MILWAUKEE — So much of the optimism around the Toronto Raptors this season centred around two factors — one an arrival, the other a departure.
The Raptors have Kawhi Leonard, the best player the franchise has ever had, having been acquired from San Antonio. That alone was reason for hope.
Just as promising was LeBron James leaving for the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency — the King of the East, who had taken his teams to eight straight Eastern Conference titles and led the Cavs to 10 consecutive post-season wins over the Raptors — was gone.
The throne was empty.
But timing is everything. And with the Eastern Conference Finals set to begin in Milwaukee Wednesday night the Raptors may quickly find out that the void created by the departure of the veteran James may have been already been filled by someone bigger, younger, hungrier and — if it’s possible — even more athletic.
Having looked up to one of the most gifted athletes to have ever picked up a basketball, they now might find themselves witnesses to the emergence of a specimen even more talented, with the drive and basketball acumen to match.
If the Raptors couldn’t handle a 30-something James while getting pushed aside by the Cavaliers in three consecutive post-seasons, now they get to find out what they can do against a 24-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks superstar poised to earn his first NBA MVP award and the engine that has driven Milwaukee’s No. 1-ranked defence, third-best offence and delivered the league’s best overall record.
He’s a shade under seven-feet tall, weighs 242 pounds, having added more than 40 pounds of muscle since he was drafted 15th overall as a gangly 18-year-old out of Greece, and can handle the ball with the speed and dexterity of a point guard — so, James, except taller.
“Yeah, obviously he’s an overpowering-type player, with his size, now his strength, his speed, and then his array of [options] kind of moving up the floor,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “He’s got the speed dribble, he’s got the shoulder hits, he’s constantly running people over, he’s spin-moving, and he’s big and long that he can reach out, that even if you do a great job, he can still reach out over the top of you and lay it in sometimes.
“So the challenge, I mean, you guys have seen them play, you’ve gotta try to slow him down in transition, which is more than a one-person job — it’s probably a five-person job, the guys that are out there, they have to build walls and build ’em early so the freight train doesn’t get going too fast.”
Consider the parallels. James won his first MVP award at age 24 in his sixth NBA season; Antetokounmpo is expected to win his first MVP award at age 24 in his sixth NBA season.
Antetokounmpo’s averages per 100 possessions? 39.3 points, 17.7 rebounds and 8.4 assists.
James at age 24? 40.8 points, 10.9 rebounds and 10.4 assists.
And yes, the only players to average at least those benchmarks in the past 55 years? You guessed correctly: James and Antetokounmpo.
The similarities run even deeper. Among the vast range of skills and talents that have made James a terror through 16 NBA seasons his ability to generate points in the highest value part of the floor — directly at the rim — may rank at the top. Even in the age of threes over everything, the lay-up or dunk remains the most productive single play in basketball, never more than in the analytical era, when entire offences are geared to produce three-pointers, foul shots and points in the paint.
For most of his career, James’ royal qualities shone brightest when he was attacking the basket. He led the league in field goals made at the rim three straight season from 2014-15 to 2016-17. He was supplanted by Antetokounmpo, who has led the NBA the past two years.
But Antetokounmpo’s youthful energy and length has allowed him to surpass even James in this area.
In some ways a better comparison for the Bucks star might be Shaquille O’Neal, the four-time NBA champion who built a career as an all-time great by over-powering opponents inside five feet.
In the 20 years that NBA.com has tracked field-goal attempts in the restricted area, the seven-foot-one, 300-pound (and then some) O’Neal had the highest single-season mark for makes, averaging 7.3 per game in 2001-02 and 2002-03.
Antetokounmpo surpassed that mark this season with 7.9 attempts a game, 2.3 more than James’ career-best mark of 6.3. The Bucks star shot 73.7 per cent from inside the small semi-circle in front of the rim which also led the league and was higher than James has ever achieved.
O’Neal has the most total field goals at the rim since the stat has been tracked, with 571 in 1990-2000 when he won the league MVP award, led the Lakers to 67 wins and the first of three straight titles.
But he did it in 79 games while playing 40 minutes each night.
Antetokounmpo had 569 field goals in the restricted area this season — the second-most in NBA.com’s database — but he did it in 72 games and while playing just 2,358 minutes, or 805 fewer than O’Neal did. Had he not sat out a handful of games towards the end of the season with a balky ankle, Antetokounmpo would likely have obliterated O’Neal’s mark.
Safe to say: If you’re doing things that get you on very short lists with both O’Neal and James — arguably the two most physically dominant athletes in modern NBA history — you are unique.
Antetokounmpo’s ‘Greek Freak’ nickname fits.
But from the Raptors’ point of view the LeBron comparison gets even more nightmarish when you consider that the Bucks have built a team around their star’s talents that closely resembles what the Cavaliers did for James — surround him with shooters that spread the floor and allow him to attack the rim and collapse the defence.
Only the Houston Rockets made more three-pointers than the Bucks’ 13.3 per game this season and every rotation player they have is a more than capable three-point shooter. Shooting is the one weakness Antetokounmpo has, but it hardly matters since he’s the one with the ball driving it down the throat of the defence.
“They do a great job of attacking the paint,” said Raptors centre Marc Gasol. “[Their shooters] are out there for a reason, to create those lanes and gaps. You always have to be concerned about the three-point line, because they have great three-point shooters, but dunks and layups and free throws, you have to guard (against) that.”
It won’t be easy. The Raptors saw it first-hand the past three post-seasons against James and they know how that ended up.
Now they might be leaving the frying pan and heading into the fire as they watch a new and improving King emerge in the East.