Giannis Antetokounmpo Is Unbothered
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A few hours before the N.B.A.’s annual trade deadline, Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks was making his own defiant moves.
With his first two picks in the All-Star player draft, which would be broadcast hours later on TNT, Antetokounmpo left Kawhi Leonard, James Harden and Luka Doncic on the board for LeBron James to snap up, choosing instead to select Joel Embiid, then Pascal Siakam.
Antetokounmpo presumably didn’t anticipate the second-guessing that greeted those picks. Yet you can also safely presume that he didn’t care; Antetokounmpo later confirmed through a team spokesman that picking the two Cameroonian players was a tribute to his Nigerian-born parents’ home continent.
As seen repeatedly throughout the Bucks’ first 52 games, Antetokounmpo plows ahead as he chooses, attacking the rim with abandon and paying little heed to outside commentary. He kept that same approach when it came to the trade deadline mayhem on Thursday, insisting that he was just fine with Milwaukee’s decision to essentially sit it out.
The Bucks explored their options, knowing they could always use an extra shooter or big body, but they ultimately decided that there was no swap worth upsetting the in-house balance that has contributed to a 45-7 start.
“I’m happy that we have the same team,” Antetokounmpo told reporters.
An unexpected post-deadline move by the Bucks is bound to make him even happier. Milwaukee struck a quick agreement to sign the veteran forward Marvin Williams, who is likely to soon become a free agent after the Charlotte Hornets waived him on Saturday. But my sentiment would have been the same with or without Williams’s forthcoming arrival in Milwaukee.
Antetokounmpo’s conviction, in both himself and the Bucks, makes him an endearing protagonist in an N.B.A. title chase that — if not nearly as wide open as many prognosticators said before the season — remains filled with uncertainty.
Whether or not you are prepared to believe in the Bucks as championship material, you have to admire the way Antetokounmpo drafts whom he wants to draft and plays ferociously every night — even when it feels as though Milwaukee clinched the top seed in the East around Thanksgiving.
“No matter what your role or relationship is with Giannis, he makes us all better,” Milwaukee General Manager Jon Horst said.
The Bucks are on a 71-win pace, with Antetokounmpo piling up ridiculous numbers that shouldn’t be humanly possible in just 30.9 minutes a game. Yet you never hear him complain about the lack of respect for his team despite its wide lead at the top of the standings in the race for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
The only 70-win teams in N.B.A. history, mind you, had an established championship aura before completing their 82-game slates with 10 or fewer losses: Chicago in 1995-96 and Golden State in 2015-16. The Bucks will have an even stronger roster after Williams joins them, but Antetokounmpo hasn’t wasted any energy protesting the notion that the sort of mystique they seek tends to come only from winning championships — that a true fear factor is not something teams can acquire via trade.
That’s especially true after the Bucks, as last season’s only 60-win team, lost four consecutive games in the Eastern Conference finals to the Kawhi Leonard-led Toronto Raptors after taking a 2-0 series lead.
But a boost for Antetokounmpo and Co., besides the looming signing of Williams, is the knowledge that the 12 trades that did go down in last week’s frenzy appear unlikely to cause them any issues. In the East, especially, only Miami realistically closed the gap.
The Raptors happily watched James L. Dolan, the owner of the Knicks, quickly lose the stomach for a protracted attempt to lure Masai Ujiri south of the border after Steve Mills left his role as president on Tuesday. Dolan instead is close to hiring the veteran player agent Leon Rose as his new team president. Toronto’s lone deadline move, though, was hanging on to the highly regarded Ujiri, who, without a contract extension, will become a free agent like Antetokounmpo after the 2020-21 season.
The Boston Celtics were also quiet. Galling as it must have been to see Detroit surrender the former All-Star center Andre Drummond to Cleveland for such a minuscule return, given how badly the Celtics could use some size, Boston simply couldn’t have come close to matching Drummond’s $27.1 million salary in a trade without breaking up its core.
Philadelphia is similarly unwilling to entertain breaking up the still-shaky Embiid/Ben Simmons partnership by trading away Simmons — at least for now. So the 76ers had to settle for a small-scale trade with Golden State to add Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III to fortify their bench.
Even the Heat, who will undoubtedly improve after acquiring the defensive-minded wing duo of Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder, weren’t completely satisfied. Speaking to reporters on Friday, Pat Riley, the president of the Miami Heat, betrayed some disappointment that he fell short in his efforts to expand the trade into a three-teamer that would also have netted Danilo Gallinari, Oklahoma City’s scoring forward.
“I wanted everything,” Riley said.
Riley, of course, also dreams of bringing Antetokounmpo to Miami as a free agent in the summer of 2021. But consider yourself warned: Do not discount the prospect of Milwaukee winning its first championship since 1971 in June and persuading Antetokounmpo to sign a contract extension in July that will prevent him from reaching the open market for a few more years.
With Antetokounmpo pushing the Bucks relentlessly, they are ranked No. 2 in the league in offensive efficiency and No. 1 in defensive efficiency. They also have a per-game average point differential of +12.5; no other team has a higher average than Boston’s +7.3.
Whether the Bucks win 70 games — and whether they scare anybody — ample evidence points to their being the most formidable collection of basketball players on the planet.
“I think we have the best team in the N.B.A.,” Antetokounmpo said on Thursday night.
Believe this if you don’t believe that: He isn’t listening if you disagree.