Doc Rivers was asked about the development and magnificence of Giannis Antetokounmpo before his Sixers lost to the Bucks on Tuesday.
Sitting in that interview room, Rivers’ response reminded me that he could have been talking Ben Simmons as easily as the two-time MVP from Milwaukee.
“I don’t like gushing over another guy, but what he did last year was amazing. ...
”They lost back-to-back games in the playoffs, he struggled at the free-throw line. He goes on the road. He has 20,000 people counting [the seconds before his free throws] — hell, we were counting when we played him — and then he takes that to the last two games. He’s the most dominant player in the NBA. He makes free throws. He was defiant, almost.
“That’s what I liked about him. He’s just defiant.
“ ‘I know I’m not making free throws. I’m still going to keep driving. I’m still going to keep attacking. I’m going to still step up to the free-throw line and eventually I’m going to make them.’
“He may have been the only one who believed that at times. But the fact that he had a fan club of one was probably the reason he is who he is.”
Rivers did not compare Giannis to Simmons, who has requested a trade after his failure to dunk a basketball in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals began a chain of events that, in this moment, sees Simmons excused from the team while undergoing mental evaluations.
No, Doc’s not comparing the two: I am.
That said, you couldn’t miss Rivers’ admiration, awe, and maybe a little jealousy.
If Doc is jealous, you can’t begrudge his envy. He’s got a Giannis on his roster.
Simmons’ best comparison isn’t LeBron James, or even Magic Johnson. Like Giannis, Ben’s a prototype for today’s NBA — long-limbed, agile, explosive, with deft ballhandling skills. He’s a slightly smaller, better-passing version of Giannis. But their end-to-end speed, their ability to finish after taking their first steps 20 feet away from the basket, and their marvelous defensive instincts and skill sets them apart.
You have to wonder if Doc, and team president Daryl Morey, don’t look across the floor and see what Ben could become.
But Ben won’t shoot. Ben doesn’t like going to the free-throw line. And Ben has demanded a trade since June, refused to come to training camp, and has been fined more than $2 million for missing games in the preseason and regular season. Why? Because he’s scared to face the NBA, to face his Sixers teammates, and to face the Philadelphia fans and press.
The biggest difference between Giannis and Ben is fearlessness.
Giannis embraces failure the way he embraces success. He doesn’t flee his weaknesses; he faces them. As Rivers said, when he plays on the road, opposing fans often count the seconds during his long pre-shot routine to distract him. He is undeterred, reaching the line 9.7 times per game over the past three seasons despite an embarrassing 68% success rate.
He knows he needs to drive and shoot. That’s why this was the most remarkable element in Rivers’ testimonial:
“That’s what I liked about him. He’s just defiant.”
Notably, Simmons is not. Simmons doesn’t lack the talent that makes Giannis the best player in the league.
He lacks the courage.
Not only does he refuse to shoot three-pointers, he has no appreciable perimeter game at all, and he disappeared in the fourth quarters of the series against Atlanta. But, by far the worst issue was his refusal to attack the basket, get fouled and earn free throws.
In his answer, Rivers apparently referenced Giannis’ second-round performance against the Nets. He went 2-for-10 in Games 1 and 2 against Brooklyn, both of which the Bucks lost. Did he run and hide? To the contrary; Giannis got more aggressive. He averaged 10 free throws in the final five games, twice his average of Games 1 and 2. He only shot 48% from the line in the series, but he played his game — the game he needs to play, and the game Ben needs to play — and the Bucks won in seven en route to the NBA title.
He was defiant.
Maybe one day Ben will share that trait. Maybe his sessions with therapists will help him take this next step in the evolution of his game, and his life.
Again, these are Doc’s words, but this is my reaction. This is what I thought.
Then again, it wasn’t that much of a stretch.