Giannis Antetokounmpo’s play against the Toronto Raptors during the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals felt like absurdist art. Whenever he tried to drive to the rim, he was often surrounded by three or more defenders. Yet he couldn’t shoot, and because no other Bucks player could consistently create chances or demand attention like he can, he had to keep plunging himself into a desperate and futile situation. His failures became the lasting image of a series the Bucks eventually lost in six.
But to characterize the Bucks’ failings as Antetokounmpo’s burden would be unfair.
That image of Antetokounmpo surrounded by a horde of Raptors defenders fits into a series of pictures I call, “the gravity of greatness.” These are pictures that show the respect and fear great players generate in opponents, when a lone individual can command the entire focus of a defense.
The gravity of greatness pic.twitter.com/H3xGHmXtj9— Zito (@_Zeets) May 4, 2019
These images show just how conditional greatness for athletes really is. Implicit in the images is the importance of teammates, and how certain conditions are necessary for someone like Antetokounmpo to be at his best. While converging on Antetokounmpo was a sign of respect from the Raptors, it was also a sign of disrespect for the ability of his teammates.
Over and over, Antetokounmpo got the ball beyond the three-point line and was met by a defender who wanted to prevent him from gaining steam on his drive. He would perform his routine of a hard dribble and Euro step, only to hit a wall of bodies. When Kawhi Leonard became his primary defender after Game 2, that absurd task was made even more difficult, in a way it hadn’t been throughout the year. Yet he kept going at the defense as if he wanted to test his resolve against theirs.
Antetokounmpo is the Bucks’ battering ram. The team capitalizes on the near-impossible task of stopping him at the rim with one or two defenders. When he gets the ball above the three-point line, his teammates spread out to give him as much space as possible, and to take advantage of the attention he demands whenever he decides to kick out the ball.
The Raptors made a bold gamble after losing the first two games when they decided to use the best perimeter defender in the game to keep Antetokounmpo from getting to the rim. It was a dare for the other players on the Bucks to beat them. And if the Bucks had a consistently elite shooter or creator who could have drawn enough attention away from Antetokounmpo, that tactic could have proven fatal.
Instead, the Bucks often went through cold shooting streaks and failed to maintain big leads when Antetokounmpo couldn’t score in traffic. With their defensive plan, the Raptors not only exposed his weaknesses, but also the limitations of the Bucks as a team.
Antetokounmpo was rightfully criticized after the series, with suggestions he needs to expand and refine his game in order to reach the next level of stardom. But while the criticism is fair, it’s also hyper-focused on an individual as the source of the team’s failure.
We tend to think of superstars as players who can transcend the systems they play in, and those who perform well within an identity are denigrated as “system players.” Players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant can supposedly succeed anywhere, while someone like Draymond Green can only thrive in a particular environment. It wasn’t long ago Leonard was also considered a system player, though that notion has been shattered this season. Antetokounmpo is in danger of falling into the same category.
But these categories ignore how greatness comes into being. LeBron is incredible, but inside a team like the Lakers that doesn’t surround him with shooters, he can look like much less than he is. Surround him with a team that confuses defenders about whether to clog the paint or defend the perimeter, and he is unstoppable.
Even making it to the NBA requires a group effort. Antetokounmpo is proof. His story of being a poor immigrant in Greece is well-known at this point. He had no basketball experience when he was discovered. His first coach had a religious revelation when he saw him while searching the streets for African immigrants.
Antetokounmpo’s story is now written in the same heroic mode of many sports stories. He is someone whose talents helped him transcend his environment and bring him to a final stage of victory. But from the way he was discovered, to his NBA coaches prioritizing his development and creating systems in which his strengths could be maximized and his weaknesses hidden, his story is also about those who surround him doing everything possible to make him succeed. He has clear talent, but so do many players who never find themselves in the perfect conditions to let them fulfill their potential.
Had Antetokounmpo even been discovered in another era of basketball, he would have never had this level of success. The style he’s allowed to play is a condition of this time of big men who play like guards and the three-point revolution that has facilitated a set of teammates who are comfortable spreading out as much as possible when he has the ball.
There’s a connection between American and Western society and the myth of individual brilliance is difficult to avoid. It’s an idea that, in a positive light, lets people believe their station in life is not fixed or determined by birth, but by their own capabilities. It’s also the perfect idea for a world that often profits from limiting the potential of individuals through social conditions while suggesting the individual’s failure is inherent.
Sports is the perfect place for these stories of exceptionalism. Every athlete is exceptional by nature of making it to the top level, so their stories are written in the heroic arc of beginning, crisis, climax, and denouement. That arc grossly underplays the conditions behind the individual. When that hero fails, a lot of focus is spent on what the individual has to improve to overcome the obstacles in their way, and not on his conditions.
This isn’t a defense of Antetokounmpo’s failures, or a suggestion he doesn’t need to expand his game. He clearly does. But when I look at his gravity of greatness, I see how an individual’s brilliance is premised by a system and how that person’s failure is also one of those surrounding conditions.
Antetokounmpo driving and attracting the attention of three to four defenders was a desirable effect for the Bucks. It became a frustration when everyone else couldn’t capitalize on the freedom he provided. When his teammates failed, the Raptors felt comfortable limiting him directly. His individual failure to beat the wall led directly to the failure of the team, and their failure to threaten the Raptors enough to force them to deviate from their game plan.
I don’t think it should diminish the brilliance of Antetokounmpo to think his successes and failures are about so much more than him. He is a marvel, if perhaps a limited one right now. Yet, as with anyone else in the world, the conditions around him often determine his level of achievement. He can be unstoppable when the system works, and Sisyphean when it doesn’t.