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Building Around a Unicorn Is No Fantasy Land

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic open up worlds of possibilities, but as the end of the regular season nears, both the Bucks and Nuggets have had to face harsh realities

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The best thing to have come out of the NBA’s unicorn era so far isn’t any one player, team, or style. It is, as hokey as it sounds, the empowerment of imagination. And that makes it an exciting time to be an NBA fan. To imagine the future of the league is to imagine … anything. Flip a traditional starting lineup on its head! Make your center your point guard! Make your point guard your center! The NBA’s status quo, even today, is establishmentarian—LeBron James might be the unicorn of all unicorns, but ask him about schedule and postseason-qualification reform and he will give you the stink eye; the Warriors, who warped the fabric of space in the NBA through taking deep 3s only two years ago, are by leaps and bounds the best midrange-shooting team on earth. The young stars biding their time offer something different: a new perspective, a new route to achieving an end.

But mostly, they present the outline of an idea, one whose time has not yet come. My colleague Jason Concepcion has considered the hipster NBA team for years. “The hipster team,” he wrote in 2016, ”is defined by dreams that are too wondrous to survive the rigors of reality.” The Sixers, held together by the position-bending talents of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, currently have sole possession of fourth place in the Eastern Conference and are a mere game out of third after years in ignominy. The unicorn era posits that no dream is too wondrous that it can’t one day become reality.

However, just as teams are discovering newfound freedoms, so too are they discovering the consequences of this new wilderness of team-building. Constructing a team around a unicorn is hard, perhaps even harder than in the past. What happens if you completely whiff on building around your futuristic, generation-defining star? Or what happens when you realize your unique, script-flipping centerpiece presents an almost unsolvable conundrum? We’re beginning to discover the bleak underbelly of the unicorn fantasia. It resides in two teams scrapping for a seat at the postseason table in their respective conferences, failing to live up to the ideas they have come to embody.

Milwaukee’s Odd Future

I don’t know how else to say this: What the hell happened to the Bucks?

It wasn’t long ago that I imagined Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jason Kidd as the Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich of the NBA’s next generation. Kidd had joined the Bucks organization after escaping from the capsizing Brooklyn Nets organization, holding onto an idea he’d allowed to germinate during crisis. Kidd turned to unorthodox lineup constructions with the Nets in the 2013-14 season, making something out of his injury-riddled roster. He stacked long-limbed and mobile players at every single position, fostering a switch-heavy defense that flummoxed enough teams for the Nets to make the playoffs. Kevin Garnett and Mason Plumlee, neither of whom would be confused for a traditional center, were the anchors; around them were aging wings who today would automatically be considered stretch 4s but back then still possessed the air of gentility usually reserved for guards and swingmen. It was a smart move. Futuristic, even.

It appeared as though he had found his muse the following season in Antetokounmpo. In their first season together, Giannis was a 3 who occasionally moved up or down the positional ladder depending on matchups. In their second season, Kidd made the radical proclamation that Giannis was a point guard, and ought to be labeled as such. Giannis, over his five seasons, has encompassed the entire positional spectrum. His teammates have largely adhered to the same physical outline: above-average height for the position with extremely long arms. The Bucks looked like a team of tomorrow. But if you’ve watched the Bucks recently, you’d know it was all a hollow veneer.

Retrofuturism is the use of imagery that reflects how past eras envisioned the future. (Think The Jetsons.) The Bucks have the opposite aesthetic: They are a team of the future hell-bent on playing an antiquated style of basketball. Khris Middleton, one of the best 3-point shooters of the past decade, is taking fewer 3s per game than Blake Griffin and attempts more midrange shots than all but four players in the league.

Granted, Middleton has been the NBA’s most effective midrange shooter this season, hitting 50.6 percent of his shots—better than anyone else in the top 30 in midrange attempts. He’s become a master of angles, and his size and strength (at 6-foot-8, 234 pounds) at the wing means he can get a shot off over just about anyone, even players crowding his airspace. Middleton is an ideal secondary playmaker, adept in both isolation and pick-and-roll situations. But his default mode is to get off a shot in the NBA’s dead zone—which also happens to be the default mode of the Bucks’ other three talented scorers (Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe, and Jabari Parker). The result? A Milwaukee offense that often runs plays that go nowhere, ending up exactly where defenses set bait.

Context is what makes the Bucks’ offensive tedium so hard to accept. The Bucks are one of five (currently) postseason-bound teams in the bottom third of the league in 3-point-attempt rate—the Wizards, Pacers, Spurs, and Wolves make up the other four. Of those teams, only the Wolves have a positive record against teams over .500. It makes sense. The best teams in the league are those that have embraced the mathematical advantages that the basketball court presents. Teams that don’t make full use of the 3-point arc essentially handicap themselves when facing a big deficit.

The Bucks also haven’t leaned into their video-game lineups much since Parker’s return to action. Milwaukee has played Parker and Antetokounmpo together at the 4 and 5, respectively, only 32 minutes thus far. It makes sense: The team doesn’t quite have the leeway in the standings to experiment too heavily. Parker is still working himself into game shape, was already known as a sieve on defense, and doesn’t quite command enough respect from long range to space the floor ideally. But when the alternative is more minutes for John Henson or Tyler Zeller—players who do nothing for the team’s overall upside—it can be frustrating to watch the Bucks flail more or less in place.

For a team that is hyperaware that Giannis is their only ticket to elite status, they seem awfully intent on crowding his runway. (They may be without him entirely on Friday; Antetokounmpo is doubtful with a sprained ankle.) But even then, Antetokounmpo has proved himself so transcendent that almost none of this gets in the way of his two-way impact. I’ve gone entire games wondering about the Bucks’ issues without thinking about Giannis’s involvement once. It’s partially the goodwill he engenders as one of the five most talented players in the game playing for a small market, but it’s also a testament to how much he makes up for the team’s disarray. It’s like watching Santa trying to make his Christmas journey with a clash of regular-ass deer.

The Pyrite in Denver

In 2018, as the league plays at the fastest pace in nearly three decades and LeBron spends millions of dollars to steel his biomechanics, biorhythms, and biolegacy, Nikola Jokic stands as a one-of-one star. He is the spirit of a 23-year-old Arvydas Sabonis reincarnated into … a 35-year-old Sabonis’s body. He is a genius-level passer who has an uncanny ability to survey and process the floor and immediately translate his readings into action. String together some footage of the casual darts Jokic often throws from all over the court and you’d have an instructional video to send to Paxton Lynch on how to properly execute a back-shoulder pass.

Antetokounmpo hopscotching up and down positional lines is a function of his boundless athleticism. Jokic’s positional cosplay is a function of the utter lack of athleticism his mind is bound to. Therein lies the rub with Jokic: He is a conundrum of a player within a larger conundrum of how teams are supposed to build around a star with defined strengths and weaknesses.

Jokic is arguably as important to his team’s success as any big man in the league, but, with the Nuggets projected to have only a 16 percent chance of making the playoffs, he is also a representation of what has held Denver back the past two seasons. Jokic leads all centers in ESPN’s real plus-minus (a stat that approximates a player’s on-court value) and is eighth overall, just behind Antetokounmpo. The Nuggets also outscore their opponents by 4.4 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor and are outscored by 4.7 points when he’s off the floor—a differential of 9.1 points. On offense, Jokic simplifies the game for everyone around him, including his coach, Mike Malone. Players just have to read and react to Jokic’s actions, and invariably there will be an open look somewhere. Of the 10 most-frequently-used Nuggets lineups that feature Jokic, only two of them produce a negative net rating—and both of those units feature a frontcourt partner (Trey Lyles, Mason Plumlee) ill-suited to cover Jokic’s glaring deficiencies as a defensive anchor.

You’ve seen the memes. The sight of an offensive player driving around a backpedaling Jokic is like watching a 5-year-old run circles around an inflatable tube man at a used car dealership. Players like James Harden and Damian Lillard have been similarly roasted over the years; going viral might be the easiest way to cement a defensive reputation in the NBA today. But Harden and Lillard aren’t centers, and thus aren’t expected to protect the rim. On one side of the floor, Jokic is every bit the boundary-defying talent he’s billed to be; on the other, he’s the same old punch line affixed to every stiff in NBA history.

The Nuggets’ most-used five-man unit is their starting lineup with Paul Millsap in the fold. It is outstanding. In 345 minutes, Jokic, Millsap, Gary Harris, Wilson Chandler, and Jamal Murray outscore opponents at a rate of 10.1 points per 100 possessions and have a defensive rating that would sit just outside the top 10 when extrapolated over the course of a season. As rusty as Millsap has looked since making his return last month, and as much as Jokic’s individual defensive blunders have been highlighted in the Nuggets’ slow fade to fringe playoff contenders, that’s the silver lining: The Nuggets missed out on 44 games of that level of basketball.

It’s far too late to seriously consider what-ifs, but with the Nuggets essentially having to play perfect basketball over their final 10 games of the season to even have a chance at sneaking into the 8-seed, we might as well. Watching the Nuggets cough up leads with their cyanide-pill bench, I can’t help but think about how large their draft-day trade with the Utah Jazz (who ultimately landed the crown jewel of the deal in Donovan Mitchell) looms. It was no secret that the Nuggets coveted OG Anunoby, a 6-foot-8 tank of a human with a 7-foot-2 wingspan and lateral agility for days. The team made the calculated risk of trading down from no. 13 to no. 24 (and acquiring Lyles in the process) in hopes of drafting a player who most teams had taken off their board because of concerns about his torn ACL. Instead, they were blindsided by the Raptors and former Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri one pick ahead of them. Anunoby is now a full-time starter on an NBA Finals contender; Tyler Lydon, whom the Nuggets drafted instead, has played one game all season and logged a two trillion.

Anunoby fits the mold of player that nearly every team is trying to acquire, and then some. The rookie has defended every position this season and does not mind switching onto point guards or centers. Having a player like Anunoby would widen the margin of error for Jokic, and considering all he does for the team offensively, that’s maybe all the team needs to take its next step forward. The Nuggets have one such player in Millsap, but he’s almost exactly 10 years older than Jokic. They need more.

This era of NBA basketball has brought us unique players who, amid the league’s pool of 500 players, gleam like the rarest of gems. Yet, to maximize their shine, teams need to find equally rare ores to place around them. Teams will fight over the scarcest commodities and most will come away empty-handed. So, in other words, little has changed. Maybe the only real distinction of the unicorn era is a collective willingness to suspend our disbelief.