The Milwaukee Bucks are NBA champions for the first time since the young phenom Lew Alcindor led them to the top in 1971. This time around they have a similarly unique leader in Giannis Antetokounmpo, the rare universally liked superstar. Even the most diehard Suns fan had to smile a little watching him drop two F-bombs on national television after putting up a 50-piece and winning Finals MVP. The Greek Freak’s journey to the highest heights of the NBA is straight out of a Hollywood script, and the studio executives would’ve asked for the story to be toned down a bit.
You can probably feel the “but” coming…
Sports media has a tendency to pour on the hyperbole and hot takes after any championship in any league. Back in 2013 Joe Flacco was the best quarterback in the league for seven months after an uncharacteristically incredible hot streak brought a 2nd Super Bowl to Baltimore. I’m not here to be that guy stepping on a great story, but this can still be a great story without us forgetting all the other less positive stories that had to happen for the Bucks & Suns to be in the Finals.
So here are 5 reactionary takes that I want to have receipts for when you people try to walk this shit back in November.
“The Bucks Are the Best Team in the NBA“
The NFL’s single game elimination, and the general unpredictability of football means the best team often doesn’t win the Super Bowl. A hot goalie or pitching staff often throws off the supposed meritocracy of the NHL & MLB playoffs. But in the NBA the best team does tend to come away with the Larry O’Brien trophy most of the time.
This just isn’t one of those years. And that’s ok. The collective cognitive dissonance that all of the injuries in this year’s playoffs have caused is understandable, but we don’t have to force the usual logic onto a bizarre year of basketball. A few weeks ago people were complaining about the “Mickey Mouse Eastern Conference Finals” after the Nets were a toe away from eliminating the Bucks without Kyrie Irving & most of James Harden. Brooklyn proved that they don’t even need all 3 of their stars to win the East. You could make the argument that Philly might have even come out of the East with a 100% healthy Joel Embiid. I wouldn’t go that far, but they absolutely would’ve beat the Hawks, and maybe the added wear on Giannis from guarding Embiid for 6 or 7 games means he doesn’t perform the same in the Finals.
On top of that the Lakers, Clippers, Nuggets and even the Warriors were all dealing with injuries to top tier players out West. Now injuries are part of sports, so I’m not one of those asterisk people- if we comb through NBA history almost every championship run can have be asterisked. The Bucks legitimately won the championship. The Bucks should not be favored to do it again next year, or even come out of the East. Both things can be true.
“Mike Budenholzer Didn’t Deserve All the Criticism“
Fans & media tend to think they know a lot more about basketball and all that goes into the x’s and o’s than they actually do. When I make what seems like an obvious observation watching a game, I tend to assume the people who bounce the balls for a living know more than I do.
But there’s levels to this shit, and sometimes these things are as simple as they seem. Coach Budenholzer made adjustments throughout these playoffs (personal growth), but they still often came later than they should’ve like the nonsensical offensive game plan the Bucks employed against the undersized Nets. Or not having Jrue Holiday shadow Chris Paul in the 1st two games of the Finals. Even if he had been perfect, that doesn’t mean missteps didn’t happen in years past. Coaches can improve just like players, and we don’t have to retroactively give them their flowers for past incompetence when they do.
You can’t fire the coach after winning a ring. But next years playoffs offense will probably still bog down more often than it should. Obvious matchups won’t be exploited. Rotations will still make you scratch your head sometimes. You have to wonder how many years a championship has bought Coach Bud. Hopefully he’s given Rick Carlisle a call for tips.
“Milwaukee has Created a Blueprint for Small Market Teams“
This is another “fans & media think they’re smarter than they are” thing. Or more accurately “front offices aren’t as dumb as fans & media think they are”. Trust me: find, develop and retain a generational superstar is at the top of every franchise’s list of ways to win.
The truth is, the best way to win an NBA championship is and has always been to get as many stars on your team as possible however you can. This isn’t new to the player empowerment era- the Showtime Lakers, Heatles and Warriors are the rule, and teams like these Bucks, the 2011 Mavs, and 90’s Rockets are the exceptions and always have been. The Bucks worked hard & smart enough to be good enough to win if a lot broke the right way- and a lot did break the right way. They haven’t tapped into some kind of secret strategy that New Orleans should mimic to keep Zion Williamson happy.
We don’t like to acknowledge just how much luck plays into success in any part of life, and sports is no different. We like to think there’s a massive gap between an All-NBA caliber player and someone who comes off the bench, but in reality these margins are pretty tight. The tiniest differences just look a lot bigger at the end of the bell curve. The draft is a crapshoot, seducing free agents is a pipe dream for about 18 teams in the league, freak injuries can happen literally at any moment. Teams don’t have nearly as much control over their own destiny as we make it seem.
“Giannis Antetokounmpo Went from Bust to Finals MVP“
I first heard this from the usually brilliant Jackie MacMullan on Bill Simmons’ podcast and was shocked that she didn’t get any pushback on it. And she’s not the only one who’s been getting away with this revisionist history.
The 2013 draft was the first draft I watched. It’s the closest I’ve followed a draft, from the start of the college season to the ping-pong balls to the night itself. It’s a famously weird night, highlighted by the Anthony Bennett 1st overall pick, and there wasn’t nearly as strong of a consensus on who the top prospect was as in most years. Nerlens Noel was probably the most popular prediction, and Victor Oladipo seemed to be going 2 or 3, but with Noel’s injury concerns and questions about Oladipo’s jumper & size, nothing seemed sure. Alex Len, Michael Carter Williams, Ben McLemore, & even Shabazz Muhammad were all floated to go in the top 5.
Now it’s definitely accurate to say Giannis was not considered in that group at all, but he was on people’s radar and had already acquired his Greek Freak nickname. I remember hearing “he’s 2 years away from being 2 years away” for the first time when he got picked 15th. No one expected him to be as good as he’s become, but the slim chance of him being the next Kevin Durant (or at least Nic Batum) was already being talked about before he ever put on an NBA jersey. It just definitely wasn’t going to happen in his first couple of years. So when he wasn’t hitting pull-up threes over LeBron James, and occasionally looked like a gumpy giraffe in his rookie year, no one was calling him a bust. It was a weak draft, but the man still made the All-Rookie 2nd team. It was clear he had a place in the league.
“The Midrange is Back!“
Ok, this one is definitely a meme more than an actual serious take people are throwing around, but I want to talk about it to address another point: the midrange has never left the game of basketball.
Watching the NBA finals and seeing not only all-time midrange savant Chris Paul, but Devin Booker & Khris Middleton all have huge games shooting long 2’s could understandably trick a casual into making some kind of dramatic declaration like this. But if you actually watch NBA basketball that’s always been true.
The midrange is only dead for role players. All-Star caliber players have never stopped shooting the midrange, and never will. The basic counting that has been included in the blanket term “analytics” is absolutely still true- these are the lowest value shots in the game. But any shot from Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard- who all do plenty of damage in the midrange- is a high value shot. They’re talented enough to make low efficiency opportunities high efficiency opportunities, and that’s why they get max contracts…and houses for their girlfriends.