Giannis Antetokounmpo’s performance in the NBA Finals to beat the Phoenix Suns was epic.
Giannis was only the second player in NBA history to close out a clinching game with 50 points (see Bob Petit, 1958), and only the second to have three 40-point/10-rebound games in an NBA Finals series (see Shaq, 2000). It was as “clutch” a performance as any in NBA Finals history. It wasn’t his first dominant series this playoffs.
In Game 7 OT game vs. The Nets in the second round, Giannis (40 points, 13 rebounds) had an epic duel between Kevin Durant (48 points) where both players carried their teams on their backs. In that series, Giannis scored 30 or more points in 6 of 7 games, and did it on 58 percent shooting from the field.
The difference in that series came down to injuries to Nets star players and then KD’s big toe. Had it been just a half-inch further back from the 3-point line in his shot with 1-second left in Game 7, there’d be no Finals glory for Giannis.
According to the NBA media’s handbook on “winners” and “greatness,” Giannis’ clutch performance in the second round would be null and void.
In a sports media universe where clicks trump context, many of the very same media people who are praising Giannis today would be denouncing him as “not a winner” on factors as arbitrary as KD’s big toe.
But if the definition of eternal greatness comes down to KD’s big toe, shouldn’t we redefine greatness?
Can’t we collectively imagine that Giannis would still be great without a 50-point performance in the NBA Finals to end that debate for good?
How about this theory: Giannis was already an all-time great, but until now he lacked the luck and support necessary to win a title?
That changed this year with key additions of Jrue Holiday, Bobby Portis, P.J. Tucker; Khris Middleton’s playoff-performance leap this year; and a mostly healthy playoff roster, an anomaly in 2021. And when Giannis did get injured for two games, Brook Lopez rescued the Bucks in Game 5 against the Hawks with 33 points on an absurd 78 percent shooting (14-18).
Giannis leading the Bucks to a championship comes nearly 50 years after their first title run, led by Kareem-Abdul Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) and an older Oscar Robertson who was traded to the Bucks in 1970 after 10 All-NBA seasons with the Cincinnati Royals. Their legendary careers are instructive on “The Winner Myth”.
Prior to their pairing, Robertson spent his last four years on a terrible Royals roster that averaged only 39 wins. Oscar was regularly castigated by Royals management, coach Bob Cousy (yes, that one), and local Cincinnati media as a selfish player.
In Robertson’s final four seasons, the Bucks would average 62 wins, while the Royals/Kansas City Kings would average only 33 without him.
But the Bucks would win a title in Robertson’s first season with the team, and they would reach the Finals in his final year. After Robertson’s retirement, they would miss the playoffs the following season (38-44) despite still having Kareem.
Unlike Robertson, Kareem has a career-long legacy as the ultimate winner. It’s a career that includes 3 NCAA titles, 6 NBA titles, and 10 NBA Finals appearances — the latter feat only matched by LeBron James (10), Bill Russell (12), and Sam Jones (11; all with Russell).
But that history has obscured Kareem’s team struggle the five seasons in the late 1970’s he played without Oscar or Magic Johnson. Those teams would average only 45 wins, and win only two playoff SERIES in all. When the great Kareem lacked support, especially a point guard to get him the ball, he no longer won.
However, Kareem would still win two MVP awards, the most notable in his 1975-1976 monster season, despite his Lakers team finishing 40-42. That same year, Kareem would win a 4-person MVP race over Bob McAdoo, Dave Cowens, and Rick Barry, despite the fact their teams finished with 46, 54, and 59 wins respectively.
Huh? Winning an MVP with a losing record would be unheard of today, or really at any point in the last 40 years. So how did Kareem’s happen?
Back in the 1970s, MVP awards were selected by a vote of NBA players, but since the 1980-1981 season, the MVP awards have been voted on by sports writers and broadcasters, who tended to punish great players for having crappy teammates, and favor the best player on the best teams.
Unlike media voters, players have to actually play against other players, and so they understand the frustrations and obstacles associated with lacking team support. The shift from player to media voting was a key ingredient to empowering “The Winner Myth” without context, and it would be great if players demanded those voting rights back.
It’s hard to imagine now, but sportswriters denigrated Michael Jordan in his first seven seasons as not a “winner” on the level of Magic Johnson or Larry Bird before a developed Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant arrived in Chicago. Young Michael was repeatedly denied MVP awards, most egregiously the 1988-89 Award given to Magic Johnson, because he didn’t have the right pieces around him.
In more recent decades, sports talk radio, and the Skip Baylessification of sports media and social media in general, will even pillory the greatest of players for being unable to part the Red Sea on an annual basis (see James, LeBron). Even winning multiple titles with multiple teams is not enough. You are punished for losing titles to clearly superior teams (see Warrior and Spurs).
The operative word is team, and sports media has successfully framed NBA basketball and marketing as tennis, or just another individual sport. “The Loser Myth” is not new either (see Wilt Chamberlain, despite his two titles on two all-time great NBA teams), but it’s out of control because it’s big business in sports media.
And yes, and the quantity, duration, and intensity of hate only tends to take hold on great Black athletes in ways it never really could on, say, Steve Nash, or really any great white athlete without a ring. Every athlete can get a beatdown, but career-long hate is only profitable as it pertains to Black athletes. And trust me, Skip Bayless knows this.
Often, though, a player who falls short of a title can still put on a praiseworthy performance.
In 2007, a young LeBron’s Cavs miraculously made the Finals with Drew Gooden and Daniel Gibson as LeBron’s next best players! And in losing to a loaded Spurs team, some in media have the audacity to rebrand his overachievement as underachievement, the start of a career-long sports media malpractice trend that magically makes Finals record losses a worse offense than losing in the second round.
Also in 2007: Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen were all unable to lead their teams into the playoffs.
In 2008, they were all NBA Champions on the same Celtics team. Maybe they’re winners after all?
The Patrick Ewing-led Knicks advancing in the playoffs nine times during the 1990s is another amazing team achievement. Can we imagine if Ewing had a Clyde Frazier the way Kareem had an Oscar or a Magic? Or what might have been had Bernard King never busted up his knee in 1985?
Carmelo Anthony was often blamed for the Knicks’ putrid roster under Phil Jackson. But how often were you told that Melo’s supporting cast went an abysmal 9-51 during that time while Melo was injured? Maybe it wasn’t Melo’s fault?
Now can we imagine if Melo had someone to get him easy buckets like Chris Paul, the latest legendary player to be targeted by “the loser myth?”
Pay no mind to the haters. Winning titles is really hard, and the Suns falling short should not negate CP3’s amazing year of overachievement after the Suns were picked by most in media to finish 7th or 8th in the West this year, and given only a 7 percent chance to make it to the Finals by FiveThirtyEight.
Paul turned that 7 percent chance into a punchline by dropping 41 in the Western Conference Finals’ Game 6 clincher. He was the best Suns player on the floor in Game 6. And he did this at 36, an age where Oscar and Isiah were retired.
And never mind how then-Commissioner David Stern blocked a CP3 trade to the Kobe Bryant Lakers in 2011, a deal that would have altered NBA history.
But why do we even need the CP3-to-Lakers trade to imagine the results? Let me help. It would look a lot like Anthony Davis joining LeBron’s Lakers after AD only won one playoff series in seven years with the Pelicans.
How long do we allow sports media members to run this lucrative hustle?
AD was always a winner. And so is Chris Paul. And Dame too.
And Melo. And Ewing. And Charles Barkley. And Karl Malone. And John Stockton.
And Elgin Baylor. And Oscar before the Bucks. And Kareem in his winless late 1970’s.
And Giannis too — even before his epic 2021 Finals series.
Because if half an inch of KD’s big toe is really the media distance separating our legacy definition of winners and losers…
Then there is really no distinction at all.