, who just barely cracked the mark while playing in China. Point guard Nick Calathes made just 28.6 percent of his shots from downtown last year. Even noted Bucks non-shooter Eric Bledsoe made 33 percent from the NBA line last season.

Teams packed the paint and dared Greece to beat them from the outside, and they couldn’t. Against Team USA in particular, Antetokounmpo served up open threes to shooters on a silver platter, only to watch them to brick harmlessly off the rim.

In fact, the other Greek players are even less dangerous from deep than their low percentages suggest. Bourousis can’t cosplay the Splash Mountain version of the Bucks’ Brook Lopez because he only shoots from right on the line and has a slow release, whereas Lopez can (and does) fire quickly from wayyyy downtown. Bourousis also wasn’t always sure where to stand, so he frequently ended up in Antetokounmpo way.

Calathes’ jumper takes an eternity to leave his hand, while wing Kostas Papanikolaou would frequently choose to drive than fire freely from distance. Collectively, Greece spaced the floor poorly on Antetokounmpo’s post-ups throughout the tournament, much to his chagrin.

Slow releases combined with less space allow FIBA opponents to pack the paint on Antetokounmpo and then recover to the perimeter. Not only does that hamper Antetokounmpo’s production, but it also minimizes his potential shadow impact. Using the threat of Antetokounmpo driving to the rim to suck in the help defense becomes less effective when said players need so much time to shoot.

Greece’s coaching staff caught a lot of strays for these problems. Some of them were deserved. Antetokounmpo spent too much time with his back to the basket, which made it easier for little guys like Garcia or Team USA’s Marcus Smart to wedge him out of position. Greece’s half-court offense was far too slow, and they didn’t exactly get Antetokounmpo flowing in the open court the way the Bucks do, mostly because their wings weren’t wide enough on the break.

And with the exception of that second half against New Zealand, Greece put too much trust in Calathes to run the offense when giving Antetokounmpo the ball was often a better idea.

But it’s hard to see how a different FIBA coach could have done much more with that roster and the little time that Skourtopoulos had to get players acclimated. Antetokounmpo only became an MVP once the Bucks optimized every part of their roster and strategy around him. That meant hyper-specific roster additions like Lopez, but it also meant taping five squares on their practice court to signify exactly how far beyond the three-point line players were supposed to stand. Whenever the Bucks grabbed a defensive rebound, their players were conditioned to give the ball to Antetokounmpo and run to one of those five spots.

Greece simply didn’t have enough time to ingrain those habits. Should we really be surprised that their spacing was jagged compared to Antetokounmpo’s NBA team? If anything, Greece’s FIBA result should make us appreciate the job Mike Budenholzer has done in Milwaukee even more.

As for Antetokounmpo, there’s not much use in worrying about his early exit from FIBA. He certainly has areas to improve, but the context of a FIBA tournament is too divorced from his NBA reality to stop his ascendance.


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