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Giannis Antetokounmpo’s feat in the NBA Finals to defeat the Phoenix Suns was epic.
Giannis was only the second player in NBA history to complete a 50-point clinching game (see Bob Petit, 1958), and only the second to have three 40-point/10 rebounds games in an NBA Finals series (see Shaq , 2000). It was as much of a “clutch” performance as it has been in NBA Finals history. It was not his first dominant series these playoffs.
In Game 7 OT game vs. The Nets in the second round had Giannis (40 points, 13 rebounds) an epic duel between Kevin Durant (48 points) with both players carrying their teams on their backs. In that series, Giannis scored 30 or more points in 6 out of 7 games, shooting 58 percent from the field.
The difference in that streak came down to injuries to Nets star players and then to KD’s big toe. If it was just an inch further back from the 3-point line in his shot with 1 second left in Game 7, there would be no Finals glory for Giannis.
According to the NBA media’s handbook of “winners” and “greatness,” Giannis’ second-round performance would be null and void.
In a sports media universe where clicks trump context, many of the same media people who praise Giannis today would denounce him as “no winner” on factors as random 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?
What about this theory: Giannis was already an all-time great, but until now he lacked the luck and support needed to win a title?
That changed this year with major additions from Jrue Holiday, Bobby Portis, PJ Tucker; Khris Middleton’s Playoff Performance Leap This Year; and a mostly healthy playoff roster, an anomaly in 2021. And when Giannis was injured two games, Brook Lopez saved the Bucks in Game 5 against the Hawks by 33 points on an absurd 78 percent shot (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 at the Cincinnati Royals. Their storied careers are instructive on “The Winner Myth”.
Prior to their pairing, Robertson spent his last four years on a terrible Royals roster averaging just 39 wins. Oscar was regularly denounced by the Royals management, coach Bob Cousy (yes, that one), and local Cincinnati media as a selfish player.
In Robertson’s last four seasons, the Bucks would average 62 wins, while the Royals/Kansas City Kings would average just 33 without him.
But the Bucks would win a title in Robertson’s first season with the team, and would make it to the final in his senior 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 eventual winner. It’s a career that includes 3 NCAA titles, 6 NBA titles, and 10 NBA Finals appearances — the latter feat matched only by LeBron James (10), Bill Russell (12) and Sam Jones (11; all with Russell).
But that history has obscured the struggles of Kareem’s team in the five seasons he played without Oscar or Magic Johnson in the late 1970s. Those teams would average just 45 wins and win just two playoff SERIES in total. When the great Kareem ran out of support, especially a point guard to give him the ball, he stopped winning.
However, Kareem would still go on to win two MVP awards, the most notable in his monster 1975-1976 season, despite his Lakers team finishing 40-42. That same year, Kareem win a 4 person MVP race over Bob McAdoo, Dave Cowens and Rick Barry, despite their teams finishing with 46, 54 and 59 wins respectively.
How so? Winning an MVP with a losing record would be unheard of these days, or really at any point in the last 40 years. So how did Kareem happen?
In the 1970s, MVP awards were selected by a vote of NBA players, but since the 1980-1981 season, MVP awards have been voted on by sportswriters and broadcasters, who tended to penalize great players for having crappy teammates , and the best player in the best teams.
Unlike media voters, players have to actually play against other players, so they understand the frustrations and obstacles that come with the lack of team support. The shift from player voting to media voting was a key ingredient to amplifying “The Winner Myth” without context, and it would be great if players reclaimed those voting rights.
It’s hard to imagine now, but sports journalists denigrated Michael Jordan as not a “winner” at the level of Magic Johnson or Larry Bird in his first seven seasons before an educated Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant arrived in Chicago. Young Michael was repeatedly denied MVP awards, most notably the 1988-89 Award given to Magic Johnson, for not having 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 pillory even the biggest players for inability to separate the Red Sea on an annual basis (see James, LeBron). Even winning multiple titles with multiple teams is not enough. You are penalized 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” isn’t new either (see Wilt Chamberlain, despite his two titles on two great NBA teams of all time), but it’s spiraling out of control because it’s big business in sports media.
And yes, and the amount, duration and intensity of hatred tends to only hold great black athletes in a way that it never really could on, say, Steve Nash, or really any great white athlete without a ring. . Any athlete can take a beating, but a career-long hatred is only profitable when it comes to black athletes. And trust me, Skip Bayless knows this.
But often a player who doesn’t make it to a title can still put in a commendable performance.
In 2007, a young LeBron’s Cavs miraculously made it to the final with Drew Gooden and Daniel Gibson as LeBron’s next best players! And by losing to a fraught Spurs team, some in the media have the audacity to rebrand his overachievement as underachieving, the start of a career-long malpractice trend in the sports media that magically turns 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 to the playoffs.
In 2008, they were all NBA champions on the same Celtics team. Maybe they are winners after all?
The Patrick Ewing-led Knicks who made it to the playoffs nine times in the 1990s is another great team effort. Can we imagine Ewing having a Clyde Frazier the way Kareem had an Oscar or a Magic? Or what would have happened if Bernard King had never broken his knee in 1985?
Carmelo Anthony was often blamed for the rotten squad of the Knicks under Phil Jackson. But how many times have you been told that Melo’s supporting cast went a terrible 9-51 at the time while Melo was injured? Maybe it wasn’t Melo’s fault?
Can we now imagine that Melo had someone to give him easy buckets, like Chris Paul, the latest legendary player who has been the target of “the loser myth?”
Don’t mind the haters. Winning titles is really hard, and that the suns fall short, may not negate CP3’s tremendous year of overperformance after the suns were picked by most in media to finish 7th or 8th in the West this year, and only had a 7 percent chance of making it to the final against Thirty-fiveEight.
Paul turned that 7 percent chance into a punch line by dropping 41 in the Game 6 final of the Western Conference. He was the top Suns player on the floor in Game 6. And he did so at age 36, an age when Oscar and Isiah retired.
And it doesn’t matter how then-Commissioner David Stern blocked a CP3 transaction with the Kobe Bryant Lakers in 2011, a deal that would have changed NBA history.
But why do we even need the CP3-to-Lakers trade to envision the results? Let me help. It would be a lot like Anthony Davis joining LeBron’s Lakers after AD won just one playoff series with the Pelicans in seven years.
How long will we let sports media members run this lucrative crowd?
AD was always a winner. And so is Chris Paul. And lady too.
And Melo. And Ewing. And Charles Barkley. And Karl Malone. And John Stockton.
And Elgin Baylor. And Oscar for the Bucks. And Kareem in his scoreless late 70s.
And Giannis too – even before his epic 2021 Finals series.
Because if half an inch from KD’s big toe is really the media distance that separates our old definition of winners and losers…
Then there is really no difference at all.
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