We live in such a weird time. Not only has society been upended, but the concept of time seems to have disintegrated. At least for those of us who are still trying to stay inside. It can often feel in some weeks that the minutes, hours, and days are all bleeding into each other, as if all of life is happening on the longest day ever. Then suddenly, after something forces an awareness that the world is still moving, and events are still happening, one is surprised at just how much time has really passed without seeming like it.
I had been looking forward to the Bucks playing the Rockets in the NBA bubble experiment. It was the one game before the playoffs that I was truly interested in. Throughout the day I mostly tried to pass the time, only to look after what had felt like hours, and realize that only a few minutes had passed. But then as I was reading surveillance technology, I looked up again and the game was already at the end of its first half.
There’s a passage in the article which I found fascinating, and which began to seem relevant to the game as it went on. The passage deals with how surveillance capitalism rests on the collection and monetization of data of individuals which reduces the idea of a person and people into such broad categories that it crushes differences. It’s a process of reduction:
“The platform’s interface does not offer users a way to self-identify according to race, but advertisers can nonetheless target people based on Facebook’s ascription of an “affinity” along racial lines. In other words, race is deployed as an externally assigned category for purposes of commercial exploitation and social control, not part of self-generated identity for reasons of personal expression. The ability to define one’s self and tell one’s own stories is central to being human and how one relates to others; platforms’ ascribing identity through data undermines both.”
It seems an eternity ago when James Harden reduced Giannis Antetokounmpo to a 7-footer who just runs and dunks, which he said “takes no skill at all,” in contrast to himself, who has to be more skillful and know the game of basketball because he doesn’t have the physical advantages that his counterpart does.
Harden’s insult reminded me of something that also seems to have happened in such a distant past. The declaration that the big man era in the NBA was over. The suggestion was that the game, which now depended on pace, space, and outside shooting, would be dominated by smaller, more skillful players, and those giants who can only really dunk and operate from the post, would become relics of the past.
Yet the MVP of the league, Antetokounmpo, is a giant who isn’t really a great outside shooter and who gets most of his points by dunking or dominating in the paint. More than that, there are a litany of big men in the game who are also very dominant. The big men didn’t go extinct, they transformed and became what is now known as unicorns.
There are two problems of reduction here: one about imagination and differences, and what is considered skill. Not all big men are the same and not all big men have ever been the same. The assumption that the big men would be pushed out of the game relied on a broad categorization of what they were and what they could be capable of. It was a type of thinking that didn’t allow difference, variations, and other possibilities. There have always been giants in the league who were traditionally “skillful” but most of them worked within the tactics and ideas of their time. They were products of their conditions, which wasn’t an inherent limitation. Once those ideas expanded, and the demands became different, so did the players.
Of course, not all big men are the same and the criticisms of skill doesn’t fall on them all alike, which gets to the idea of what is considered skill and what isn’t. Kevin Durant is almost a 7-footer, but being one of the best shooters ever, he’s never been criticized for a lack of skill. Neither has Nikola Jokic and anyone else who can mimic the style of smaller players. Marc Gasol was once seen as limited, until he developed his perimeter shooting. The idea of skill being linked to shooting is understandable given that it is, of course, a league that operates on the foundations of space and outside shooting. Something that Harden is a master of.
Yet again, the MVP of the league is a giant who is still developing his jump shot. And Harden’s argument is the same reduced idea: that big man are going extinct, and yet because he’s tall and he can dunk, it's easy for Antetokounmpo to dominate. It’s a wonderful twist of irony.
I think of Antetokounmpo in the same way that I thought of Stephen Curry and Harden. As the evolutions, the exaggerations, of what came before. There were great outside shooters before, but none had taken it to the extremes that Harden and Curry have. It’s not that Antetokounmpo dominates the inside. Many have done so before. It’s that he is managing to do so when the game has forced those big players away from the paint in which they used to thrive. He is tall and he can dunk, but he’s also built for this era of speed and space, and he has the skill of using his body to create chaos and be so domineering that it usually takes several bodies to slow him down—not to even mention that he’s also just as elite on the defensive end. Not even the other giants can deal with him. And the preposterous thing is that he is still developing.
There’s a second irony to the Harden and Antetokounmpo rivalry. Harden’s ball domination is more akin to those big men of old than Antetokounmpo is. In that, one of the biggest criticisms of the ancient giants was the fact that they slowed the game down, and the team had to basically grind to a standstill to watch them operate. Harden is one of the best perimeter players of all time, but the Rockets operate by mostly isolating him and letting him either dominate his opponent, or bring so much attention that he can pass out to an open man. Compared to someone like Curry in that manner, who thrives off movement and fluidity, Harden is an entire different type of basketball player even though the skill-sets are similar.
Harden’s principle is the same principle of the dominant post players, just in a smaller body. Condense the game into a one on one matchup, slow it down, and allow the bigger, stronger, more talented individual to work. Antetokounmpo also isolates, but nowhere to the extremes that Harden does, since the idea behind his domination is keeping his body moving as to catch defenses off-guard.
The Bucks and Rockets game this week was a perfect showcase of what makes the two players so special and also what their limitations are. With Harden, it’s well-known that sometimes he goes cold, but again, ironically, because he and the Rockets are wedded to using him in a very specific way, he can only go to even more extremes of what he is. And with Antetokounmpo, the lack of outside shooting means that defenders give him space on the outside in order to clog up the middle. And even though he and the team still find a way to make him successful, it’s always clear that the simple threat of outside shooting would make his life much easier.
Yet, just as it was exciting to see the smaller perimeter players transform the league with extreme levels of outside shooting, I’m very excited to see what happens with the NBA when someone like Antetokounmpo takes over as the main protagonist. Someone who takes the idea of the big man to the extreme while also using the advantages of the pace and space era. When I look at Antetokounmpo, I don’t necessarily see limits or a reductive idea of a basketball player. To be as good as he is, at that young age, on both ends, in a league where someone like him should be a relic because of his lack of outside shooting, is a wonderful rebellion against the current status quo. The foundation for him to be even more ridiculous is there if he is to master his jump shot in the next few years. He is incredibly fascinating because he is full of possibilities.
The team’s terrible bubble offense highlights structural issues that have existed all season long.
Originally Appeared on GQ