There are teams that come along and they’re so precariously themselves, you want to protect them. These aren’t typically squads like last season’s Bucks: 60 wins, laser cannoning through the Eastern Conference and falling in the end to the eventual champs. Last year’s Clippers are more like it. (Something was lost when Kawhi and Paul George joined up, though hardly anybody’s mourning it.) You watch them and the reasons they delight you are roughly the same reasons it seems like the fun will end soon. This can’t last; the front office will want to do better next season, or somebody important is getting old. Or there is some energy within the squad that’s fleeting. The light strikes the surface of the water, the sun moves, and the glow is gone.
Every team is a confluence of factors and athletes have short careers—even shorter primes—so the conditions from season to season are never the same, but some projects have more resilience than others. Whether that means anything—well, there was a time when Kobe and Shaq were going to win titles until they just didn’t feel like it anymore. Eventually, probably sooner than you think, you run out of what you need.
The answer was LeBron for so long that we mostly stopped asking the question—the folks who brought up Steph’s name were wrong, immediacy junkies bored out of their phone camera-filtered skin—but it’s up for discussion again, finally, and you wouldn’t be wrong if you said Giannis is the best player alive. There are a few right answers at the moment, and that’s interesting and enervating and ultimately good for business. They’re making them more alien all the time, but even among a crop of biologically improbable basketball stars, Giannis is absurd, like a Philip Guston sketch that knows all the angles, and the years of imagining what he might become are over: 27.7 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 5.9 APG in 2018-19. Those numbers can get bigger and maybe he’ll shoot threes at a decent clip one day, but you’d have to sleep for a week straight to dream up anything significantly more impressive than what he’s doing now.
You can win it all with a player like this, especially in this suddenly wide open league, but there’s a fragility about the situation, perhaps best explained like this:
2019-20 Milwaukee Bucks
PG Eric Bledsoe
SG Khris Middleton
SF Wes Matthews
C Brook Lopez
Bench: George Hill, Ersan Ilyasova, Robin Lopez, Pat Connaughton, & Kyle Korver
2009-10 Cleveland Cavaliers
PG Mo Williams
SG Anthony Parker
PF Antawn Jamison
Bench: Andy Varejao, Delonte West, J.J. Hickson, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, & Boobie Gibson
History hasn’t been kind to the 09-10 Cavs, because LeBron left them and they promptly transformed into a tumbleweed, but they arranged themselves around their star nicely, everyone in a narrowly defined role they could handle, and won 61 games. They were a dominantly carefree bunch. Their problem was an obvious one: they didn’t have a second star. Mo Williams was a great shooter and Andy Varejao was one of the craftier pick-and-roll finishers around, but both those players’ strengths were enhanced LeBron’s gravity and passing instincts. You couldn’t just give them the ball and expect good offense.
Khris Middleton is better than either of those guys, but he’s not Kyrie Irving or Lakers era Pau Gasol—more pointedly, he is not Paul George. He can’t be counted on to carry the Bucks on a consistent basis. That task belongs to Giannis alone. And the rest of the roster is, y’know, good. We all like Brook Lopez. Eric Bledsoe, postseason struggles aside, is a more than solid guard. George Hill is playing better than his age suggests he should, but there’s no point in jinxing it. Yet it all seems kind of rickety, doesn’t it? Malcolm Brogdon isn’t around anymore—which he totally could be; the Bucks’ hedge fund creep owners have plenty of money—and that’s a significant loss. Matthews has been washed up for a while. The same goes for Korver. One more starting lineup caliber player would be helpful; Middleton playing about 15 percent better would be ideal. Long odds on either of those things happening.
We know what to expect out of the Bucks in the regular season, and they’ll probably live up to those expectations. 60-ish wins, the first or second seed in the East. It’s important, if you want to get any joy out of watching basketball outside the months of May and June, not to dismiss this achievement, but at the same time, there will be a certain let’s-get-on-with-it dimension to their year. We know what they can do against the league’s middle and lower classes. The success of their season is going to be determined by their performances in best-of-seven series toward the very end of the calendar. The rest of the games they play will function more or less like exhibitions.
This is okay. It’s basketball and frivolity is a virtue. But Giannis’s contract is up in two years. This is right around the time Kareem got restless. He asked out because he wanted to go home to New York. (Though he obviously ended up in L.A., and it worked out swell.) Milwaukee wasn’t enough for him, and there wasn’t anything the Bucks could do for him. Giannis doesn’t have that problem, but he’s strenuously competitive and that’s a different sort of danger. He renders the Bucks competitive by himself, but even demigods need quite a bit of help to win championships.
There are moves to be made, maybe, to reinforce the roster or Coach Bud will find some midseason schematic adjustment that throws the whole mechanism into a gear that isn’t yet labeled. That’s all to be seen, and we’ll know more about it a few months from now. But at this early stage of the season, as the Bucks sprint out into who-knows-what, there is the exhilaration of watching them—they are so, so good, if questionably great—and beneath that an ever-growing concern. The party is taking on an edge. It doesn’t have to break bad, but it’s heading somewhere, and soon.