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The NBA’s Big Greek Dunking Machine

Stephen Curry broke the NBA record for the most 3-pointers in a season two years ago by such a wide margin that it already seems like a statistical error instead of an outlier. Nobody had ever made more than 286 threes in a season when Curry came along and made 402. A half-century earlier, when Roger Bannister first ran a mile in less than four minutes, he shaved less than 1% off the existing record. Curry was 41% above the nearest competition.

It helps to have that recent context to understand the NBA’s latest calculator destroyer.

Giannis Antetokounmpo has all the makings of the NBA’s next superstar. The Milwaukee Bucks forward has been maybe the best player in basketball this season. And he’s done it by weaponizing the only shot worth more than an open 3-pointer: a guaranteed 2-pointer.

Antetokounmpo has 104 dunks. He has more dunks by himself than 12 of the league’s 30 teams. He’s on pace to shatter Dwight Howard’s record for the most in any season since the league started tracking these numbers. Howard had 266. Antetokounmpo is on pace for about 375. That is exactly 41% ahead of everyone who has ever played basketball.

He’s the Stephen Curry of slam dunks.

“The 3-pointer gets so much attention nowadays, but how do you beat a dunk?” said Bucks guard Pat Connaughton, who is second on the team with 15 dunks, only 89 behind Antetokounmpo. “If you can dunk it, dunk it. And he does.”

The NBAnomalies

Giannis Antetokounmpo is on pace to break the NBA record for dunks in a season by almost the same percentage as Stephen Curry shattered the league’s 3-point record.

How the NBA records for 3-pointers and dunks were broken

How the NBA records for 3-pointers and dunks were broken

How the NBA records for 3-pointers and dunks were broken

How the NBA records for 3-pointers

and dunks were broken

This is the NBA era of hyper-efficiency. Offenses situate themselves around the rim and behind the 3-point line to launch as many of the most valuable shots in basketball as they can, and defenses are designed specifically to limit that number. Basketball is no longer art or science. It’s math.

But there are several ways of making the numbers work. Curry’s threes are finesse. Antetokounmpo’s dunks are brute force. He doesn’t have to shoot the ball. He can simply escort it through the hoop.

“Sometimes you think he’s going to lay it up because he’s nowhere near the rim,” Bucks rookie Donte DiVincenzo said. “And then he reaches out.”

“It’s just Giannis being Giannis,” Connaughton said.

Peak Freak

Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo is taking advantage of the best shot in basketball: the slam dunk. Here’s how he compares to the players with the most dunks since 2003.

There is something quietly happening in Milwaukee that should concern the rest of the league, and it’s a byproduct of the Bucks embracing this system that empowers Giannis to be Giannis. Mike Budenholzer has overhauled Milwaukee’s offense in his first season as the Bucks coach in the same way that Steve Kerr modernized the Warriors and helped make Curry the MVP. The Bucks have the league’s best point differential and net rating this year. They don’t look like the Bucks of last year. They don’t really look like any NBA team.

The Bucks are built to shoot in the two parts of the court that make the most sense. By spacing all five players outside the line, they create more room to drive inside. The 3-pointers lead to more 2-pointers, and the 2-pointers lead to more 3-pointers.

“They’ve been knocking down shots,” Antetokounmpo said. “That’s why it gives me space. That’s why I have more dunks.”

Their shot distribution is the stuff that basketball dorks fantasize about. They are taking more shots at the rim than almost every team and making a higher percentage in the restricted area than any team in at least 20 years. Their strategy can border on the absurd when their point guard is 6-foot-11 and the closest thing they have to a traditional center might lead the team in 3-point attempts. And yet there are no rules against the absurd in today’s NBA.

The result is that Milwaukee has the most efficient offense in the league. But that doesn’t go far enough to describe how spectacular the Bucks have been. It’s more accurate to say their offense is currently one of the most explosive in the history of the league.

Giannis Antetokounmpo dunks the ball against the Golden State Warriors.

Giannis Antetokounmpo dunks the ball against the Golden State Warriors.


Photo:

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

A typical Bucks possession starts with Antetokounmpo grabbing a rebound, covering half the court in a few steps and surveying the scene in front of him as the Bucks disperse around the 3-point line. If the defense comes to help on Antetokounmpo, he kicks to an open teammate for a three. If the defense refuses to collapse, he sees there is only one man between him and the basket. This is not a very effective strategy for stopping him.

But there may not be many anymore.

Antetokounmpo turned 24 years old this week. The scariest thing about him is that he’s still about five years away from his prime. Five years is so long in the NBA that five years ago the Warriors hadn’t won the first title of this dynasty.

He’s barely recognizable now from the teenager who crossed the ocean and came to the NBA when his name was spelled “Adetokunbo” and pronounced “Greek Freak.”

If you weren’t an NBA general manager who made the trip overseas to scout a teenager in Greece’s second division, the only time you’d seen Antetokounmpo play was on grainy clips in tiny gyms. There was a good chance that he was dunking on someone who appeared to be Lilliputian. He was 6-foot-8 at the time. He’s now 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan. He has bigger hands than Kawhi Leonard, who trademarked a logo of his enormous hand, and the length of his strides allow him to take his Eurostep to the extreme. He steps one way, steps the other way and leaves his defender in the dust.

“It’s a long Euro,” Connaughton said. “It’s like here to Europe.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo is 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan.


Photo:

benny sieu/Reuters

But what makes Antetokounmpo such a curious player is that he contradicts many of the trends homogenizing the game. He’s the anomaly of the NBA.

It helps that he can dunk, for example, considering he’s the worst outside shooter in basketball right now. Antetokounmpo is making 11.1% of his 3-pointers. Klay Thompson made more threes in one half of one game than Antetokounmpo in his 22 games this season.

In this era defined by the 3-point revolution, in a season when NBA teams have decided there is no such thing as a bad shot as long as it’s behind the line, the player with the lowest 3-point shooting percentage could very well be the MVP.

But he’s so unguardable that it doesn’t seem to matter that teams don’t have to guard him in certain areas of the court. He still does stuff like this:

Giannis Antetkounmpo dunks. Again.

Giannis Antetkounmpo dunks. Again.


Photo:

Courtesy of NBA

You’re not officially a Bucks player until you experience one of these Antetokounmpoments for yourself.

It came during training camp for Connaughton. Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon happened to look at him and recognized the astonishment on his new teammate’s face after one of Antetokounmpo’s dunks.

“You’ll get used to it,” he said.

Write to Ben Cohen at ben.cohen@wsj.com

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