News analysis

Greek Freak shows he calls the shots, and walks the talk too

NEW YORK • A few hours before the National Basketball Association'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, he 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.

The 25-year-old 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, he ploughs 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 last 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 swop worth upsetting the in-house balance that has contributed to a 45-7 start.

"I'm happy that we have the same team," Antetokounmpo said.

His conviction, in both himself and the Bucks, makes him an endearing protagonist in an NBA title chase filled with uncertainty.

The Bucks are on a 71-win pace, with the forward piling up ridiculous numbers that should not be humanly possible in just 30.9 minutes a game. He is averaging 30 points, 13.5 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game. Yet you never hear him complain about the lack of respect for his team despite their wide lead at the top of the standings in the race for home-court advantage throughout the play-offs.

The only 70-win teams in NBA history 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.

Antetokounmpo has not wasted any energy protesting against 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 is especially true after the Bucks, as last season's only 60-win team, lost four consecutive games in the Eastern Conference finals to the Toronto Raptors after taking a 2-0 series lead.

But a boost for the Bucks, besides the looming acquisition of post-deadline signing Marvin 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 the Miami Heat realistically closed the gap. The Boston Celtics were also quiet.

 REUTERS
Milwaukee Bucks' 2.11m forward Giannis Antetokounmpo dunking against the New Orleans Pelicans in last week's 120-108 road win. He scored 34 points and had 17 rebounds and six assists, above his season average. PHOTO: REUTERS

He is averaging 30 points, 13.5 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game. Yet you never hear him complain about the lack of respect for his team despite their wide lead at the top of the standings in the race for home-court advantage throughout the play-offs.

Galling as it must have been to see Detroit surrender former All-Star centre Andre Drummond to Cleveland for such a minuscule return, given how badly the Celtics could use some size, Boston simply could not have come close to matching Drummond's US$27.1 million (S$37.7 million) salary in a trade without breaking up their core.

Philadelphia are similarly unwilling to entertain breaking up the still-shaky Embiid-Ben Simmons partnership by trading away the latter - 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, were not completely satisfied.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, president Pat Riley betrayed some disappointment that he fell short in his efforts to expand the trade into a three-teamer that would also have netted Oklahoma City forward Danilo Gallinari.

He also dreams of bringing Antetokounmpo to Miami as a free agent in the summer of next year. But consider yourself warned: Do not discount the prospect of Milwaukee winning their first championship since 1971 in June and persuading the "Greek Freak" 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 players on the planet.

"I think we have the best team in the NBA," Antetokounmpo said last week.

Believe this if you do not believe that: He is not listening if you disagree.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 11, 2020, with the headline 'Greek Freak shows he calls the shots, and walks the talk too'. Print Edition | Subscribe