For the past decade in the NBA, the story of the league has been one of superstars leaving small markets for big, glamorous destinations. It began with LeBron James’ famous “Decision,” when he sat in front of national television cameras and declared that he was moving his talents from Cleveland to South Beach. Thus began a cascade of one star after another leaving their original franchises for greener pastures, despite the league instituting rules that would allow teams to offer higher “supermax” extensions to their homegrown players in a bid to make it more attractive for superstars to stay.
Chris Paul went from New Orleans to Los Angeles (and eventually Houston). Carmelo Anthony decamped from Denver to New York. Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City behind for the Bay Area. Kawhi Leonard’s journey took him from San Antonio to Toronto to Los Angeles. LeBron’s return to Cleveland was the one outlier, and even then he left again for the City of Angels. On and on the cycle goes, as speculation around the next superstar to change markets has grown to the point where it threatens to eclipse the game being played on court itself.
In the wake of last offseason’s big player moves (Leonard and Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers, Anthony Davis to the Lakers, and Durant and Kyrie Irving to Brooklyn), the eyes of the league have already begun looking to the 2021 offseason and its crown jewel, Giannis Antetokounmpo. The player dubbed “The Greek Freak” has established himself as the very best in the sport right now, winning the Most Valuable Player award last year and putting up even better numbers this season. His Milwaukee Bucks won sixty games (the league’s best record) last year and are on pace to win seventy games this year, despite losing one of their best players besides Giannis, Malcolm Brogdon, in free agency.
And yet, despite all of this, there remains a skepticism that his Bucks as currently constructed can win the NBA title. This is due to the conventional wisdom that no team, even one as successful in the regular season as Milwaukee has been these past two seasons, can go all the way in the playoffs. For the past decade or more, the title has almost exclusively belonged to “super teams,” or teams with at least two superstar players, a la LeBron’s Miami Heat (with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh) and Cavaliers (with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love), or the Golden State Warriors with Steph Curry, Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
Giannis, on the other hand, has no second superstar bolstering his chances at lifting the NBA championship trophy in June. This became widely recognized as Milwaukee’s Achilles Heel in the Eastern Conference Finals last season, as Giannis was held in check by Kawhi Leonard- then with Toronto- and his supporting cast members- Malcolm Brogdon, Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and others- were unable to pick up the slack. If Giannis’ Bucks are to defeat Leonard’s Clippers or LeBron James’ Lakers, then it will have to be largely on the basis of improvements that Giannis himself has made in his already dominant game this season- crucially, an improved ability to shoot the ball from outside.
Amidst a decade of superteams winning title after title, the example of a team built around one star and successfully winning the title has been overlooked as a potential template for a 2020 Bucks championship. The 2011 Dallas Mavericks, built around star Dirk Nowitzki and a deep cast of capable supporting players like Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion and veteran star turned role player Jason Kidd, vanquished all before them in that year’s playoffs- first Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol’s Lakers, then Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden’s Thunder, and finally LeBron, Wade and Bosh’s Miami Heat in the finals. Doing so secured Nowitzki’s legacy as one of the greatest players of all time, sealing what was already a slam dunk case for the NBA’s Hall of Fame.
Not only would winning the NBA title clinch Giannis’ own legacy as an all time NBA great, it would provide him the greatest possible incentive to stay in Milwaukee long term for his career. The talk around the league is that Giannis is happy in Milwaukee, and is reported to be very close with his coach Mike Budenholzer and General Manager Jon Horst. However, like all NBA stars, Giannis is surely driven by the will to win above all, and if Milwaukee cannot deliver a championship to him despite all of their regular season accomplishments, he may well feel obligated to look for a team that can.
In 1971, the Milwaukee Bucks took home their won and only NBA title, led by a transcendent superstar named Lew Alcindor, later immortalized under the name Kareem Adbul-Jabbar. Despite having led his team to the promised land, Jabbar did eventually leave for the bright lights, heading to the Los Angeles where he revolutionized the league as part of the Showtime Lakers with Magic Johnson. Nearly five decades later, the Bucks have finally found a superstar who could do for them what Jabbar did once before, as the numbers Giannis has put up the last two seasons are nothing short of historic, and at only twenty-five years old he could be just getting started.
The story of Abdul-Jabbar’s career with Milwaukee and then Los Angeles shows that NBA stars gravitating towards the largest markets is far from new, and far predates LeBron’s decision in 2010. But every once in a while, there is a star who commits to even a smaller market for his entire career- Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs being the greatest recent example. But even Duncan at one point considered signing elsewhere, and stayed in San Antonio because coach Gregg Popovich and their front office had given him a championship infrastructure. This season will be the test of whether the Milwaukee Bucks can prove themselves worthy of that same commitment from Giannis.