A small-market team will always have to deal with the insecurity that comes with not being Los Angeles or Miami or New York. That is especially apparent in free agency, when franchises that draft eventual superstars must hope their home-court advantage is enough to overcome bright lights and big cities. Giannis Antetokounmpo, however, says that stuff is not for him.
“I don’t like all these flashy cities like L.A. or Miami,” Antetokounmpo told The New York Times’s Marc Stein. “I don’t know if I could be the same player if I played in those cities.”
The comment comes just eight games into the Bucks’ season, though the Greek Freak has already made his mark in that short span. Antetokounmpo, playing in a point-forward hybrid role, leads the league in scoring, averaging 31.3 per game without much assistance from an outside shot. The rest of his stat line is just as romancing: 10.6 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.8 steals, and 1.1 blocks. His four-year, $100 million extension that kicked in at the start of this season will soon rival the former four-year, $44 million extension Steph Curry signed in 2012 as one of the cheapest deals in recent NBA history.
The “flashy cities” comment is not the first time Giannis paid tribute to the franchise that drafted him. On July 6, he tweeted the Kendrick Lamar lyrics “I got loyalty inside my DNA” with a deer emoji after ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said on the radio that teams were already trying to coax away the 6-foot-11 rara avis.
Maverick Carter, LeBron James’s friend and business partner, expressed similar thoughts on the importance of big markets—a pressing matter for Cleveland, natch—while on the Rich Eisen Show on Wednesday.
“These days, it doesn’t matter anymore,” Carter said. “The Lakers and the Knicks have been bad, the Knicks for a very long time, the Lakers since Kobe aged out of being one of the best players in the league. You can be known or be a star from anywhere, anywhere in the world. ... When you win as an athlete, that matters the most.”
The sentiment borders on ironic coming from a LeBron associate, considering James left for the Heat at a time when he was indisputably the most reputable player in the league. (Apologies, Kobe stans.) James had also shown love and devotion to his hometown regularly before leaving to team up with Dwyane Wade in vibrant Miami. The NBA and its exposure had certainly changed since his Decision in 2010, but, despite a small ripple in the summer of 2015, when San Antonio landed LaMarcus Aldridge and the Bucks Greg Monroe, the influence of a big market hasn’t exactly been reduced to nothing. And it certainly hasn’t kept small-market stars from expressing devotion to their current city … until they officially had a chance to look elsewhere.
The most polarizing example is Kevin Durant leaving the Thunder. In 2015, KD infamously said, “I love it [in Oklahoma City], man. I love my teammates, I love the city, I don’t really think about anywhere else. [...] I'm one of those guys that would love to stick it out with one team my whole career.”
Durant wasn’t the only modern player to have that mind-set during his first contract or extension. For a generation that grew up watching Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant, and Tim Duncan, staying with one team for an entire career seems special. Last August, Devin Booker said he wants “to be one of those guys that gets drafted by one team and stays there the whole time.” Last week, Joel Embiid said the same, listing Nowitzki, Bryant, and Duncan by name.
Karl-Anthony Towns said last summer that Minnesota had replaced his native New Jersey. “A lot of times, I talk to my friends and family and I’m always trying to rush back to Minnesota. This is where I call home. [...] I have a certain thing with Minnesota. I always want to come back here.” Anthony Davis said he’s “here to stay” in New Orleans in February.
But Towns, still not yet 22 years old, also seems to get that it’s not always that simple, especially when ownership falters. Here’s Towns in October: “I have all the experience to take whatever team I’m fortunate to be with, hopefully the Timberwolves, to get more championship runs.” Seemingly innocent, but is “whatever team I’m with” enough to give fans pause?
Giannis was similarly frank this past summer. “A lot of people say they’re going to stay on a team,” he said, “and decide to move to a different team. But you guys got to remember: A guy might want to stay on a team, but the team [may not] do the right things and the right moves for the player to become great.”
No one’s doubting Antetokounmpo’s sincerity about wanting to thrive in a smaller city—yes, Bucks fans, specifically Milwaukee. But he also seems to understand that this is now a player-controlled league—both James and Durant, for instance, have recently signed deals for no longer than two years—and that, more importantly, those sentiments are not mutually exclusive.