How do Giannis' Statistics Compare to Hakeem Olajuwon's?
By: Akshat Srivastav and Utkarsh Kumar
This 2019-20 NBA season, Giannis Antetokounmpo accomplished something extraordinary. He joined Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only 3 players to win MVP and DPOY in the same year. He also won back-to-back MVPs, putting up career high scoring and rebounding numbers. Being the only backcourt player besides Hakeem to accomplish such a feat in a season, it becomes interesting to see how Giannis stacks up statistically to the 2-time NBA champion of the Houston Rockets. Hakeem Olajuwon was a truly special player. He was picked No. 1 in the 1984 draft over Michael Jordan and proved to the Rockets that they did not make a mistake choosing him by becoming the best player in the history of the franchise. Hakeem the Dream is a two-time Finals MVP, three-time block champion, two-time rebound champion, two-time DPOY, nine-time all defensive and 12-time all star. A hall of famer who possessed unparalleled footwork and skill for his 7-foot-tall figure, Hakeem was a triple double threat in big games. Giannis, on the other hand, is an offensive monster possessing an unstoppable eurostep, providing legitimacy to his nickname: the ‘Greek Freak’.
In the grand scheme of NBA greatness, unless Giannis wins championships, displays strong playoff performances, and gets inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, it will be tough to claim he is a better player than Hakeem. Thus, the article does not seek to predict whether Giannis can surpass Hakeem’s accolades, wins, or career; rather we look at Giannis’ offensive production and defensive statistics to determine how close they are to Hakeem’s and whether it is possible--or even probable--for Giannis to put up better numbers than Hakeem in his prime. Hakeem had a 17-year long career; however, we chose what we felt was his 8-year long prime: the seasons from 1988-89 to 1995-96. We felt that Giannis, on the other hand, came into his prime in the 2017-18 season, providing us with 3 seasons to compare to Hakeem’s 8.
Figure 1 compares a few common statistics from Hakeem and Giannis’ ‘prime’ seasons (1988-96 for Hakeem and 2017-20 for Giannis). As expected from a block and rebounding champion, Hakeem boasts a higher RPG and BPG than Giannis, but Giannis is putting up more PPG at a higher accuracy than Hakeem. Shooting 4% more accurately than Hakeem at 55% makes Giannis an incredibly efficient scorer, as he comes off a season averaging 29.5 PPG compared to Hakeem’s highest single season average of 27.5 PPG (his 1994-95 title-winning season). While the above may suggest Hakeem is a better rebounder and shot blocker whereas Giannis is a better scorer, an in-depth analysis of more advanced statistics accounting for pace, league-adjustment, and efficiency will paint a more accurate picture of who is better statistically.
We will analyze three main offensive aspects: scoring, rebounding, and advanced metrics.
Scoring: (PPG, league adjusted, FGA, FG% )
Scoring statistics are often used in the NBA as the primary method of comparing two players due to the significant role that scoring has in significant moments such as the quarters when the player’s team is down or the playoffs. Since the rise of the 3 point shooting with the 2015 Warriors, shooting numbers have escalated for players and the value of the mid-range has seen a decline. For players like Giannis and Hakeem who rely solely on the paint and nearby regions for the majority of their points, their high scoring numbers are attributed to the frequency with which they attack the rim rather than the 3 point shot attempts.
Giannis seems to have a strong edge in efficiency numbers given his FG% of 0.553 in the past 3 seasons compared to Hakeem’s prime figures of 0.513. Coupling FG% with the league-adjusted FG+, which is calculated by taking the ratio of the player’s season FG% and the league average FG% and multiplying by a 100, we see Giannis still comes out on top. Giannis’ average adjusted FG score of 120 puts him above Hakeem who has a score of 109 in his prime. To further understand how Giannis is able to maintain such high efficiency, and whether this indicates if he is a better scorer or not, it is worth looking into the different types of shots that both players take.
In the 2018-19 NBA Regular Season, Giannis led the league for efficiency in the paint by posting a ridiculously high 70%. Similarly, Hakeem averaged 69% in the interior throughout 1993-95. Figure 2 shows the shot charts that could be obtained for both players; only 1993-95 was available to Hakeem due to lack of specific shooting data from the mid-90s. When branching out to the mid-range regions such as the low-post, high-post, and corners, both players shoot a much lower volume with Giannis shooting a significantly lower volume. Hakeem’s strengths lie in his versatility as a center; averaging 47-50% on high volume from the low post and a solid 51% from mid-ranges whereas Giannis struggles to adapt to the modern NBA’s demand for 3-point shooting big mean as he averages a mere 22% from deep (far below the league average as indicated on Fig. 2). Every 90s NBA fan was exposed to Hakeem’s iconic ‘Dream Shake’, arguably one of the most unguardable moves of all time. This facet of Hakeem’s scoring added heavily to his offensive value in an era where the mid-range was heavily emphasized and the numbers from the low post region show it. All in all, regarding scoring versatility, Hakeem has a clear edge due to his ability to score from more regions of the court as or more efficiently than Giannis can. Despite posting greater efficiency numbers, Giannis does not offer as much spacing and his consistently weak jump shot and midrange game makes it tougher to put him above Hakeem as a significantly better scorer.
Hakeem’s shot chart from 1993-95 compared to Giannis’ from 2018-19
Looking at PPG in the regular season, Giannis has an advantage given his average of 28 PPG in his ‘prime’ compared to Hakeem’s 25 PPG. A t-test was performed on this and subsequent statistics to analyze whether the scoring between each player is statistically significant. In layman terms, a p-value of less than 0.05 suggests that the difference between the statistics is significant and can’t just be attributed to chance. Regarding PPG in the regular season, the p-value for the two sets of scoring data (Hakeem and Giannis in their primes) was 0.034 indicating that Giannis is a significantly higher scoring player despite Hakeem’s versatility on the court. These higher numbers could be attributed to both the pace of today’s game and the fact that Giannis attempted 3.0 three pointers a game on average compared to Hakeem’s near 0.0 in his prime. Based on the data so far, it would be fair to say that Giannis is a greater scorer due to his higher efficiency numbers and PPG. An equally fair argument is to say that Hakeem is a greater scorer due to his versatility on the court although most would lean towards the former conclusion. Although regular season statistics give a good representation of a player’s scoring ability, scoring under pressure often carries more weight.
When looking at playoff scoring, the gap is much closer with Hakeem averaging 25 and Giannis averaging 26 and a p-value of 0.045, just under 0.05 indicating Giannis is only slightly greater. Digging deeper into the averages reveals more about the playoff performances of both players, however, and knowledge of the Rocket’s playoff runs in the 90s reveal the reason Hakeem is a 2 time champion. Hakeem had a back-to-back championship run where he averaged 28.9 in 1993-94 and 33.0 in 1994-95, including a legendary 1995 WCF series against Spurs in which he dropped 35.3 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 4.2 blocks against the league MVP David Robinson. The remaining 6 years don’t favor Hakeem as much since he suffered consecutive first round exits between 1988-1993 averaging only 22.9 in this period and missing the 1991-92 playoffs due to injury. Hakeem is not to blame entirely for the exits, however, since his all-star teammate Ralph Sampson was traded due to early injuries and the team was not in shape to compete with some of the higher seeded teams in the Western Conference. Regarding Giannis, it is too early to judge his playoff career, however, it has been a rocky start for him and his Bucks since they failed to make the ECFs this year and choked a 2-0 lead last year in a series where Giannis averaged a mere 22.7 PPG on 45% shooting.
In conclusion, it is very close between Hakeem and Giannis regarding scoring. Overall, we give the edge to Hakeem due to his significantly better playoff statistics and his versatility as a center which adds a deadly component to his skill set. It is not impossible, however, for Giannis to eclipse Hakeem in his next 5 seasons. Looking at Figure 3, we can see that Giannis’ regular season scoring numbers are only going up and have consistently been greater than Hakeem’s for the first 3 seasons of their prime. If Giannis can keep his high efficiency in the paint and step up in the playoffs, it would be reasonable to conclude that he is a greater scorer than Hakeem. At the moment, however, it doesn’t seem right to give Giannis the definitive edge in scoring but the future definitely looks promising.
Rebounding: (ORB, ORB%)
Offensive rebounding is crucial for centers since many of the shots in the paint are heavily contested and require the player to often rebound after his miss to secure the 2 points. It is also a complex category since it does not fully measure if a player is offensively talented and rebounding in general is a statistic geared towards big men. It is still applicable for both Hakeem and Giannis, however, since rebounding is a crucial part of their games with Hakeem expected to have an edge due to his 7 feet figure compared to Giannis’ 6’11”. Unlike the scoring category, the statistics are not as close for offensive rebounding between Hakeem and Giannis. Hakeem averaged 3.3 ORB per game in his prime compared to Giannis’ 2.2 per game and the p-value for these two sets of data was near zero. Another offensive rebounding metric is ORB%, measuring the percentage of available offensive rebounds that a player grabs while he's on the court, which also shows a drastic difference. Figure 4 shows Hakeem’s consistently higher ORB% over his seasons and the p-value here was 0.007, yet again showing the significant difference between both players’ offensive rebounding.
It is clear that Hakeem is a better offensive rebounder but more context is needed to understand why such a significant difference exists. As Lowe states in his article ‘Why are teams bored with boards?,’ the emphasis has shifted from offensive to defensive rebounding and the league places far less value on offensive boards. There are several reasons for such a shift which are explained very well in that article. The main takeaway is that Giannis’ lower rebounding numbers may be explained by this era’s changing demands and style of play. This is often the difficulty when comparing players from two different eras. To conclude, it seems unlikely that Giannis will overtake Hakeem in offensive rebounding figures due to the changing demands of the league and the ridiculously high numbers Hakeem posted in his prime.
Advanced: (OWS, ORtg)
The two primary offensive metrics we felt worthy of comparison are Offensive Win Shares (OWS) and Offensive Rating (ORtg).
Offensive rating is a measure of the amount of points produced per 100 possessions. This metric is commonly used when comparing different NBA teams because it is a tempo-free stat (since it is per 100 possessions for every team/player). Throughout his prime, Hakeem averaged 109 for his ORtg compared to Giannis’ 117 in the regular season; the playoff averages are identical. The formula is a bit complicated for this metric but it tends to favor big men who have a low usage rate and have higher efficiencies as explained by Bleacher Report. Usage rate calculates what percentage of team plays a player was involved in. Giannis’ average usage rate in the 3 prime years are about 33.6% compared to Hakeem’s 28.6% but he also has a higher FG% of 55% compared to Hakeem’s 51%. Although we could attribute the 4% higher FG% to Giannis’ higher offensive rating, a p-value of near zero suggests that Giannis is simply a more productive and efficient player than Hakeem and this is in line with his higher efficiency stats (FG% and league adjusted FG). Combining the data gathered from this metric and the analysis done in the scoring section, it is fair to say that Giannis is a more efficient player despite his low mid-range percentages.
While efficiency and scoring are key to determining which offensive player is better, one final metric to conclude the Giannis vs. Hakeem’s offensive game debate is to determine who is a better winner due to their offense. Offensive Win Shares does just this by looking at not only who boasts higher offensive numbers but also whose offensive numbers truly matter more. Bleacher Report states that win shares are “easily the best metric for evaluating the offensive play of a single player because it accounts for almost everything and scales the result.” In the regular season, Giannis averaged an offensive win share of 7.8 compared to Hakeem’s average of 4.8. This could be attributed to Bucks’ having a better winning record in those years compared to Hakeem’s Rockets but nonetheless, this further tilts the scale in Giannis’ favor.
In conclusion, we feel that while Hakeem’s versatility as a big man put him ahead of his time in the 90s and his incredible playoffs performances including the two championships when Jordan was away from the NBA made him an unstoppable offensive force, Giannis’ numbers cannot be ignored. Giannis has higher efficiency figures, PPG averages, ORtg and OWS than Hakeem’s. While he lacks in offensive rebounding, as explained before this is due to the nature of the modern league. If Giannis can maintain similar figures or even slightly lower numbers for the next 5 years, his prime numbers will still be higher than Hakeem’s due to the significant gap in metrics between the two.
Rebounding: (DRB, DRB%)
Measuring defense in the NBA is one of the greatest challenges in sports analysis. Defending has three main components: perimeter defense, rim protection, aggression and stealing ability. A good defender can hold their opponent to low field goal percentages, effectively fight off screens, successfully intercept passes, and get rebounds and blocks in the paint. It is clear that the most important defensive aspect for big men is rim protection and paint defense-- thus, this section will analyze Hakeem and Giannis’ abilities to block shots, get team rebounds, and win games via their defense.
Fundamental to understanding a player’s defensive capabilities are two statistics: DRB and DRB%, respectively, denoting defensive rebounds and the percentage of available defensive rebounds grabbed by the player. Perhaps, tracking these statistics for the players’ prime years, 1989-96 for Hakeem and 2017-present for Giannis, will give us a better idea of how these players have evolved into their defensive roles.
Although Hakeem’s prime years stretch through eight seasons. It appears that Giannis clearly surpassed Hakeem in the DRB% by his second prime season, averaging a stellar 30%. As the DRB% measures the percentage of rebounds grabbed by a player that were available to his team, at first glance, these stats might suggest that the young ‘Greek Freak’ has clearly left Hakeem behind in his defensive abilities. We, however, think that these statistics demand a closer look.
Now, since the DRB% is a measure of the percentage of rebounds grabbed, I think this statistic could also speak to how much ‘help’ a player had in grabbing defensive rebounds. For instance, Hakeem’s lower DRB% could potentially be attributed to the fact that Hakeem wasn’t alone in grabbing rebounds for his team-- he had Larry Smith, David Fietl, Otis Thorpe and Adrian Caldwell who also stood up to their defensive responsibilities. With many more players in the Bucks, such as Hensen, Bronzie Colson, and Pau Gasol putting up numbers like 28.0%, 21.5%, and 31.9%, we could conclude two things First, the Bucks are a team renowned for their defense; their big men like Giannis, Pau Gasol, Colson, and Hensen are more likely to have logged higher figures. Now combine this with the fact that Westbrook has averaged a triple-double for three seasons in a row largely because of grabbing easy defensive rebounds. The second possibility could be that Giannis is truly a monster in grabbing rebounds, which seems unlikely given that statistics in today’s game tend to be more inflated as compared when Hakeem played on the court. Similar statistics logged by Giannis’s teammates concur with the issue of inflated statistics.
Higher percentages could be attributed to many factors such as the coach’s strategy, defensive role, and playing style of different eras so they don’t necessarily speak to an individual player’s defensive capabilities. As unfruitful a conclusion this may sound, a more appealing method to make a decision is to use a t-test to see how significant the differences are. To use a t-test however, we must use the absolute DRB, defensive rebounds grabbed on a per-game basis, for each of the three seasons. Below is a table, that can help us gauge what the t-tests have to say.
From the table, it appears that the p-values 0.008 and 0.0152 for seasons 1 and 3 suggest that Giannis’s prime season 1 was really the only insignificant difference, i.e. it wasn’t just chance that Giannis logged a lower DRB. Hence it appears that in his third prime season, from 2019-2020, Giannis did indeed surpass Hakeem in absolute defensive rebounds.
Blocking: (BLK, BLK%)
Any defensive comparison is incomplete without considering blocks: the ultimate protection for the rim. First, we’ll explore the absolute number of blocks and then we’ll have a look at the BLK%. Below in Figure 6, the trend with regards to blocks (BLK) appears very clear. Hakeem leaves Giannis quite behind in blocks for the first three years in his prime, and it seems unlikely that Giannis will surpass him, given the trend projected by the graph. Perhaps, let’s also have a look at the t-test to arrive at a more conclusive verdict.
The p-values are significantly below the significance level of 0.05 and the verdict appears quite clear. The difference between the players’ stats is real, not just because of chance: Hakeem really does outperform Giannis when it comes to sending that ball right back! However, the absolute number of blocks (BLK) does not tell us the whole story--Giannis could be more efficient. Let’s have a look at the BLK% that tells us the percentage of two-point field goal attempts blocked by the player.
Now, it again appears in Figure 7 that Hakeem led in BLK%, i.e. not only did he have more blocks but also was he more efficient in blocking opponents’ field goal attempts. It’s also important to note that the BLK% as a measure is tempo-free, as in, the number of minutes doesn’t really affect this statistics as it is accounted for in the calculation. It seems like Hakeem comes out a winner in BLK%.
Advanced: (DWS, DRtg)
Finally, we present the DWS (Defensive Win Shares) and the DRtg, which represent the defensive rating. Now looking at just the DWS in Figure 8 below, it appears that Hakeem unequivocally comes out on top, especially for the first two seasons. Now the DWS attempts to accord a marginal defensive value, i.e. how many games does a player’s defensive value win the team. One DWS corresponds to one game win. Hence, it appears that Hakeem’s defense won the Rockets more games than Giannis' defense for the Bucks.
A t-test isn’t applicable in this scenario since a DWS statistic is calculated for the whole season and not for each game, so we have to take Hakeem’s higher DWS at face value. Although there seems to be a closing gap for Prime Season 3, it seems unlikely that Giannis could compete with consistently high values of 8 and 7.9 in prime seasons 5 and 6: hence unlikely that Giannis will surpass him.
Let’s have a look at DRtg, i.e. the defensive rating. A player’s defensive rating shows how many points the player allowed per 100 possessions lower values are better. Again, a t-test is not useful in this scenario since the defensive rating is measured as a mean of the season average and not for each game. It appears that Hakeem is a defensive monster allowing less than 100 points per 100 possession for most of his prime as evident in Figure 9. As both the DWS and DRtg are tempo-free and take into account all facets of defensive play at face value, Hakeem is a clear defensive winner who brought a lot more value to his team on the defensive front.
The analysis done between two players revealed more similarities than we expected. If the data was given for both players without any context or accolades, it would be tough to conclude that one player is significantly better than the other. Giannis’ dominance on offense contrasts with Hakeem’s defensive prowess. Adding in accolades, we see that both are in the elite club of the only players to win DPOY and MVP in the same season, but Hakeem boasts back-to-back championships on his resume. If you ask any NBA analyst or fan, most would pick Hakeem far above Giannis--and rightfully so;Giannis is barely halfway through his prime and has yet to prove himself in the playoffs. Our analysis revealed, however, that Giannis is statistically on track to be a better offensive player than Hakeem and for his era, be an elite defensive player similar to Hakeem in the mid 90s. The only unconvincing part is the eye-test which, given Hakeem’s extreme versatility on the court and rugged rim protection, hands Hakeem an advantage. The analysis also revealed something deeper about the NBA and its all-time great players: statistics are not necessarily everything. We feel that Giannis can put up the numbers needed to remain better than Hakeem offensively and come close defensively, but the chances are slim for him to reach Hakeem’s level despite the individual accolades that he has already accumulated unless he can augment it with team success and championships.
What does Hakeem think about Giannis? In an interview in 2015 (before Giannis erupted) Hakeem spoke highly saying “I'm not really surprised to see him do well in the NBA – he will do much better with time and confidence.” His prediction could not have been any better; Giannis went on to become the best player and defender in the league. Regarding whether Giannis can become an all-time great, Hakeem said “he has what it takes” and, statistically, Hakeem is not wrong. Giannis already had a record season registering the highest single-season PER in the history of the NBA. The comparison between Hakeem and Giannis may be too early and will require a revisit in the next 5 years, but it is still astonishing to see just how similar in greatness two players two decades apart are.
Sources: basketball-reference.com, stats.nba.com, bleacherreport.com, Kirk Goldsberry
Works cited: Lowe, Zach. “Why Are Teams Bored with Boards?” ESPN, ESPN Internet Ventures, 5 Jan., 2016.