The lagging understanding of Giannis Antetokounmpo's dominance
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In February of 2020, James Harden made one of the stupidest comments of modern basketball. In reference to Giannis Antetokounmpo, he said: ”I wish I could be 7-feet, run and just dunk. That takes no skill at all… I gotta actually learn how to play basketball and how to have skill. I'll take that any day.” Why he said this was not a complicated mystery: during that season, and the one prior, Harden was locked into an MVP battle with Antetokounmpo. Both times, he lost.

We’ve all spoken bitterly of our opponents, and losing to them usually only enriches those tones—so much so, in certain instances, that we can stretch our words into realms beyond reason, instead leaning into our personal fantasy zones, into the texture of our headcanons in which it is us, instead, who has won. It is fair, perhaps even generous, to assume that Harden’s commentary falls under this umbrella. It benefits everyone to be able to identify the misplaced words of those on the wrong side of transcendence. 

But what Harden said was not, as it should have been, taken this way by everyone, and lost within the vacuum of his personal rivalry with Antetokounmpo. It has instead left an indelible mark upon the broader basketball mind, a sort of foundational text for a brand of star critique that puts perimeter cooking on a pedestal and buries the rest of the game somewhere deep beneath the rubric. Giannis “has no bag,” it is said; he is a “run and dunk” player, described essentially as a hyper, replaceable child without the stepback, crossover, jumper-in-your-face stuff that—it is implied—separates men from boys. 

Garbage and nonsense. Illiterate trash. Poop. Doggerel. The 2021 NBA Finals are proof of the unhinged idiocy at heart of this kind of thinking. Not that the proof wasn’t already there, and not that it will be received as such by anyone already over-invested in seeing the sport in this way. They are, it would seem, too deep into their dumbness to find their way out of it. Multiple actual NBA players, it would seem, even fit this description: following the Milwaukee Bucks’ 123-119 victory in Phoenix to take a 3-2 series lead over the Suns, C.J. McCollum and Spencer Dinwiddie expressed on Twitter how they thought Khris Middleton, not Giannis, should be getting serious Finals MVP consideration.

And make no mistake: Middleton has been terrific. But there is no viable case for his—or anyone’s—candidacy over Giannis for the aforementioned award at this point. Giannis is averaging more points than Middleton and scoring them more efficiently. He is also assisting, rebounding, blocking, and stealing at a higher rate, plus turning the ball over at a substantially lower rate, despite having the ball more often. This is merely the easily quantified stuff: take one look at the action, with any level of basketball knowledge in your head, and you will clearly see how one man, above all, moves with terrific, purposeful vengeance, leaving frustrated and disbelieving bodies in his wake.

But because Middleton’s effectiveness squares more easily with the Harden-centric “bag” camp, many will automatically respect his contributions more. Rarely has an aesthetic preference conformed to a collective wrongthink more neatly. Again, Middleton’s play has been outstanding. He has been a cold-blooded perimeter assassin, pleasing the bag-obsessed with every laser-eyed pull-up swish, and he’s also been an excellent pick-and-roll ball handler, shrewdly utilizing Antetokoumpo’s gravity on the other end of the play. 

It’s just that there’s no confusing who the more important player is; no room for any reasonable belief that Giannis is anything short of the best player in the Finals, by a laughably large margin. He has twice made instantly iconic plays in massive late-game moments, on top of overwhelming every game, all game long, with his relentless attacking on both sides. Maybe it’s that we’ve never seen a superstar like him before that leaves people a bit mushy and muddled in the head when they gaze upon his dominance, somehow incapable of plainly calling it what it is.

Or there could be more to it. Maybe Antetokounmpo’s indifference to the larger NBA fraternity has made players less likely to signal their respect for him online and elsewhere. He is not the post-game jersey-trading type, and by all reports he spends his time away from the Bucks almost exclusively with his large immigrant family, forming a kind of mini Milwaukee enclave equally impenetrable for reporters and fellow NBA celebrities. There’s a mystique, likely unintentional, that can breed from this behavior, making what he does on the court all the more alien to some.  

This is not to imply xenophobia among those slow to praise Giannis, but to note his notable lack of participation among the NBA community. Luka Doncic, it must be said, is a young superstar from overseas who does trade jerseys with his idols after the games, and who does aspire toward inclusion in the NBA’s coolest circles. And he is more readily spoken highly of by his peers as a result—though this may also have something to do with his undeniable possession of a deep and dazzling Bag, replete with fancy footwork near the arc and the balls to take and drain pivotal shots from there.

This is all good stuff, just not the everything it is implied to be, and a new language of basketball must be formed, it seems, with Giannis as the central subject. Sure, there already is one, in the most technical terms—analytical front office quants have no issue perceiving his value, or describing it to each other and coaching staffs. When it comes to yeoman vernacular, though, the culture is simply lost when they try to put words to this man. Too often, they are loudly and proudly wrong. But if he can push his team to one more spectacular win, the words are sure to follow.

This article first appeared on RealGM and was syndicated with permission.

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