21–22 NBA Previews: The Milwaukee Bucks (#1)
Basketball is exactly life. It’s not less than life or more than life. It isn’t any more or less stupid than any of the other things we spend our time doing, like going to the RMV or working 40 hours a week. In the discourse around the NBA, there is often a lot of angst about the direction of the game. There are concerns about a lack of stylistic diversity, lots of loud suggestions for possible rule changes, and lots of old heads shaking their fists and yammering about how things used to be better. So, yeah, basketball: it’s like everything else.
What this means to me is that whereas most things are far less important than we think, basketball is, well, actually, far more important than we think, since we don’t think it’s all that important. Maybe? In basketball, I see potential space for a kind of connection between people that is both psychic and physical, full of feeling and meaning beyond language, very much a matter of the heart. I have learned so much of what’s good in me from basketball—from basketball’s myriad feelings. This makes me want to derail simplistic explanations for what’s going on in the game itself. It makes me want to trust the geniuses and to disregard the fools.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the geniuses, in case you didn’t know that. You might have missed it in the easy and endless glorification of his physical gifts, which are considerable. It’s easy to miss, because basketball is a complex system that doesn’t always look like one. You need to remind yourself from time to time: complex system, complex system.
When a player is bad at something—the way, for example, Giannis has been traditionally bad at shooting 3s—our tendency is to suggest that the player should stop doing that thing. The quickest avenue to praise for most players is to accept limitations and acquiesce to a simplified role. There’s a lot of good in this. For a developing young player, being asked, for example, to attack a closeout off the catch on the weak side must feel a lot more manageable than being asked to run a high screen-and-roll and pick out the best of the multiple options that action unlocks. There is some grace in keeping things simple.
And yet, in the willingness to pare down possibilities, obviously, possibilities get lost. Suggesting that Giannis just stop shooting 3s removes an entire lexicon from his potential vocabulary. The immediate gains in efficiency are offset by, well, exactly an infinite amount of potential losses, actually, because that’s how the unknown works. In the haste to act on what is measurable, we fail to ask much better questions.
Let’s stick with Giannis. Let’s assume that—in a vacuum that does not, has not, and can never exist—taking 3-point shots out of his vocabulary would lead to an increase in offensive efficiency. Some purely basketball-related questions we could ask might include:
What is Milwaukee’s defensive efficiency on possessions following a Giannis 3-point shot attempt? Is it possible Giannis’s positioning beyond the 3-point line, especially on shots above the break, might have a positive impact on floor balance when he misses?
What is the offensive rebound rate on missed Giannis jump shots? How does it compare to other situations?
Does Giannis’s willingness to shoot open 3s give him access on subsequent possessions to driving lanes that otherwise wouldn’t exist? Is there a way to know this with any certainty?
Is there a benefit to the offense, more generally, when a defense employs this version of passivity (i.e. not guarding a particular player in a particular area) in the context of its scheme? Does it matter whether that defense is playing man-to-man or zone? Switching screens or staying with matchups?
We could also ask some more emotional questions that might be even more important to consider:
How will Giannis’s self-conception change if he stops imagining the 3-point shot as a possibility? Similarly, how does the possibility of shooting 3s fit into his capacity for improvisation on the court in the rest of his game?
What is the relationship between Giannis’s willingness to shoot and his willingness to attack the rim?
If Giannis stopped shooting 3s, what would this do to his chances for improvement as a free throw shooter?
How do Giannis’s teammates feel about these shots? How do his opponents feel about them? Does the gut-punch of a made Giannis 3-pointer have a trickle-down effect on the defense?
Is it possible that Giannis’s greatest strength is his utter fearlessness? Does his willingness to fail in big ways come with an attendant boldness that is essential to his greatness as a player?
I bring up all these questions because Giannis is a player who has endured an enormous amount of scrutiny while remaining utterly himself. He just won a title last season. He did it a year younger than Jordan did it. A year younger than LeBron. Without question, Giannis changed over the course of the playoffs last season, but he didn’t do it by sloughing off parts of his game that are weaknesses. He recalibrated, eliminating nothing.
I think the Bucks are going to win the title again this season. For what it’s worth, Giannis is shooting 3s even more often now. In general, he’s shooting less often from inside 10 feet and more often outside 16 feet. He’s also demolishing his career high assist rate and blocking more shots than ever. He’s evolving, and evolution has always involved a great deal of failure and an endless amount of possibility. He might be the best player alive, and he’s evolving. That’s what I’ve been trying to say. Each thing you do in relation to every other thing you do is connected in a sacred trust beyond your capacity for understanding it. Shooting is part of the game. Keep shooting.