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The Backlash Comes for Every NBA Star Eventually

But before it does, Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Kristaps Porzingis are among the pre-backlash superstars

(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)

Out for a shambling walk through my neighborhood, I gazed at the winter daylight draped against the sides of buildings and lying across the sidewalk, and my thoughts turned to Joel Embiid. Truly, he is something good that exists in this world, and such things should be appreciated.

In the small hours of January 17, after the Sixers’ muscular 113–104 face-mushing of the Bucks, Embiid called Milwaukee a “shithole” by tagging it as such on Instagram. This is a very Joel Hans Embiid thing to do and part of why we love him. Also, to be fair, it’s possible he was referring only to the Bradley Center, not the fifth-most-populated city in the Midwest. Whatever. That’s not the issue. The issue is no one got mad.

Embiid removed the location tag shortly after the post went live, but the lack of outcry is still notable. More than 1.5 million people live in Greater Milwaukee. You’d think that having their metropolis compared to a burrow of feces would vex them. Some were upset, for sure. But the anger was nowhere near what one would expect. On Bucks Reddit, a post about Embiid’s Instagram post had only 48 comments at the time this piece was published. It’s not an advanced metric, but considering the Reddit hive’s predilection toward uninhibited ranting, I think it’s telling.

Could this be indicative of a lack of civic pride among Milwaukeeans? It’s doubtful. We’re speaking of a people who regularly don hats shaped like cheese. And, certainly, the vast, churning sports media biomass exists, essentially, to exploit incidents such as these. Imagine LeBron calling Milwaukee a shithole. Why the muted response to Embiid?

Because Joel Embiid is in the pre-backlash stage of his career.

Think of pre-backlash as a cocoon of goodwill protecting developing players from undue criticism as they transition into their mature career states. The greater the star potential a player displays, the more resilient the cocoon. Most stars go through a pre-backlash phase, and some phases last longer than others.

In his rookie season of 2010–11, Blake Griffin was a jacked man-child with jet packs for legs and the pitiless heart of a big-game hunter. Less than a month into the season, he sent the sports world into paroxysms of glee when he posted 44 points, 15 rebounds, and seven assists against the Knicks, including a fistful of brutal dunks that will live on as highlights long after our civilization perishes. Remember when he rolled off a pick, went higher than Season 2 Jesse Pinkman, and turned fresh-out-of-Khimki Timofey Mozgov into tartar sauce? Of course you do. Watch it again. Look at the way referee Ed Malloy flinches when Blake punches the ball home; when someone who watches NBA basketball from 5 feet away every night reacts to a play like he just saw a parent slap their child in a supermarket, you know something special just happened.

Less memorable, but just as impressive (and an actual dunk, going by the strict definition, though I’m not a dunk truther), was the open-court spin and ownage of Danilo Gallinari.

After that game, his 14th as a pro, Griffin was a must-watch event, an avatar of communal joy for basketball fans. As a Knicks fan, watching his performance was like when Baxter told Ron Burgundy that he ate a whole wheel of cheese and pooped in the fridge. I was too amazed to be mad. Griffin galloped through his first season as only a player with cheat-code hops who’s unbound from expectations can. Unfortunately, pre-backlash Blake didn’t last long.

The counterreaction began toward the end of Blake’s sophomore season, with social media chatter about his perceived lack of post moves (in the age of the 3-pointer, this now seems ridiculous). Then came NBA writers, always on the lookout for a subject, with mostly measured pieces attempting to quantify the utility of Blake’s work near the basket. This logically morphed into increasingly biting inquests into his footwork. The backlash cycle was complete when the theme metastasized into “actually, Blake Griffin sucks.”

Then came the playoff defeats; the Z-Bo choke-slam; the time he threw water on a (pre-backlash!) Warriors fan; the ubiquitous Kia commercials, which precipitated a feeling of enough already with this guy; the up-3–1 gag job against Houston; and the time he reenacted an unreleased verse from Billy Joel’s “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” (“Bottle of white / Ooooooh, bottle of red / Perhaps I’ll break my hand on your head instead / I’ll fight you anytime you want / at our Italian restaurant”). Now here we are, wondering if the Clippers should trade Blake.

Mind you, all this time Blake was improving: pushing his game to the perimeter, punctuating the whisper of swishing nets with the unmanning threat of soul-destroying thunder-dunks. An accurate, willing, and intelligent passer, Blake showed that he could also conduct the band, not just play lead. Early on, he was criticized, as all freakishly unfair athletes are when they first appear on the scene, as having only one dimension to his game. All he does is dunk off the pick-and-roll. Now that he has a mature jumper and floor game, we want to know why he doesn’t dunk anymore. That’s a backlash.

What are the hallmarks of a pre-backlash player?

1. Novelty. Sports are entertainment, so audiences are always thirsty for something fresh and new.

2. A high ceiling. The more potential a novel player has, the more entertainment value he can generate. Thus, the more leeway we give him. Part of the reason that there was almost immediate backlash to Jeremy Lin was that, even though he was novel (and not just because of racial stereotyping), his ceiling seemed out of proportion with his performance during Linsanity.

This dynamic between novelty and ceiling can swing the other way. LeBron James’s backlash began when he was still in high school. By that point, we knew more about James than we did about many NBA veterans; his ceiling was as high as anyone’s — but he simply wasn’t novel enough.

3. Star power. This is different from ceiling, though the two are intertwined. In their paper “Talent and/or Popularity: What Does It Take to Be a Superstar?,” economists Egon Franck and Stephan Nüesch found there was “clear evidence that both a player’s talent and his non-performance-related popularity increase his market value.” The backlash to Tim Duncan consists entirely of the charge that he is boring — even though his ceiling was “best power forward of all time.”

4. Low expectations. This, above all, is the most important factor. When a player is unburdened by expectations, he can’t disappoint us. And backlash begins with the first pricks of disappointment. The backlash to Blake began with questions about his post moves. But the “Blake sucks” narrative really took root when Chris Paul and Doc Rivers joined the Clippers and raised expectations.

You could say the same for CP3. His pre-backlash period lasted almost five seasons. As a Hornet, he was the original Point God, one of only nine players in the 3-point era to have a PER at or above 30. Baskephiles universally delighted in watching him drag underpowered Hornets squads to surprising second-round appearances. No one cared that he complained to the referees constantly, annoyed his teammates, flopped shamelessly, and couldn’t win the big game. No one expected Paul’s Hornets to beat the Spurs. We do expect CP3, Blake, and DeAndre to make a conference finals.

Here are your current pre-backlash NBA players:

Joel Embiid

Novelty: High

We can’t get enough of Embiid because we have barely seen him. He missed his first two seasons after surgeries to his right foot, and his college career lasted just 28 games. Plus he’s on a minutes restriction. A good measure of Embiid’s pre-backlash gravity is how, like Kristaps Porzingis last season, he has single-handedly made minutes- and possessions-adjusted stats cool.

Ceiling: High

Embiid has been drawing comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon since he was at Kansas. Those comparisons seemed ridiculous until you watched him operate, at which point it became scary. Then factor in his passable 3-point range, which he credits to watching videos of “regular white people” that he found online, and his ceiling is limitless.

Star Power: Sky High

In addition to looking every inch a superstar talent on the court, Embiid is the first NBA player to fully understand social media and know how to use it to amplify his brand. He’s like Drake in that respect. He was recently on Instagram at 1 a.m. broadcasting a video of himself drinking a Shirley Temple out of a Seagram’s ginger ale bottle while listening to Future. He jumped into Chandler Parsons’s mentions to ask if Chandy was a virgin. He’s spit game at Kim Kardashian and Rihanna. Even when Embiid isn’t in control of the broadcast, he instinctively calibrates his actions into viral-sized chunks of pop-culturally astute content.

Expectations: None

The Sixers are coming off three seasons in which they’ve won 19, 18, and 10 games, respectively. They’re 17–27 and 8–2 over their last 10 games. Philly’s starting point guard is T.J. McConnell. Ersan Ilyasova gets significant minutes and all he does is shoot the second the ball whispers against his palms. Jahlil Okafor is hanging around like a 6-foot-11 useless younger brother. If the Sixers won only four more games, no one would care as long as the core Process pieces of Embiid, Dario Saric, Nerlens Noel, Bob Covington, and (whenever he comes back) Ben Simmons continue to develop.

How the Backlash Will Start

The “shithole” post was the harbinger. No one goes undefeated on social media. Especially not a high-volume shooter like Embiid. At some point he’ll post something indefensible at the wrong time and the backlash will roll in.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Novelty: Medium

Giannis has remained novel for several reasons:

  1. When he was playing for a team in the Greek second division, little was known about him before he came to the NBA. Heck, if teams knew about him, he wouldn’t have lasted until the 15th pick.
  2. He plays in a small market.
  3. His style of play changed in the middle of his third season when Jason Kidd began entrusting him with ballhandling duties. Greek Freak 2.0 morphs between positions like the liquid-metal Terminator.

Ceiling: High

Antetokounmpo is averaging 23.5 points, 8.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 2 blocks, and 1.8 steals per game with a PER of 27.7. He’s 22 years old. The weak spot in his game? Outside shooting. He’s a sub-30-percent 3-point shooter. God help the league if he ever gets his stroke right.

Star Power: High

Remember how delighted everyone was when he discovered smoothies? That was only three years ago. He was averaging seven points a game then. Now, as I predicted two years ago, the smiling boy-child has been enveloped by the snarling Dark Giannis in his full demonic form. His athleticism and length conspire to melt brain stems several times a week. He’s already the most devastating Eurostepper in the league. Maybe the most devastating ever. Before Giannis, players Eurostepped around defenders. He Euros over them.

Expectations: Medium

The Bucks are three games under .500 and hanging around the playoff picture. With Giannis making his first All-Star Game, Jabari Parker’s developmental leap, and Malcolm Brogdon’s solid play, it would be a disappointment if the Bucks missed the playoffs this season.

How the Backlash Will Start

If Giannis doesn’t develop a jumper over the next couple of seasons, and if that corresponds with the Bucks either not making the playoffs or getting eliminated at the hands of a seemingly inferior squad, Greek Freak will feel some heat. Also a possibility: Dark Giannis loses control of the Cthulhu hellfire powering his demon spirit and flagrant-fouls a beloved league star instead of Mike Dunleavy Washed Jr.

Nikola Jokic

Novelty: High

This season’s surprise player is Jokic. If you don’t watch Denver on the regular, (and, to be fair, there hasn’t been a lot of reason to) then you are missing out on Nikola Slenderman. He was the 41st pick out of Serbia in the 2014 draft, he and didn’t come over until the 2015–16 season. He showed flashes of his velvet-stretch-big game last season, but played only 1,733 total minutes. He’s already over 1,000 minutes this season.

Ceiling: Medium-High

Of all the players on this list, Jokic is the one I’m least sure can carry a team as a cornerstone star. Not that that necessarily matters in the superteam era. The part of Slenderman’s game that I didn’t expect is the playmaking. A wraithlike vision gliding across the court, he’s got the ability to handle the ball. He has these kind of lofting changeup passes that softly arc over the defense, leading teammates to the cup as if on a string. It’s Vlade-esque.

Star Power: Middling

Jokic projects as a perennial basketball nerd favorite. But I don’t know if he ever becomes a household name. Also, he looks like one of the prisoners from the Alien III steampunk space jail.

Expectations: Nonexistent

He’s Denver’s best player and Denver is bad. But not unexpectedly bad.

How the Backlash Will Start

He gets overpaid.

Kristaps Porzingis

Novelty: Medium

The line on Kristaps, before he made his Knicks debut, was: can shoot, but will struggle on defense, and needs to gain weight to make an impact. His breakout rookie season was surprising because it unfolded in a way that contradicted that perception. It turns out that he was a dogged defender despite his pipe-cleaner build. Kristaps was more than willing to meet players at the rim, and his offensive-board crashing produced some of his earliest highlights. His shooting, meanwhile, was just OK: 33 percent from 3. This season, we kind of know what to expect from KP. And the excitement my Large Adult Son can generate in Knicks fans has been blunted by a sagging defense, an air of acrimonious malaise, and two ball-dominant veterans monopolizing the offense.

Ceiling: High

Kristaps is 7-foot-3, shoots 38 percent from 3, protects the rim, and can move like a small forward. That’s a rare combination of traits. Assuming he’s ever allowed to develop at the rate he should, there’s no reason he can’t be a perennial All Star-level player.

Star Power: High

He plays in the largest media market in the country. He’s the best player the Knicks have drafted since Patrick Ewing. The odds that Spike Lee puts him in a movie within the next four years are somewhere around 1,000 percent.

Expectations: Medium

The downside of playing in New York City is Big Apple–size expectations. If KP can’t lift the Knicks to a deep playoff run, the knives will appear — fair or not. And, by the way, it will be largely unfair because the Knicks are owned by James Dolan, who, when he isn’t making terrible blues music, is an active and heavy-handed and bad owner.

How the Backlash Will Start

This being the Knicks, there are a million ways this could happen. The brightness of his game has dimmed recently as he’s struggled with a sore Achilles and the ever-thirstier demands of noted ball-wanters Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose. If he’s ever given a chance to be The Guy but doesn’t progress past his current 19 points, seven rebounds, and two blocks per game … or if lack of durability takes its toll … I can see Knicks fans feeling let down.

Karl-Anthony Towns

Novelty: Medium

Towns was the no. 1 pick in the 2015 draft and played college ball at John Calipari’s Kentucky one-and-done pro-ball-player factory. His rookie season garnered comparisons to Tim Duncan and Sota legend Kevin Garnett. Before the start of this campaign, Kevin Arnovitz referred to Towns as “the man destined to redefine what it means to dominate.” Which, yeah. That’s a lot. Towns isn’t sneaking up on anyone.

Ceiling: Sky High

Towns combines all the skills of a traditional big — post-ups, rebounding, shot-blocking — with the dynamic guile of a wing. He can back up to the basket, shoot 3s, handle the ball, and dunk on you.

Star Power: High

Towns has a made-for-television smile and is comfortable in his own skin. He can deliver athlete-speak — “I tried everything in my power to get the win tonight,” “I approach every possession like it’s a game-winning shot” — with an alacrity that makes it seem like more than empty calories. That’s a real skill.

Expectations: High

OK, so the Timberwolves aren’t going to win 50 games. Which is a thing some sober and respected NBA-watchers thought possible. Turns out we slightly overestimated the ability of noted walrus-man-beast Tom Thibodeau to reverse 11 years of dysfunction with the snap of his sausage fingers.

How the Backlash Will Start

Towns is the name superstar on a 17–28 team that, unfairly or not, everyone expected to be further along than it is. The backlash has already begun.