Giannis and the Bucks have reached 'boring, but good' status

May 2, 2021

Giannis Antetokounmpo won’t win the NBA’s MVP award this year even though his statistics indicate production and impact essentially equal to his past two MVP-winning seasons. That’s because Nikola Jokic has played transcendent basketball, Joel Embiid has also played fantastically when healthy, and Stephen Curry has bounced back to put up tremendous numbers for an otherwise terrible team following a lost season.

But I also suspect another big reason he won’t win the award is that Giannis and the Bucks have become boring to the NBA circles that decide such things, and American sports fans tend to underrate the talent of athletes or teams they deem boring.

People have long described similar dynamics in award voting, perhaps most notably Michael Jordan stans saying that Charles Barkley shouldn’t have won the 1993 MVP or that Karl Malone shouldn’t have won the 1997 MVP*. The general argument is that sportswriters grew weary of giving Jordan the MVP award and instead gave it to those other guys out of an impulse to reward someone else in spite of Jordan’s greatness. The stans aren’t wrong about Jordan’s qualifications — Jordan probably was “more valuable” those seasons — but at the same time it was well within reasonable bounds to conclude Barkley and Malone were deserving, just as this season there’s a reasonable logic to voting for Jokic, Embiid, Curry, or Giannis.

*If you want a somewhat hot take, you could even extend it to the Oscars and situations like the one in 1995, when Tom Hanks was coming off Best Actor wins for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, then wasn’t even nominated for Apollo 13, getting bumped in favor of Anthony Hopkins doing a baffling accent as Richard Nixon in an overwrought Oliver Stone joint and Richard Dreyfuss gamely carrying a perfectly fine movie that’s been mostly cast aside by pop culture history.

It’s worth grappling with the larger notion of boringness as an obstacle to accurately seeing things as they are. Recently, I watched a YouTube video about transportation design that helps illustrate the point. If your eyes just glazed over at the prospect of watching an 18-minute video about road planning, that’s understandable! I’m already inclined to be into this sort of thing (E.G., I know what a diverging diamond interchange is) but the sheer simplicity of the diagnoses and prescriptions in this video should be accessible for anyone, and it struck me hard.

I realized the main problems the video identifies are so fundamental to the road design everywhere I’ve lived that talking about them feels like it should be boring. However, it also addresses its topic in a way that makes the resulting dysfunction of American transportation systems and the upside of resolving it so clear that it feels shameful we’ve built our roadways as we have.

To bring this back to basketball, Giannis and the Milwaukee Bucks broke out as NBA championship contenders in 2018-19 and Giannis was awarded two straight MVP awards while twice leading his team to the best regular season record, yet also, crucially, failing to even reach the NBA Finals, let alone win a championship. Then, this season, Jokic went supernova, the Brooklyn Nets added James Harden to create a superteam, and the Philadelphia 76ers seemingly improved behind a leveled-up Embiid, seemingly leaving the Bucks behind.

However, just because the novelty of Giannis and the Bucks has worn away doesn’t mean they’re garbage. After leading the NBA in NetRtg the past couple years, they’ve tumbled all the way to — fourth in the league, with the top NetRtg in the East. They have the third-best record in the East, but again, they also have the best NetRtg in the conference and have the kind of players in their shortened rotation who can disrupt the Nets’ Big Three on offense or, alternately, stretch the 76ers’ vaunted defense.

Much of it that is possible because they added the ultimate boring-but-good NBA star in Jrue Holiday. After becoming an All Star for the pre-Process Sixers, then further growing alongside Anthony Davis on a Pelicans squad that had its peak season marred by DeMarcus Cousins snapping his Achilles — and even then they swept the Blazers and took a game from the Warriors in the playoffs — Holiday came to the Bucks in exchange for a boatload of draft picks. Even though the Bucks paid a lot, they got a guy who’s a perfect fit to play alongside Giannis and Khris Middleton. He wants to play defense and does so at an elite level while also bringing solid offense. When the playoffs start, Holiday is going to be an extremely valuable weapon to deploy on defense against perimeter threats while also playing his usual roles of off-ball option while Giannis is on the court and primary facilitator when Giannis rests.

As for Giannis, himself, I suppose it’s boring now that he’s scoring 28 points per game (again), with a shade under 6 assists (again), plus 11 rebounds (a dropoff from 13 rebounds per game last year), all with a .598 eFG%, which is better than his rate last year and a near match for the .599 eFG% he put up two years ago. Giannis isn’t putting up world-destroying defensive stats like he did the past two seasons, but it’s easy to imagine that’s because Holiday is taking on much of the burden Giannis used to shoulder.

All that is to say it would be fitting for the Bucks to win the NBA championship this year, the season they ceased to command top-level interest because they were essentially doing the same thing they’d been doing for two straight years. And if they don’t win it all, they will remain “boring” until, like the Lillard-era Blazers before them, the fact of their continued excellence eventually imbues them with a different kind of shine and sparks interest again.

(Photo: "Giannis Antetokoummpo" by Erik Drost. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)