We need to talk about Mr. Nice Guy, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Last night, the Milwaukee Bucks became the first 1-seed to lose to a play-in team.
It wasn’t Giannis’ fault. He was hurt. He still gave it his all. He always does.
And blaming Giannis isn’t fair, and takes away from the place all the credit should go- to Jimmy Butler for dragging the Miami Heat to the second round without Tyler Herro.
Sometimes a player elevates and gives you a David vs Goliath moment. Baron Davis did it to Dirk Nowitzki. For my oldheads, Dikembe Mutombo did it to Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp.
But what happens next is on Giannis.
Let me explain.
Last night, a reporter named Eric Nehm from The Athletic asked Giannis if losing in the first round made this season a failure. Giannis seemed to get upset at the question, and explained that a career is a process- that you can build on a season and learn from it, even if the season is over.
He then asked Eric Nehm if failing to get a promotion in a calendar year would be considered a failure for him, and asked if the nine years that Michael Jordan finished without a championship were all considered failures.
I’ve seen literally thousands of people praising Giannis for this perspective, and I’m not going to say that Giannis is wrong. It is an interesting perspective worthy of consideration.
But I want to make a few points.
First, in sports you compete for championships in a self-contained season. In paper pushing jobs you compete to not get fired. I appreciate the metaphor, but there’s not really anywhere for Eric Nehm to go besides maybe becoming a national columnist. And that could happen five years from now, or 20 years from now. Getting Giannis to react in a viral manner is like a reporter winning a title. You might as well have dropped the confetti on press row the moment Giannis got emotional.
Second, this could be about what failure means to Giannis as a person. Giannis used to sell handbags and sunglasses alongside his brother Thanasis on the streets of Greece to help his undocumented Nigerian parents make ends meet… and now he’s on an NBA team with Thanasis and making almost $50 million dollars a year. When you’ve got a story like that, it’s hard to imagine anything feeling like failure. The Bucks could have gone 0-82 this year, and as long as Giannis knew the sun was going to come up tomorrow, you’d have a hard time convincing him that he “failed.”
But third, and most importantly, since Giannis brought Michael Jordan’s name into this… there’s a very good chance that Michael Jordan considers all nine of the seasons he didn’t win a championship a failure.
And while I don’t expect Giannis to start doing things like punching Pat Cannaughton in the face at practice, or calling general manager Jon Horst a fatso, it wouldn’t hurt Giannis’ chances to do the one thing every kid with sneakers and a ball in the 90’s wanted to do-
Be “Like Mike.”
Michael Jordan put an insane amount of pressure on his own shoulders to be the best, and used that to justify putting pressure on the people around him.
Giannis is a bully on the court. He’s both new school and old school. He’s got shades of Hakeem and David Robinson to his game, but is also uniquely suited to the modern style of play.
If anyone in the NBA has earned the right to flex their own vision for what the Milwaukee Bucks should be, it’s Giannis.
And maybe Giannis has a multi-season vision that isn’t contained by arbitrary starting and stopping points- but his front office sure doesn’t. That’s why they shipped five draft picks to Brooklyn for a malcontented Jae Crowder to function as their missing piece, only to have Mike Budenholzer switch up the rotations for the playoffs and stop playing Crowder altogether while Jimmy Butler shot SIXTY percent from the field.
Maybe it’s OK for Giannis to still be learning lessons from his losses at age 28, but Mike Budenholzer is beyond his “losses are lessons” phase.
When there’s half a second left in a tie game, and you’re facing elimination, and you elect to not use one of your TWO TIMEOUTS?
Mike Budenholzer isn’t just failing, he’s tanking.
I hate to keep saying this, but even if Giannis is right about this year not being a failure, if nothing changes moving forward, what are we supposed to call the Greek Freak’s wasted potential?
Giannis needs to run over Budenholzer like he runs over defenders.
And if the Bucks can get a coach in place that does what’s right in the right moments, then maybe this year isn’t really a failure after all.
Let that sink in.