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Thursday, December 17, 2020

Giannis Antetokounmpo Displays Loyalty and Leadership

Giannis Antetokounmpo is not LeBron James or Kevin Durant--at least, not yet. James and Durant have each won multiple NBA titles and multiple NBA Finals MVPs; their basketball resumes are complete, though they may still add even more accomplishments before their playing days are over. Antetokounmpo has already joined James and Durant in the regular season MVP club, but Antetokounmpo has yet to advance to the NBA Finals, let alone win a championship.

Antetokounmpo also differs from James and Durant in terms of how he approaches the championship quest. After spending seven seasons in Cleveland, James fled to create a super team in Miami. James' Cavaliers had reached the 2007 NBA Finals, had posted the best regular season record in the NBA in 2009 and 2010, and might have returned to the Finals again had James not quit during the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals versus the Boston Celtics. James won two championships in Miami, and then he fled Miami--fearing that his super team might be fraying at the edges--to build a new super team in Cleveland. James won one championship in Cleveland, and then he fled Cleveland to play for the L.A. Lakers. As usual, James sought to build a super team, or at least a super duo, and his blatant recruitment of then-Pelicans forward Anthony Davis put two franchises in a holding pattern for a year before resulting in James capturing his fourth NBA title.

Similarly, Durant fled Oklahoma City after spending nine seasons with that franchise, joining a Golden State team that had already won the 2015 title and had just lost in the 2016 NBA Finals after overcoming a 3-1 Western Conference Finals deficit versus Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder. Instead of trying to beat the champions, Durant joined the champions to form a super team. Durant won two titles with Golden State before fleeing to Brooklyn, where he has formed a super duo with Kyrie Irving.

In contrast, after winning back to back MVPs in 2019 and 2020 while also leading the Milwaukee Bucks to the NBA's best record in both of those seasons, Antetokounmpo did not seek greener pastures despite the Bucks failing to win the title during either of those campaigns. Antetokounmpo spent the first seven years of his career in Milwaukee, and he just signed a five year, $228 million supermax contract extension with the Bucks. Antetopkounmpo is not running from the challenge of building a championship program. In that sense, he is following in the footsteps of old school champions such as Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas, who each helped build one franchise from the ground up. To be fair, free agency did not exist at that time in the format that it does now, but on the other hand superstars can almost always force their way out if they really want to go somewhere else.

Antetokounmpo's choice to take a brave and honorable path does not guarantee that he will win a title, but his loyalty and leadership are laudable, and stand in marked contrast to the examples set by James and Durant--and the example currently being set by James Harden, who is trying to force his way out of Houston with three years/over $130 million left on his contract. Player empowerment is laudable to an extent--and the power balance was previously out of whack in favor of the owners--but there is a big difference between having the ability to become a free agent versus reneging on a signed agreement that still has several years remaining; the latter is what Harden is attempting to do, and he is wrong for doing so. Harden's contract stipulates that the team has to pay him no matter how poorly he performs year after year in the playoffs, but in return he also has a duty of loyalty to play hard and fulfill his end of the bargain for the duration of his contract with the Rockets; acting and speaking in a way designed to force the team to trade him is, in essence if not in law, breaching his duty to the team. 

Harden puts up gaudy individual regular season numbers, but Houston's playoff record during his tenure with the team is not exceptional. Further, while a recent ESPN article made specific allegations about how Harden has bent the Rockets' franchise to his will in a manner that is not conducive to team success, inside information is not required to figure out the problem, as I wrote in my analysis of the Russell Westbrook-John Wall trade: "Harden does not want to be challenged, does not accept constructive criticism, and refuses to alter his 'dribble, dribble, dribble' playing style even though this style has repeatedly flamed out during the playoffs. Harden and Westbrook did not have as many public blowups as Harden did with Howard and Paul, but it is known that Westbrook challenged Harden to play harder and to play less carelessly, and it is also known that Harden did not appreciate those critiques. It is likely impossible to get the return for Harden that the Rockets would want--they value him much more highly than any other team in the league does--so when Harden clashes with another All-Star the other All-Star has to go."

Houston rewarded Harden with a huge contract, and the franchise has catered to Harden's every whim, which has likely not been in the long term best interest of the team or the player (assuming that the goal is winning a championship). It is not a good look for Harden to try to force his way out of town, but it is hilarious that Harden is reportedly seeking to be either reunited for his former teammate Durant or to be paired in Philadelphia with Joel Embiid; in other words, Harden has figured out that what I wrote about him when he left Oklahoma City is true: he is not well suited to being the best player on a championship team, and he is best suited to being the second (or even third) option.   

Harden deserves to finish out his career muddling through the mess that his sense of entitlement--and Houston's acquiescence to his sense of entitlement--has created, but if Harden gets his wish and is traded the only thing better than watching Harden have to submit to being Durant's second option would be reuniting Harden with Daryl Morey. The Philadelphia 76ers have not tanked to the top, but it would be delightful to watch Morey try to win a title with Joel Embiid and James Harden as the team's top two options. Embiid and Harden are both talented players, but neither one has the necessary mentality to be the best player on a championship team, nor is either player likely to willingly accept second option status. The soundbites from Morey, Embiid, and Harden prior to, during, and after that squad being eliminated from the playoffs without reaching the Eastern Conference Finals would be priceless comedy gold, as the "stat guru" Morey assures us that Harden is better than Michael Jordan, the brittle and mercurial Embiid is a prize worth tanking for years to get, and this is the best duo in 76ers--if not pro basketball--history. Embiid's empty trash talking and Harden's grumpiness after his annual playoff chokes would add further hilarity to the mix.

Antetokounmpo may retire without winning a championship ring, but his approach to his life and to his career is a breath of fresh air in a world overrun with people who seek immediate self-gratification without any consideration of the long term effects on others.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:52 PM



At Saturday, December 19, 2020 1:07:00 PM, Blogger Kaos said...

One aspect of Harden's demand I've not seen anyone mention. Harden knows that this year is going to expose him. His scoring numbers figure to come down because he will no longer play for D'Antoni and he will not be given free reign to do what he wants without Morey.

No surprise that his first two trade destinations were the Nets and the 76ers - what is the world going to think if he averages 25 this year after averaging 36 for the last few years and being declared in all quarters as the best offensive talent seen?

I don't believe he is ring-chasing yet but he think he is going to lose out on huge money in a few years if his numbers fall back to "just all-star" levels.

You've rightly pointed out that Houston values him far more that anyone else, you don't see even small market teams scrambling to land him.

At Sunday, December 20, 2020 8:15:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


That is a good point. I alluded to it briefly in my Western Conference preview, when I mentioned that with Morey/D'Antoni around the Rockets catered to Harden but now Harden's touches and shot attempts will likely be reduced. I agree that this season will likely expose Harden because in any kind of "normal" NBA offense he will not average 30-plus ppg. I suspect that if his scoring average drops to the 25 ppg range excuses will be made on his behalf, however. The portion of the media that promotes Harden and promotes what they consider to be the "stat gurus" is not going to just roll over and admit that they have been wrong about Harden for years.

If Morey believes what he has always said about Harden being a better offensive player than Michael Jordan it would be difficult to understand him not trading Ben Simmons for Harden. Can you imagine someone refusing to give up Simmons to get Jordan in Jordan's prime? Either Morey does not believe his own hype, or Houston's asking price for Harden is ridiculous. I suspect that Morey is using the fact that Harden has put Houston in an awkward position as leverage, and that eventually either the Rockets or Morey will back down and that deal will be made. No one other than Morey is likely to value Harden highly enough to give the Rockets anything approaching what they appear to want to receive in exchange for Harden.


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