'Unicorn' talents Davis, Antetokounmpo a fantasy acquisition for many teams

Standout big men may have to move on someday to realize NBA greatness

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

* Tonight on ESPN: Bucks vs. Celtics (8 ET) | Pelicans vs. Lakers (10:30 ET)

Beyond the NBA game staged there on this particular night, there was something more mythic and goosebumpy going on earlier this week in Milwaukee.

This was a clash of “unicorns,” Anthony Davis vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo, two improbably talented and remarkably versatile young big men around whom any franchise would eagerly build.

The blessed two in this case were Davis’ visiting New Orleans Pelicans facing Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks won, 123-115, but the thrill within the game was the matchup of a potential new-age Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, stretched out and reprogrammed, competition meeting evolution meeting sleeve length.

In a perfect pebble-grained world, the Bucks and the Pelicans could have been giving us a preview of multiple Finals to come.

“It’s amazing. Both of ‘em,” New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said. “Both of ‘em play at a real high level and both of ‘em impact the game in ways other than just scoring. Probably these two guys as much as anybody in the league.”

Said Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer: “We’re here with Giannis every day, every night. What he does, whatever you want to call it, he plays pretty much every position for us and does everything. … And Anthony Davis is so unique in how he scores and so special and so gifted.”

Unfortunately, the prospect of seeing that even once in The Finals is slim, never mind the three times Bird and Magic had or the four in a row we’ve had with LeBron James against Golden State. Four out of seven games in June? No, we’ve got to settle for two each regular season — Davis and Antetokounmpo meet on March 12 in New Orleans — and possibly a few serendipitous All-Star moments.

For either or both to become Finals regulars, conventional wisdom says, they’ll have to relocate. Not just to new ZIP codes but to different time zones.

Both Davis and Antetokounmpo are in the ESPN spotlight tonight, with the Bucks visiting the Celtics (8 ET) with Pelicans-Lakers to follow (10:30 ET). So it’s Antetokounmpo and Davis, yes, but separated and propped up against the league’s biggest name brands.

That’s why Antetokounmpo theatrically playing the recruiting game for Davis after Wednesday’s game — “Come to the Bucks, man,” he joked. “Come to the Bucks” — got treated like a “ships passing” moment.

Davis to Milwaukee? Bah! That’s as likely as LeBron teaming up with Davis in … wait for it … New Orleans! Bwahaha!

The prevailing view is that Davis in fact will leave New Orleans as a free agent in the summer of 2020 or be traded ahead of that. Despite Gentry’s declarations to the contrary, the Celtics may be the suitor most capable of prying him loose with attractive young players and Draft picks.

James, meanwhile, signaled the Lakers’ interest in Davis with or without the blessing of bosses Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka. The Pelicans big man already owns an estate in L.A. and could cope passing up an extra $39 million if he can pocket a five-year, $205 million deal from new employers. Davis has played in just 13 playoff games in his six seasons, and he is unlikely to internalize much longer the responsibility for boosting the Pelicans to something special.

Antetokounmpo? Maybe he’ll stay in Milwaukee — that’s the crux of a Bleacher Report story this week, searching for reasons he might stray from the pattern of so many stars who left smaller markets (Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Chris Paul among them). But no one doubts there will be constant pressure and endless speculation when he gets contractually to the point Davis is at now — within 18 months of free agency.

The drumbeat could prove deafening.

A lone superstar leading his team to The Finals and a title has been done in the NBA, just not often or lately. Rick Barry did it with the Warriors in 1975, and Hakeem Olajuwon had no reasonable sidekick when he led Houston in 1994 (Clyde Drexler arrived for the ’95 title run).

The Lakers and the Celtics of the 1980s, however, had multiple Hall of Famers. Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O’Neal had Kobe Bryant, and Tim Duncan had either David Robinson or Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.

Boston went with three in 2008, leading to Miami’s Super Friends and James’ variation on that when he returned to Cleveland. Golden State is a veritable Justice League of future Hall of Famers.

That makes the idea of Antetokounmpo and Davis getting it done with only role players and running buddies — or that they’d even want to try — seems quaint.

Or does it?

“Sure they can,” Gentry said. “Markets, social media, whatever, the small market thing is completely different from what it was when I came into the league [1988 as a San Antonio assistant]. There’s really no ‘small market.’ Giannis has got as many ‘followers’ as anybody out there.”

Jon Horst, the Bucks’ GM, calls formulating a winning ensemble around Antetokounmpo “our mission statement.” He wants to prove himself right, too, when Horst says “There are athletes where market matters, the excitement of an L.A. or a New York or the size of a Chicago. But I think more often than not, professional athletes want to win.”

Snazzy arenas and practice facilities — the Bucks have both, the Pelicans the latter — might persuade All-Star helpers to stay, but can that lure them? With the likes of Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, Eric Bledsoe, Julius Randle and the rest, can either organization get where it wants (and where its star expects) to go?

Timing always is tricky — the Heat got Shaq in time for Dwyane Wade’s breakout in 2006, but there often is a lag between a franchise player’s emergence and the scramble to get and keep sufficient help. The Cavs whiffed on James’ first stint, Minnesota couldn’t do it with Kevin Garnett nor Toronto with Vince Carter and on and on.

Antetokounmpo and Davis have their work cut out for them, with proper challenges between them and any Finals dreams or moving vans. The Bucks (21-9) rank second in the East but need to nail down a top-four seed and perhaps get two or three rounds of postseason play to consider 2018-19 a success.

Davis’ Pelicans (15-17) are tied for 12th in the West and yet only 3 1/2 games out of a fourth place tie. His reputation is at stake in this, too. A player’s alleged “greatness” does require him to do some heavy lifting, not just pine for help.

His New Orleans teammates weren’t rattled by James’ covetous comments Tuesday about Davis. They already know playing with him is “amazing” and “incredible” and they’d squint at anyone around the NBA who thought otherwise.

Neither, though, are they focused on winning fast to keep Davis in town. Most are nomads themselves and, besides, they have their own ambitions.

“I don’t think we worry about that,” Pelicans forward Solomon Hill said, “because I feel that way for everybody. I don’t just feel that way for Anthony Davis. I feel that way for Jrue Holiday, I feel that way for Tim Frazier. I go out there and compete no matter who’s out there on the floor.”

Maybe the narrative can change sooner rather than later, and we’ll be permitted to simply enjoy “unicorns” in all their splendor, free from calculating when they’ll leave and where they’ll go.

In the meantime, as an old coach used to say, we’d be wise to congratulate the temporary.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.


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