The earliest memory I have of watching Giannis Antetokounmpo play basketball on live television was back when Jason Kidd was still the head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks. ‘Fear the Deer’ was still a relevant slogan, and this was back when Giannis did not have any visible muscles – he was fifty or so pounds lighter than the Giannis we know today.
I’m not saying this to lay claim to the fact that I have been a Bucks or a Giannis fan way before it was cool to be one. Because I’m not even a Bucks nor much of a Giannis fan even after they won the championship this year. What I’m sure of though, which is mainly the reason why I had to write this article, is that my assessment of Giannis Antetokounmpo as a basketball talent has been misguided and wrong.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is now a real NBA superstar.
I wasn’t yet convinced of this even though he had won back-to-back regular season MVPs, an All-Star MVP, and in the last two All-Star games really showed up against LeBron and the rest of the NBA’s elite. His playoff disappointments in 2019 and 2020 also gave me the impression that he was still unripe to be considered elite.
But in these 2021 NBA Playoffs, Giannis showed just how dominant he could be.
Before I recap how Giannis dominated these recently concluded playoffs and NBA finals, let me go back to the 2018 playoffs. I remember the 2019 playoffs particularly well because I’m a huge LeBron fan, and this was LeBron’s last playoffs with the Cavs. The Milwaukee Bucks faced off against a young Boston Celtics team that was missing its best player, Kyrie Irving. Young and inexperienced the Celtics were, but so were the Bucks. Both teams’ youth was exposed, as the road team never won a game in the series. Giannis also didn’t have much playoff experience, but he showed flashes of brilliance, scoring 30-plus points in 3 of the 7 games.
His supporting cast just wasn’t yet properly established at that point.
A year later, in the 2019 playoffs, the Bucks would leapfrog towards the Eastern Conference Finals, sweeping the Pistons in the first round and exacting revenge against the Celtics in five games in the semis. But all the things that the Bucks, and Giannis, lacked were exposed during the conference finals as Giannis’ tendency to be a one-dimensional offensive player was taken advantage of by the more versatile Toronto Raptors.
And last year, inside the bubble, the Bucks would produce an incredibly disappointing run despite a dominant regular season – nearly being swept by the Miami Heat. And the free agency questions loomed for Giannis, who was at the hot seat in the offseason – will he take the supermax, or will he potentially sign with a contender (rumored to be either the Warriors or the Heat at that time)?
The Road Less Traveled (in the Player Empowerment Era)
Giannis took the road less traveled and signed the supermax, and some analysts thought he was never going to be ‘happy’ (win a championship) with the small-market Milwaukee Bucks. Which makes this highly successful playoff run a hell of a lot sweeter. Plus, he did so beating stars who sought out other contending teams to form a championship roster. To recap the 2021 playoffs – he and the Bucks swept the Heat, taking revenge; then they beat the super-team Brooklyn Nets who needed all of Kevin Durant; and in the Finals beat Chris Paul who made last year’s most promising team into a title contender.
Three of the four teams Giannis beat this year were ‘engineered’ to be a title contender in 1-2 years by an aggressive front office. And Giannis and the Bucks are what you would describe as the opposite.
It took a few years before the Giannis experiment could come to fruition – five years ago he was still a prospect at best, an up-and-comer, described by the late great Kobe Bryant as a future MVP. Inspired by this, he would become Most Improved Player, and would put on more muscle while retaining speed and athleticism. Then the back-to-back MVPs came, the All-Star MVP, and finally this year, the Finals MVP which is probably the best prize a player could win on a given season.
The New Face of the NBA to Replace an Ageing LeBron
Despite my non-preference for his play style – he’s not even in my five favorite players list – I do agree that he is well on his way to becoming the face of the NBA. He has had a path similar to LeBron or MJ, and probably a cleaner path than LeBron, having won rather than lost his first NBA Finals appearance. He has also won a Defensive Player of the Year award, one that was allegedly ‘stolen’ from LeBron in 2013 who himself has never won it.
It seems as though the NBA is really on for the marketing ride to make Giannis the new face of the NBA, and my only comment on this is that I feel really bad for Kevin Durant. I feel like there were only two seasons where you would consider Durant as the face of the league, and this even felt tentative as the Warriors were clearly more stacked than anyone else in those two years. Now with Giannis Antetokounmpo as the face of the NBA, Durant is sadly overshadowed and in the greater scheme of things just a ‘blip’ in between the LeBron and Giannis era, analogous to Hakeem in between the MJ and Shaq eras.
Not Touching His Ceiling
At the end of the day, Giannis fan or not, we will have to acknowledge that it is this superstar’s time now. His inconsistent jumpshot and lack of offensive variety might turn you off, but at least he actually tries during games. Like it or not, NBA defenses aren’t ready yet to stop Giannis from scoring in the paint. And the scary part its, this is far from Giannis Antetokounmpo’s ceiling. Recall that LeBron in 2007 didn’t have a jumpshot, and in 2011 didn’t want to take over games when there were co-stars around him. Well, Giannis still has a lot of flaws in his game but he still managed to get the Bucks over the top and win the championship – now that’s the scary part.