Giannis and the Superstar Conundrum
Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks find themselves outside looking in after being outclassed by the Miami Heat in this year’s playoffs. For a 2nd straight season, the Bucks have failed to reach the Finals after leading the NBA in regular-season wins. Once media darlings, the Bucks have become pariahs. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and back to back MVP, has come under fire for his lackluster playoff output. The Heat exploited the Greek Freak’s offensive deficiencies using a varying array of defensive looks and strategic matchups, leaving some pondering if Giannis was prematurely launched into NBA’s superstardom.
Let’s examine Giannis’ fascinating transformation from draft day project to perennial MVP, the struggles that come with being an NBA torchbearer, and how his impending free agency will influence the narratives surrounding the “Greek Freak” for years to come.
Giannis’ NBA odyssey has been a success by almost any measure; the son of Nigerian immigrants endured extreme poverty with his brothers while rising through the ranks of Filathlitkos’ youth system before joining the senior club. Over time, the obscure prospect from Greece showed flashes of the tantalizing athleticism and breathtaking versatility that made him a future MVP. Giannis remained a relatively unknown commodity in the weeks leading into the draft before wowing GMs in workouts, culminating in his selection as the 15th pick of the 2013 NBA Draft.
Former Bucks HC Jason Kidd and GM John Hammond recognized Giannis’ potential. They made a conscious effort to focus on his skill development and weight training rather than playing time, wisely choosing to ease Giannis into rotational minutes. The duo’s plan has mostly paid off with Giannis seeing incremental increases in his scoring output in his seven NBA seasons. Antetokounmpo has seen multiple coaching changes, failed partnerships, changes in top leadership, and devastating team injuries on his way to becoming the league’s most famous player, not named LeBron James.
ESPN’s Richard Jefferson suggested Giannis may be better suited to play the “Scottie Pippen” role rather than the “Michael Jordan” role, insinuating Giannis isn’t yet fully equipped to lead a championship club. Jefferson’s comments reflect how quickly narratives change in the NBA and provide insight into why these players often team up to protect their legacies.
Take Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, arguably the greatest players of their generation at the power forward position. Both players had opportunities to leave the franchises that drafted them, both chose to re-sign with their respective clubs. Duncan spent his entire playing career in San Antonio, playing most of his career under one coach and general manager. The Spurs and Duncan would go on to win five championships while becoming the NBA’s model of consistency.
Kevin Garnett’s time proved to be much less fruitful in Minnesota though it wasn’t for lack of trying. Garnett’s Wolves fell victim to salary disputes, injuries, and aging talents. Garnett’s massive contract hindered an already reluctant front office’s ability to spend money and left the team toiling in a perpetual state of mediocrity. When I hear fans reminiscing about Duncan and Garnett, they highlight Duncan’s success, and Garnett’s mental makeup, KG’s generational talent and singular accomplishments in Minnesota get neglected in favor of the fiercely competitive persona he fostered while winning in Boston.
In fiction, heroes are defined in part by the adversities they face; the same holds for NBA superstars. Giannis is an outstanding player, but like all players, he has limitations. Giannis’ inimitable skillset warrants an equally unique supporting cast suited to complement his unmistakable brand of basketball. Michael Jordan’s scoring brilliance wasn’t enough to get his “airness” past Detroit; they mitigated his scoring greatness. Phil Jackson’s coaching savvy and the emergence of Scottie Pippen as a point forward and defensive spell for Jordan transformed the Bulls into champions. Shaquille O’Neal’s dominance in the post could only take him so far. Phil Jackson’s triangle and Kobe’s perimeter skills complemented the Shaq style of play. Kevin Durant made it to the Finals playing with two future NBA MVPs in Westbrook and Harden, but he didn’t become a champion until he joined better situational fits in Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.
Giannis recognizes that these next 5-7 years of basketball will define his career in NBA circles. Each NBA superstar goes through an extended honeymoon phase with the masses upon entering the league before the mood tersely changes, the narratives shift, the expectations evolve, and they’re “called to the altar” that is NBA fandom. This is the “superstar conundrum,” the puzzle at every vying “leading man’s” doorstep. Can you reconcile your on floor deficits with that of your team? Are you willing to bet your legacy on the competency of your teammates, coaches, and front office? History will not provide a context for your shortcomings; your failures as “the superstar” will be your own; success is the price for sports immortality.