Column: Superstars like Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo need help carrying an NBA franchise
A generational phenom does not make an NBA team a powerhouse or even a playoff contender many times.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar closed his Milwaukee chapter on a losing season. Charles Barkley had a losing season in Philadelphia a year before a most valuable player season in Phoenix. Kevin Garnett missed three consecutive postseasons in his prime in Minnesota before going to Boston.
“You can’t do it with one guy,” New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said. “The Bulls couldn’t do it with Michael Jordan” in his first three losing seasons. “End of discussion right there.”
The NBA is watching the scenario play out with New Orleans’ Anthony Davis and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo. They are young superstars whose mix of skill and size defines the NBA’s style evolution but who are unable to independently carry their franchises’ fortunes to the NBA upper crust.
Davis and Antetokounmpo have a combined nine seasons, three playoff appearances and no series triumphs. Each two-way standout is fulfilling big-time talent for a small-market team, a combination that always starts speculation about how long the unions will last.
New Orleans and Milwaukee have taken risks this year to maximize their unique stars before free agency in 2021 looks like a greener-pastures option at their prime ages — Davis at 28, Antetokounmpo at 26.
Near the season’s first-quarter pole, each All-Star’s team is hovering around .500 and near the back end of the playoff picture. New Orleans made its push last February by acquiring DeMarcus Cousins. Milwaukee went for it this month by trading for Eric Bledsoe.
“We’re thinking about that,” Antetokounmpo said of Parker’s return, “but we’ve got to be a good team even though we know a great piece is coming. We have to keep holding ourselves to high standards. We know JP is going to take us to the next level when he can play.”
Antetokounmpo has been sensational, taking another massive step that befits the Greek Freak’s massive strides. With career highs for scoring average (29.7), field-goal percentage (.552) and rebounding average (10.3), the soon-to-be 23-year-old is ahead of even lofty projections except for the absence of a three-point shooting touch.
Missing other injured Bucks such as Mirza Teletovic and Matt Dellavedova has stretched Antetokounmpo’s playing time to nearly 38 minutes a game, prompting him to have a night off for knee discomfort Wednesday.
Parker, 22, was averaging 20.1 points and 6.2 rebounds last season before his second knee surgery in his three-year career. He might be able to return in February.
“It’s a great picture but right now I’m only in the moment to deal with the guys who can go,” coach Jason Kidd said. “Hopefully, one day we’re healthy and can learn what it takes to win together.”
Davis is one season deeper into his career than Antetokounmpo with one more year of age and three more All-Star appearances. Each players has seen one coaching change already. The Pelicans’ move came in 2015 when Monty Williams was fired following a 45-37 season, which was capped by Davis’ 31.5-point playoff scoring average against Golden State.
Gentry, then an assistant for the Warriors, was enthralled about the team he was getting and how he could expand Davis’ talent — the green light proved right for how Davis is shooting three-pointers this season.
However, injuries never put that 2015 playoff squad on the floor for even a practice under Gentry. Due to injuries, no Pelicans player has been available for all three Gentry training camps in New Orleans.
“It set us back quite a bit,” Gentry said.
The Pelicans are still adjusting, now working veteran point guard Rajon Rondo into the mix of a team that at least is in playoff position now that annual postseason players Memphis and the Clippers have faded.
New Orleans’ window to show promise to its star is perhaps a little smaller than what Milwaukee has with Antetokounmpo, since the Pelicans played their ace by trading for Cousins.
“You just have to have enough great players to go along with your great player if you’re going to have a championship team,” Gentry said. “It takes a while for that to happen. There are so many factors that go into it — salary cap, the place where you’re playing, who fits in with that player.
“It’s tough to get there. We’re getting there. We’ve been able to line up against some of the better teams in the league and show that we can do that when we’re focused on what we’re trying to get done.”
Milwaukee’s play with Bledsoe is too early to call for his impact but he does inject speed and add a needed playmaker to a Bucks team that lacked scoring depth.
The path to the playoffs in the Eastern Conference is no easy climb any longer with upstarts like New York and Philadelphia entering the mix. They have even fresher faces for generational star talent in skilled big men Kristaps Porzingis and Joel Embiid.
“We’re a lot better team than last year,” Antetokounmpo said, denying any extra burden on him. “I just try to play hard, get better and help my team win.”
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