The Buck Doesn’t Stop Here

“Inside… Monroe… lot of traffic… on top Terry for the lead…

During the subsequent Raptor timeout, a waitress at Buffalo Wild Wings walked over to a table near the wall. I couldn’t hear what she said, but I did hear the response. “You guys make commercials about stuff like this.” It was a statement so naïve to its own profundity that it made me laugh a little. It communicated a working knowledge of the kind of blue collar, almost banal surrealism those commercials usually deal in. Pressed buttons that can dictate the course of a game miles away. Players transported through the TV from the field to a chair in front of the bar. Surrealism seeks to conflate dream and reality in a way that creates a reality that’s heightened. One that is transcendent. I think of melting clocks and their five o’clock shadow, totally unconcerned with the way time usually works, bereft of their youth, but trying their damndest to return to it. Kevin Harlan knew better than to insert of any of his own words after that three went through the net. I’m not sure what would have even felt sufficient. Because what I had just seen wasn’t part of any reality I was familiar with and I surely didn’t know what to say then and I don’t know if I even do now. It’s why I screamed, in a way that felt primal and cathartic. In a way that felt as close to approximating the inarticulable significance of the moment as possible. It was the kind of feeling they could never make commercials about because its lifespan is short and even reflecting on it now feels like I can only barely render it.

During the timeout, I texted my mom two words. “It’s happening.” It felt like several things were happening. Certainly, a historic comeback in Game 6 of a playoff series had just happened. But I think I was really talking about something else. Something that felt more in line with how monumental catharsis is supposed to be. I had said “this is the moment” so often throughout the series that it had probably already been canonized as cliché. Before Game 4. At halftime of Game 4. Before Game 5. At halftime of Game 5. I said it so much it seemed like I was trying to will it into existence. It represented something esoteric. Something that not everyone could understand. Like everyone can in some sense understand the phenomenology of a child growing up. What’s involved. How long the journey is. How cool it is when it finally happens. But unless it’s your child or your family, it can’t possibly resonate as much. Some of the nuances will assuredly be lost. It becomes something generalizable rather than something so specific that it consumes. So maybe it felt like a moment of transition for the franchise. To shed all the twenty first century mediocrity for something that indicated a push towards greatness. Until it wasn’t happening anymore. When Tony Snell threw away the inbounds pass with three seconds left, I sank to the ground. He put his hands on his head and eventually down over his face. I did the same.

We sat on a couch a few weeks before the 2013 NBA Draft. Phones in hand, we watched. What exactly, we weren’t quite sure yet. Fifteen seconds into the video was our first indication. “My name is uh… Giannis Antetokounmpo”. Honestly, watching the video now almost makes me blush. After he says his name, he then asserts that his aspiration is to be an NBA player. He says it with a thoughtfulness he still has and an innocence that makes me smile. He says it but doesn’t look directly into the camera when he does. Instead, he looks just off to the left, as if some part of him already knows that he should be looking towards a different world. He speaks with a kind of teenage uncertainty and vulnerability that is immediately juxtaposed next to an unmistakable, albeit somewhat muted confidence. Maybe it’s even closer to self-assuredness. There was an undeniable charm. Yet, it still didn’t seem like any part of him could have possibly anticipated what he would become. At the time, he was only 6’9” and still under 200 pounds. His stats were relatively unremarkable. Tools. Potential. Upside. Versatility. These were his listed strengths. They were words to gravitate towards. Words that often serve as early precursors to superstardom. But, admittedly at that point that is all they were. Words. Somewhat grainy footage of second division Greek basketball then started playing. It felt initially incomprehensible. It felt like we were in on some secret. Like it didn’t feel right that there was someone across the world, doing things I had never seen done on a basketball court before, being shown to me through what looked like a meticulously edited compilation of home video clips. Already he seemed impossible to conceptualize. His defining quality was his unknowability, his avoidance of intellectual reduction. There was no player comparison. There was no ability to project. And there certainly was no way to estimate the likelihood of success. He anticipated the Fraschillian “two years away from being two years away” moniker before it was an archetype. Yet, ultimately what he embodied was possibility. He represented a way forward. A symbol that might have the ability to one day literalize itself. And so, weeks later, we selected him fifteenth overall.

December 10, 2013. The first time I saw him in action. A cold December night against the Bulls at the UC. Giannis played 10 minutes that night and had one point. He turned it over twice and both were caused by stepping out of bounds on the catch. He was 19 and a rookie. He had still done very little to help me conceptualize what he was. Nights like that still endure in my mind, in a baby’s first steps kind of way. Nights like that are what makes it so impossible to consider his ascendancy. That was less than four years ago. He was a rookie that played less than 20 minutes on a team that won 15 games. But there was something even more crucial to be discerned from nights like that. A kernel of truth so often forced to acquiesce to his physical impossibility. There was an underlying sense of joy that permeated everything he did on the court. The way he carried himself. Even talking about joy feels too pithy, like I’m already not getting deep enough to capture his essence. But joy is so essential to personal and team success. And it’s not something that every team plays with. In a piece about the Clippers this week, Kevin Arnovitz affirmed, in an excerpt of a conversation with J.J. Redick that

“There’s a long-standing belief in the NBA, one that’s been popularized again with the emergence of the Warriors and the endurance of the Spurs: An NBA team must play with joy to win big. “I’ve always felt the best teams play with joy,” Redick sa[id]. “For some teams, joy is evident just by watching their faces. But it doesn’t always have to be outward, expressive joy in the form of laughing or smiling.”

And I think this begins to get at it. A joy that’s inward and below the surface. There is a level of carefreeness to his game. A distinct and unconditional love. A perpetual feeling, that if I can approximate vicariously, resembles an omnipresent awareness of how lucky he is to be doing what he’s doing. How much he’s embraced being the face of a franchise as a teenager with a humility and enthusiasm that belies his years and in fact, many of his predecessors in his profession. I don’t know, something about this team this year felt different, and difficult to put words to. There was a cohesiveness. A sense of shared vision. Maybe some of it was due to Jet. Maybe some of it was due to Beasus. There was a sense of veteran Dudley/Zaza-esque leadership residing in those guys that was now finally in accordance with the arrival of transcendent talent. But yet, Giannis was the catalyst for it all. On the court obviously. But also emotionally, in a way that was harder to elucidate but maybe more encompassing.

Undoubtedly, Thursday night was THE Giannis game. It was the defining moment of his career thus far. He played all but one minute in an elimination game. He was the driving force of the comeback. 34 points. 9 rebounds. It was a performance that served as the culmination of a season that had already signaled his full-fledged arrival. There are moments that are assuredly indelible. His step back buzzer beater at MSG. His dunk over Steph in the All-Star Game. But this was the night that he announced to the BC and to the world that he was a superstar. Giannis has always been a paragon of individuality, a player so unlike anyone that has come before him and quite possibly after him, that he exists in a sphere all his own. And because he is a player without comparison, it sometimes feels a little disingenuous to submit him to hierarchy. The skepticism latent beneath Bucks fandom often impels me to underestimate how good he is. There’s always an underlying this-is-why-we-can’t-have-nice-things emanating from somewhere deep inside. But now it feels like doubt finally has a worthy adversary. His pre- draft video presented a physiologically impossible teenager whose dream was to one day be a player in the NBA. Well, Giannis, I think I can safely say that you have achieved that. You are the second-best player in the Eastern Conference. A top five player in the league. A bona fide MVP candidate in any year, including this. A player with as much defensive potential as any that has ever entered the league. And the closest analogue the league has to LeBron. All of that feels weird to type. It feels like I just led myself down a path of hyperbole. But it’s all true. And it’s why Thursday night felt so important, even in a loss.

In the waning moments of Game 4 last weekend, we searched for consolation. For most of the game, the upper deck was home to very little of that, and a lot of inebriated confusion. The rally towels provided on the way in had since been set under chairs. But suddenly something happened. BUCKS IN SIX reverberated around the arena. Initially, and even upon reflection, some part of it felt genuinely inspirational. Like it maybe, at least ephemerally, had the power to eliminate any thoughts of here we go again and replace them with optimism. But eventually, it felt almost irritating. It continued to be shouted, louder and louder. Yet, it felt like the kind of thing you said at a high volume to convince yourself of its sincerity or its truthfulness. Its triteness precipitating its likelihood. I descended the steps to the fourth-floor concourse and couldn’t help but feel like I was being transported backwards. Fundamentally, the Bucks in Six chant felt anachronistic. Its origin was in an era in which the eighth seed was celebrated as success. An era steeped in mediocrity and one which the aforementioned chant was invoked as the mantra for a team that was little more than a cute underdog upstart. And thus because it was now invoked again, that’s how it felt like this team was going to be characterized. As a plucky, cute upstart. The thing about that though is that it just can’t be true anymore. This year was the last year for that kind of thinking. This team was the best Bucks team since the incarnation that was one win away from reaching the 2001 Finals. This series was right there for the taking. And yet, the liminality of this franchise is as compelling as it is scary as shit. Own the Future needs to become less of a hashtag and more of a direct course of action. Sure, Giannis is still only 22. But he is one of the best players in this league and at some point, the team around him and the extent of their achievement need to reflect that. This offseason is crucial. Questions abound. How much of this supporting cast is already maxed out? Surely this version of Tony Snell is invaluable in any team context and maybe more so in ours. A paradigm fulfilling 3 and D wing often tasked with guarding the other team’s best player while also being content to be the lowest usage player on the floor. But can we guarantee that this version of him will exist for years to come? I think so, but I better be 4 years, 48 million sure of it. In many ways, it seems like the league has passed Greg Monroe by, leaving behind a left handed emblematization of an era wholly unfamiliar with philosophical platitudes like pace and space and small ball. But the Greg Monroe we saw this year was exactly the player we were hoping to get. He anchored second units offensively with the kind of footwork and skill within fifteen feet that frankly not many other big men possess. But more importantly, his effort on defense was consistent and helped make up for some of his athletic deficiencies. He’s always had incredible hands. It’s what has allowed him to succeed defensively in the low post as somewhat of a lackluster rim protector. It’s what allows him to become a headache in pick and roll coverage when he blitzes and traps. But was the best case version of him this year? And while he can dictate whether or not he wants to come back next year, this particular incarnation of the Moose begs questions that are much more long term. His leadership and his willingness to be the resident enforcer are encouraging, even more so in the wake of his relegation to the bench. It’s hard to think his offense will go anywhere. But the sustainability of his defense revels in much greater uncertainty. And uncertainty is not the friend of a restructured or post 2017-18 4 years, 60 million decision.

Fortunately there are parts of the roster that do not pose as much of an existential threat. Khris Middleton is a top 30 player in the league. Period. His offensive versatility is almost paradoxically stunning because it’s so understated. He’s a forty percent three point shooter with a Joe Johnsonian propensity to take and make difficult shots in the mid range and in post ups. He’s a capable secondary ballhandler with the ability to create his own offense and is also deft at leveraging his athleticism with a knowledge of how to utilize angles, especially out of the PnR. Oh, and he’s in the conversation for the best defender on the team not named Giannis.

If Playoff Thon Maker is the Thon Maker we get to begin the year next year, then I feel like it is my public obligation to alert the rest of the league to watch out. Admittedly, I didn’t even expect him to play much this year. But he ultimately started almost the entire second half of the season and didn’t look at all out of place. He is (hopefully) our long term answer at center, a center that might shoot forty percent from three and be able to capably switch all five positions. The 23 point, 4 three, clutch catch and finish in transition, make Andre Drummond’s life miserable performance against the Pistons at the end of March will be etched into memory for a long time. Images from that game can constitute an early page in the scrapbook of his career. But maybe the most holy-shit-this-guy’s-gonna-be-fucking-awesome moment was a switch onto Kyle Lowry in Game 1 a couple weeks ago. A 1-5 PnR usually does not spell success for the defense if they try to switch. But Thon was forced to corral Kyle in an iso situation and almost ran him out of bounds. He’s 20 and he’s going to be really freaking good.

It made me happy that my probably unnoticed clamoring for Malcolm Brogdon before the draft last year was not completely lost in the wind. In many ways, he saved the team this year, which is somewhat scary, but probably more encouraging. He became the team’s starting point guard, and continually displayed the kind of situational maturity and fearlessness not usually endemic to NBA rookies. Obviously the Celtics game will always stand out. It was revelatory in ways both inspirational and concerning. That he was handed the keys down the stretch in that game. That Giannis and Khris willingly moved out of the way and allowed a rookie to shoulder the burden. And yet his steadiness and his negotiation of the sometimes difficult dichotomy between creating for himself and creating for others earned a late second victory over the highest seeded team in the conference. Whether or not he is the long term answer at point guard remains to be seen. But his importance to this team’s future does not.

But ultimately, Own the Future wasn’t supposed to be about any of these aforementioned guys. The background on my phone, the same since the summer of 2014, has but two players. One, already heavily talked about, with the number 34 on the front of his jersey. The other, with the number 12. The final destination of this franchise is not necessarily hard to conceptualize. There are certainly images that help the grander one materialize. The Larry O’Brien trophy. A championship banner. Giannis, showered in confetti, holding what recognizes him as Finals MVP. The journey towards that has started but the direction and the stops along the way are still mired in a philosophical haze of roster construction. And thus the biggest question that faces this franchise, is what exactly to do with Jabari Parker. After his rehabilitation from his second knee injury, there’s a chance he might be able to play the last month or so of next season. That’s one month of basketball, post second significant injury, before his rookie contract expires. There’s a pronounced uneasiness that accompanies the thought of having to pay him upwards of 20 million dollars a year. Maybe more. Maybe he seeks the max. And that decision will be heavily dictated by projection. By looking at the 20 point scorer from the first 50 games of the season and believing that he is the missing piece. That he is on the path towards anointment as an elite offensive player in this league. But there will almost assuredly be a voice avowing just as loudly that he will never be more than just an okay defender. That while he has already developed a Robersonian penchant for cutting off of Giannis’s penetration – unprecedentedly explosive at that – much of his offensive ability necessarily hinges on having the ball in his hands, creating for himself. He’s a capable passer but not a great one. He did shoot 37% from beyond the arc before his injury. That would seem like the key to his increasingly off-ball, second option future. I can’t help but think of Zach Lowe’s article from just before the season, in which he invoked Jabari’s figuration as a lump of clay.

“It still feels like we know nothing about this guy — what position he should play on offense, what position he defends, and what in the hell an allegedly Melo-style scorer is supposed to do while Point Giannis has the ball.”

So maybe he’s best utilized as the roll man on a PnR. Giannis had incredible success in that role this year. Maybe he can be put in Khris like situations in the mid-post that seek to actively exploit mismatches. Maybe his three pointer consistently hovers around 40% so that not only is his shot an undeniable weapon, but also his athleticism in attacking closeouts. Lowe goes on to say that

“Parker holds the promise of a multi-positional shape-shifter who could become really good at almost every offensive skill. That is a unicorn. Right now, he’s good at only one — and clueless at basically every part of defense.”

This was before the season. But it holds no less veracity now. Ever since his second year in the league, I felt like he would be best utilized as a second unit bludgeoner, someone how could effortless get 20 a night off the bench, while also being allowed the creative freedom to handle all of the non-Giannis, non-Khris playmaking. And while it would certainly be extremely difficult to construct a second unit defense around Jabari and Greg, the offensive virtuosity of both would be almost impossible to handle. But is that worth somewhere around 20 million? Probably not. If we could lock him at a Steph, my-ankle-is-like-glass type discount closer to 12-15 million then maybe. But frankly, his fit isn’t obvious and his developmental timeline is now behind the rest of the team. Blank slates are compelling, but not so much on a team that needs to take a step further on their journey to contention next season. There just isn’t as much time anymore to experiment, to figure it all out.

The future is now. It’s cliched, but it’s true. The buck surely doesn’t stop here.