During this early part of the season, it feels like every article and podcast follows a familiar pattern: How can we overreact? Is Team X for real? Is Stat Y sustainable? Check out these surprising rookies!
And sure, with the talent pool of basketball writers as deep as its ever been, a lot of these articles are informative and entertaining. But I wanted to take a slightly different approach to an early season article. I wanted to try and answer a question that I thought knew the answer to pretty easily a year ago, but now am starting to question myself: Giannis or Kristaps….who ya got? A bar argument, but with stats and stuff.
But first, a couple of quick dips into some recent news (not quite as recent as I initially thought when I started this, but still):
Phoenix Trades Eric Bledsoe
The Milwaukee Bucks put together a pretty safe package in order to land Bledsoe. The protections on the first round pick save them from looking ridiculous, and ensure the pick most likely falls somewhere in the 20s. Greg Monroe was good for them – even though he comes off the bench, last year he had a Net Rating of 3.7 in 22.5 minutes a game on a team that had a Net Rating of 0.5 overall.
The one question I can’t get seem to answer, that I’ve been wondering ever since Bledsoe was at the hair salon: Is Eric Bledsoe any good?
It’s a really tough question to answer. When you read about him, and after reading about the trade, he sounds like he’d be good. He’s got a long wingspan, he’s strong, has a reputation as a good defender. But he hasn’t been healthy – his career games played, in order: 81, 40, 76, 43, 81, 31, 66, 3. The last couple of years in Phoenix have seen him on some really bad teams, where it’s incredibly difficult to tell just how ‘good’ a player is.
It will be interesting to follow what happens with the Bucks from here. Bledsoe, at 27, is a bit older than the rest of their core: Giannis and Jabari Parker are 22, Thon Maker is 20 (allegedly), so ideally he’d bring some stability and leadership to their backcourt. But sometimes I worry that being on a bad team messes with you in certain ways, and it’s hard to unlearn some habits.
He does create some interesting lineup options for Milwaukee, and as I’ll discuss more later on, allow Giannis to potential be a point-center.
I need to hop on, or start driving, or blowing the horn for the Damian Lillard bandwagon. Outside of Steph Curry, he is the most fun player to watch when he starts cookin’. He has unlimited range and a quick release like Steph, and will pull up off the dribble from anywhere. The one thing Lillard has the Steph doesn’t, is the ability to get to the rack and straight yoke on fools.
His numbers the last two years 27/5/6 in 2016-17 and 25/4/7 on shooting percentages that respectable considering the shots he’s taking – over 37% from 3 and 89% from the line – make it almost criminal that he didn’t make an All-NBA team, let alone even make an All-Star team.
And he’s a good rapper! I was a little skeptical when I would read stories of Dolla D.A.M.E. actually having skills on the mic. But go onto Spotify and have a listen – you’d be hard pressed to know he’s also a top 20(?) NBA player.
My favorite part of Damian Lillard, though, is his jersey number. You see, Dame isn’t wearing number 0 like it appears. No, he’s wearing the letter O, as in Oakland, his hometown. The Letter O is also the name of his first album that came out last year (and is also on Spotify). At home games, he gets introduced as wearing the letter O. These kind of idiosyncrasies about NBA players is what makes the league so much fun to follow. I’m going to start this now: Damian Lillard #NBAVote.
Giannis Vs. Kristaps
Now onto our main focus today, Giannis vs. Kristaps.
This isn’t an article about ‘unicorns’ or who is more ‘unicorn-y’ between the two. It’s fairly clear that Giannis is the archetype that we haven’t seen before. A 7-footer who shoots? We’ve seen that before. Rik Smits was that. Dirk Nowitzki was (is?) that. Porzingis is just the next evolutionary checkpoint of that species. But Giannis, we’ve never seen a Giannis. His Stretch Armstrong limbs, his ball-handling ability, his athleticism and ability to guard all 5 positions. We’ve never seen someone like him before.
Instead, what we’re going to focus on, is which one you’d rather have, right now, for the rest of their careers. I always thought the answer to this was pretty easily Giannis. But with the way Porzingis has started off the year, now that he’s free from The Triangle and all things Phil Jackson, I started to re-think that position and wanted to break-down the strengths of each player, how they fit, how they impact line-ups and team building strategies, and what would be more valuable to a championship-winning team.
You might notice that this discussion leaves out several other of the leagues Young Ballerz (and there are tons! The post-Lebron NBA is going to be in good hands. Assuming Lebron retires at some point). Anthony Davis, KAT, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid – all of these guys are worthy of their own attention. But I wanted to focus on Kristaps and Giannis because they are both about the same age – 22.2 years for KP and 22.9 years for Giannis, per Cleaning the Glass – and both have started the year in a dominant fashion. There’s also no real injury concerns with either of them, which makes it easier to project their futures when you don’t have to add the ‘if they can stay healthy….’ caveat.
The contract situation for both players is going to be relatively the same and relatively irrelevant – they are worth as much money as they can make. If they choose to take less, it’s a personal decision based on how they feel about the team, market, etc. It’s not something that’s going to factor into our discussion here – if you had them on your team, you’d offer them the max, and feel guilty that you couldn’t offer them more.
Let’s dig in.
Despite their nearly identical Offensive Ratings this year (107.1 for Kristaps vs 107.2 for Giannis), the two players get their buckets in different ways. Porzingis is your classic unicorn archetype – the big guy who can shoot from all over the floor. He’s shooting 52% overall from the field, 57.2% from 2-point land and 38.8% from 3-point land. Those numbers are in line with guards like James Harden (KP shoots fewer 3s per game) and Bradley Beal (shockingly similar percentages). At 7’3”, he can shoot over anyone. Check out this play below against the Hornets. Charlotte tries putting the more mobile Marvin Williams on Porzingis and has Dwight Howard guard Enes Kanter. The problem is that Porzingis is (supposedly) 6 inches taller than Williams:
Marvin Williams looks more like Demetrius Williams there.
That is to say – Porzingis is huge. And the fact that he can shoot like Bradley Beal will dwarfing other human beings who would normally be considered tall is almost unfair.
As the roll man in pick and rolls this year, Porzingis is scoring 1.45 points per possession, on an effective field goal percentage of 70.8. That’s currently in the 85th percentile of all players. He’s lighting it up.
You can just go through each of the Playtype filters on stats.nba.com and find virtually the same thing, no matter the selection. That kind of offense is valuable not just because he produces at a high efficiency, but because of how it opens things up for everyone else on the floor.
It’s hard to prove with numbers because the rest of the Knicks roster is trash – seriously, did you know that Jarret Jack was still in the league? He starts for them. It’s true. But you don’t need me to explain that a big man who can stroke it from every spot on the floor is valuable. That’s where the whole ‘unicorn’ term came from to begin with.
The rest of his offensive numbers leave something to be desired. His assist numbers are terrible, but I’m to going to harp on that too much because his team is garbage. Would you pass to Tim Hardaway, Jr.?
We’ve all seen the put-back dunks. It’s really what got the leagues attention during his rookie year, and his length makes it fun to watch. it reminds me of watching young Pau Gasol. I swear his arms and legs were so long that he didn’t even have to jump to touch the rim. Anyway, his offensive rebounding numbers are terrible. Among players who have played at least 5 games, and average 20 minutes a night, his offensive rebound percentage doesn’t even make the first page of results. He’s behind Patrick Beverly and the not-exactly-known-for-his-hustle Rudy Gay. His total rebound percentage isn’t much better: using those same parameters, his total rebound percentage is…last on the first page of results.
If all-in-one type stats are your thing, he’s currently outside the top 20 in Offensive Box Plus-Minus, according to basketball-reference.com.
His ability to score on a such a crappy Knicks team proves how great of an offensive players he his, and how his game doesn’t matter who’s around him. His usage percentage ranks first in the league, again according to basketball-reference.com, and yet he is still incredibly efficient as we saw with his numbers above. His PER is 29.2, currently 5th in the league per basketball-reference.com.
Imagine if he had better players around him? His usage would go down, which typically means efficiency goes up. Granted it’s early, and you know how much I hate using so many stats because it is so early, but the thought of it gets my insides all tingly – what if Porzingis can be even more efficient?
If you’re building a team, is there a better offensive player you’d want?
Well, maybe the answer to that question is yes, and if you had to give that answer a name, then maybe his name is Giannis. Porzingis is 5th in PER right now. You know who’s first? Giannis.
The way Giannis scores is totally different than Porzingis. But as I mentioned before, their Offensive Ratings are nearly identical. So how does Giannis do it? And is the way he does it better than the way that Kristaps does it?
I argued this previously, but Giannis is effectively a dominant low-post scorer; he just happens to not post up on the block. He is shooting an almost unbelievable 76.7% on shots less than 5 feet from the rim, on 11.2 attempts per game. The further out he goes, the worse he gets, to the point where you don’t want him shooting outside of 9 feet.
For normal NBA players, this would be a problem. Defenses would just pretend you were Rajon Rondo and let you fire away. The difference with Giannis is that even when you do that, he can still get to the rim. Rob Mahoney had a good piece at SI.com that demonstrated how Giannis is able to score even when the defense plays off of him.
So while his offensive game appears more limited when you narrow it down to one sentence ‘he can’t shoot’, the truth is, he is just as effective a scorer as Porzingis, because he is so good when he gets close to the hoop, and he’s so good at getting close to the hoop.
As for offensive rebounding – his numbers are not great, but slightly better than Porzingis: using the same parameters, at least Giannis is on the first page of results. His assist numbers are also better – in part at least due to his better teammates.
Part of the allure of Giannis is his versatility, which Porzingis doesn’t have. We’ll get into that a bit later, though.
tl;dr Porzingis can shoot like Bird from anywhere, but his other numbers are trash. Giannis can get to the rim when he wants to and is unstoppable when he does, and has a more well-rounded offensive game.
Looking at the defensive numbers for these two, its basically a wash. I had a whole plan here to write up this section comparing defensive numbers between the two – defense against shots at the rim, against other shot zones, defensive efficiency, defensive win shares, rebounding percentages – all sorts of good nerdy basketball stuff. But they are basically the same, and this early in the season, any difference can be made up by one outlier here or there.
The only real difference is that Giannis has a better steal percentage while Porzingis has a better block percentage. But you probably could have guessed that. The all-in-one stats are too noisy at this point in the season to be of any real value. According to ESPN’s Real Plus Minus, Porzingis is 73rd among power forwards with a defensive RPM of -0.34. Giannis is 37th at 0.71.
Now that the nerdy stuff (aka facts) is out of the way, and we’ve basically decided that, by the numbers, the two guys are essentially even. The one point we touched on, but haven’t elaborated on, is the versatility of Giannis vs. Porzingis.
The gut reaction to this is it automatically makes Giannis move valuable, because why would you not want versatility? The line-up combinations you can throw out with Giannis as your Point-Center offer so many options to your coach and front office, it must be a better option, right? Who wouldn’t want a Swiss Army Knife, a jack-of-all-trades superstar?
Uncreative people, that’s who.
In order to take full advantage of Giannis and his skills, you have to be creative. You have to be able to think outside of traditional basketball concepts and team building strategies in order to build a roster and lineups around him. With Porzingis, the team you want to construct looks like your traditional basketball team, it’s just that his shooting opens everything up offensively, and he can still protect the rim defensively. So he’s great.
But with Giannis, you can’t do that. You have to be able to think 5th dimensionally. What if Giannis played ‘center’. The Bucks are getting close to that, and Jason Kidd should get a bit more credit for his outside-of-the-box-ness than he does. Remember, when he was with the Nets, he tried the lineup strategy of ‘everyone with the same height’. At the end of the year he was going with a line up of guys all 6’6 – 6’11. When everyone on the Bucks is finally fully healthy, Kidd will absolutely trot out the Giannis/Jabari/Middleton/Snell (or Brogdon)/Bledsoe lineup, and it will be amazing. I will state right now that lineup will make Adele jealous the way they set fire to the rain. I’m walking around my apartment right now I’m so excited just thinking about it.
But if you’re not that creative? Then having Giannis would be a burden. Remember when Lebron came into the league, and the Cavs fucked up by not building around him correctly? They tried to build a ‘normal’ basketball team around him. Zydrunas Ilguaskas, Carlos Boozer, Drew Gooden, Larry Hughes, Eric Snow, Ricky Davis, Boobie Gibson. It’s like that. Imagine if the 76ers were like, ‘nah Ben Simmons, it’s cool, we’re gonna have Jarryd Bayless run the point, you can play off the ball.’
NBA teams are much more self-aware than NFL teams. If Giannis was a quarterback he’d have been converted to wide receiver by about 29 NFL teams within the first week of training camp.
So while Giannis is more tantalizing, and provides more upside because of his versatility, it’s that same versatility that could ruin him on the wrong team. When answering the question ‘who would you rather have on your team, starting now?’ you should ask yourself, ‘Am I creative enough to get the most out of Giannis?’
And if you are, then Giannis is definitely the choice here. That flexibility allows you to miss, and still be successful. With Porzingis, if you miss – either in free agency, the draft, or trades – the impact is greater because you can’t just slot him into the role you missed on. With Giannis, if you have too many big guys, no biggie, he’ll just play point guard. If you have too many wings, slot him in at center.
I fancy myself a creative. Give me Giannis.