• Cameron Tabatabaie

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Unforgiving Art of Legacy Building

Giannis Antetokounmpo is still getting better.

His three-point shot is slowly improving, as are his efficiency numbers. His ability to create his own jumpshot is becoming a thing of beauty. He’s more dynamic off-ball, and his defense is also showing growth.

Still, you’d be excused if you didn’t know that the reigning two-time MVP is, horrifyingly, playing even better. The chatter surrounding Giannis and the Bucks has been oddly quiet this season.

Milwaukee did get off to a slow start, which can pigeon-hole teams into certain narratives. Likewise, they haven’t been pummeling people into the dirt this year; Mike Budenholzer’s club has instead been adapting its offense and trying new things.

Regardless, the Bucks have been top-10 in offensive and defensive rating all season long. They’re bonafide title contenders, no doubt about it.

But this isn’t about the Milwaukee Bucks. This is about THE Milwaukee Buck. About Giannis.

King of the small markets

When Giannis Antetonkoumpo entered the NBA as the No. 15 pick in the 2013 draft, it barely made a ripple around the league. He was a fine rookie, but nothing special. And in any event, the next season the Bucks drafted Jabari Parker, a much, much more high-profile player.

By 2016, though, Giannis signed a modest 4-year, $100 million extension. This is when Giannis really exploded onto the scene.

Antetokounmpo became the youngest Buck to ever start in an All-Star Game in 2017. Even more impressively, the Greek Freak finished in the top-20 in each of the five major statistical categories during the 16-17 regular season, the first player to ever do so.

Giannis had arrived.

Suddenly Antetokounmp was a star, and the Bucks were on the clock. The era of player empowerment has seen high-profile stars upend entire franchises to find new homes. In the shadows, this has been a major boom to the league’s biggest markets and its media partners. Mega-stars aren’t forcing a trade to San Antonio or Indiana.

So, as Giannis’ stardom grew and grew, he became the darling of the NBA. Here was the living embodiment of the meritocracy of sports. And as he earned All-NBA awards, All-Star nods, and MVPS, the sharks began to circle. From New York to Los Angeles, and from San Francisco to South Beach, big market front offices were plotting their move.

Milwaukee is the 35th biggest media market in the nation, after all. Yes, the league would like to see a healthy class of smaller teams for the sake of parity and competition. But the value of having stars in the biggest cities can’t be underestimated.

There’s no conspiracy here. Giannis isn’t being blacklisted or anything like that. Once Giannis inked his max extension to remain with the Bucks back in December of 2020, however, everything changed.

A collective yawn

The moment Antetokoumpo signed a five-year, $228 million contract to stay in Milwaukee, things were different. Suddenly the intrigue of where Giannis might play next evaporated. Ditto what the Bucks might do to satisfy their star.

Now there’s a known commodity in Milwaukee, a media market eight times smaller than New York. Giannis simply isn’t on the tip of our tongues in the same way as before. We’ve moved on to shiny new objects, new budding superstars to ponder.

Zion Williamson might be more athletic than Giannis, and there’s a new Euro darling playing in Dallas. Will Karl-Anthony Towns stick around in Minnesota? What’s going to happen to Brad Beal?

Giannis doesn’t offer cryptic remarks like LeBron or Kyrie postgame. He doesn’t get into trouble during the offseason or cozy up with celebrities. He’s just a very, very good player on a very, very good team.

Giannis hasn’t exactly rolled over. He is in the top-5 in most jerseys sold. He just won NBA All-Star MVP. And he’s poised to make another deep postseason run.

But he’s not at the center of its universe in the same way. Don’t believe me? This is the Google Trends data for the search term “Giannis Antetokounmpo”

Those flat parts you see back in 2019 and 2020 coincide with NBA offseasons (the labels on the graphic are a little wonky). But look at the far right of the graph. That’s from 2021, during the season. Giannis has barely made a blip. A similar trend follows for YouTube search history and for Google News search history.

Therein lies the issue for Giannis. He’s not bolting for a bigger market, or teaming up with another superstar. He’s digging in and fighting. It’s what we should want from our stars. And because the gleam and mystic have fizzled away, the long, unfair process of legacy building has begun.

Let’s talk about narratives

While Giannis was shattering NBA records and musceling his way into the annals of basketball history, his playoff performances left something to be desired.

In the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals, for example, the MVP was good, though far from great. He averaged just 22.7 points per game, struggling mightily from the free throw line in particular. The next postseason the now two-time MVP saw his Bucks bounced unceremoniously by the Heat.

Giannis was twice upstaged in a big way, first by Kawhi Leonard and then by Jimmy Butler. Consumed by his looming free agency, we didn’t blink twice. Better to bite your tongue than to give Giannis a bad impression about your favorite team’s media partners.

Things are different now. There’s no such hesitation, and the gloves are off.

Now it’s a no holds barred mud-slinging contest. If rings are the true currency of the NBA, Giannis has a way to go before he’s in the same class as Kawhi, LeBron James, or Kevin Durant, right?

Giannis explained as such himself. After winning the 2020 MVP award, he said, “Don’t call me MVP until I’m a champion”

We sometimes forget about lucky breaks and unlucky injuries. A win is a win is a win. And without Larry OBs, you just can’t be one of the greats, however silly that may be.

Losing, meanwhile, can be even more damning in the court of public opinions. Coming up short in the playoffs can paint a player or team for years. From the LA Clippers to James Harden, the sting of a failed effort in the postseason - especially one considered a collapse or choke job - lingers for years.

Giannis was sheltered from the storm in some ways because of his pending free agency. Now, it’s time to put up or shut up.

Fairly or not, unspoken criticism from seasons past may quickly come to haunt Antetokounmpo. Imagine, for a moment, the Bucks don’t make the Eastern Conference Finals this season.

It may cost head coach Mike Budenholzer his job. For Giannis, it will invite a delayed waive of naysayers and doubters.

Suddenly last year’s performance against the Heat may become a critical data point. As will his sometimes shotty three-point shooting. Once lauded universally as a generational talent, questions about Giannis’ ceiling may truly come into play.

The flawed idea of a legacy

In the NBA, talk is very cheap. We rank players constantly. We scream into the digital abyss about this GOAT and that. We go blue in the face counting rings, All-Star appearances, and MVPs.

We ignore context. We ignore injuries, luck, and circumstance. We ignore how preposterously hard it is to win an NBA title. And we have miserable short-term memory loss.

As recently as this season, there were people openly doubting Steph Curry. However unfair, if it looks good on a chyron, headline, or in a tweet, it is liable to generate noise.

And that’s where Giannis finds himself. The king of a small market team with few tastemakers in his corner. Unlike New York or LA, there isn’t a massive Milwaukee media sports media to help shape a favorable narrative.

He’s one of the best basketball players you’ve ever seen play the game. And yet in the harsh wilderness of the NBA, it means little without the rings to back it up. As such, the 2020-21 postseason looms large for Antetokounmpo.

It will be his first since signing his extension with the Bucks. The first since the club broke the bank to bring in Jrue Holiday. The first since he shunned the big guys to try to bring a title to Milwaukee.

A well-fought trip to the Eastern Conference Finals could be enough to show that Giannis belongs with the top dogs. But a poor playoff showing - a very reasonable thing this or any other season - could still be a nail in the Greek Freak’s legacy coffin.

Time will tell how the NBA intelligentsia ultimately views Giannis Antetokounmpo. But with the shine off the apple, the cold, unforgiving work of building a legacy has begun.