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To Be Peerless: Giannis and Pirlo

A belated article that only partially focuses on basketball...

Besiktas v Fatih Karagumruk SK - Super Lig Photo by Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images

With anticipation brewing over who will rise as the cream of the this year’s crop of Bucks, I thought it would be timely for an article about the likeliest candidate to emerge on top. Less timely is the inspiration for the article - a piece about soccer from about six months ago - but so it goes.

I’ve always been a fan of Rory Smith’s work. He writes with a classically give-and-take and characteristically British style, with a lot of easter eggs for those in the know. I encourage you to read his piece on Andrea Pirlo, the sublime Italian soccer star, in full, while acknowledging that a subscription is probably required. But I’ll also be excerpting it below.

The piece wormed its way into my hippocampus because it offered a useful (rather than obscene) meditation on a player watching the game continue to evolve without him. It’s a fun way to consider the present influence of Giannis and conjecture it into the future. I’ll introduce the peerless Pirlo, walk through Rory’s perspective on Pirlo’s relationship to modern soccer, and then draw some parallels with Giannis and basketball.

I think the best introduction to Pirlo is this clip. It doesn’t show him in his element as one of the best deep-lying playmakers ever, but it epitomizes how, like many of the greats, he seems to see the sport slower and the ball bigger than most. It shows his impeccable body control, intelligence, and courage — he risked taking that penalty when Italy was losing in a penalty shoot-out at the European Championships.

He started his career by bouncing around a smattering of clubs. After solidifying his excellence in the midfield, he transferred to AC Milan and then, years later, to Juventus. At those two clubs, he won Serie A (the top professional soccer league in Italy) six times and the Champions League (the most coveted trophy for European domestic clubs) twice. Seven years ago, he decided to take his talents on a sunset tour at NYCFC, where he retired five years ago. In the meantime, he spent a year as a sacrificial lamb the head coach of Juventus and appears to be lying in wait for another opportunity. Since former players are always great coaches (...), he likely won’t be waiting long.

He didn’t fare too poorly on the Italian national side, either: notably, he was named the Man of the Match as Italy triumphed over France in the final of the 2006 World Cup (an affair that has been overshadowed by a certain headbutt), and with the help of the above clip he led Italy to the final of the 2012 European Championships. He continued to bear witness to history in group stage match against Uruguay in the 2014 World Cup, which featured a certain chomp. Long story short, Pirlo may not be Messi, but he is not that far off.

He was also influential. In Rory’s words:

He made the deep-lying playmaker the game’s must-have accessory, for a while, at least.

But, hence the “for a while, at least,” his impact seems to have faded.

...Pirlo already feels as if he belongs to another era... [...] That is not simply because soccer has a tendency toward instant amnesia. It is not just because, in the years in between his retirement as a player and his short-lived managerial tenure at Juventus he faded, just a little, from view. Nor can it be attributed, entirely, to the fact that many of the moments with which he is most indelibly associated are from what might politely be referred to as “some time ago.”

It is that players like him do not exist any more, not really. It is no surprise that, when asked which individuals he most likes to watch now, he picks out Sergio Busquets, Frenkie de Jong, Marco Verratti, Jorginho. They all contain trace elements of Pirlo, in different ways — position or technique or role or poise — but none are quite cut from his cloth. [...] Modern soccer does not produce, does not tolerate, players as languid as him, not in his position; nor, increasingly, does it have room for the sort of unhurried imagination that was always Pirlo’s hallmark. [...]

Pirlo was a generational talent, but he happened to fit in a box that is increasingly going out of style. (The article pins this trend on the increasing “automatization” of the game, where players are simply cogs in manager’s finely tuned machines, rather than left to spin their own magic.) As a result, there is no army of mini-Pirlos ready to take his mantle. Instead, there are a selection of players who embody bits and pieces of his greatness. The machine of modern soccer has decided to move on.

What about the machine of modern basketball? It certainly seems that teams (cough cough the Raptors cough) are trying to assemble armies of Giannis-like guys. There seems to be an uptick in drafting flyers on raw string beans, with the hope that they can hit the gym and develop the skills to become an all-position battering ram. It is hard to take umbrage with this approach given Giannis’ success.

But I wonder if this approach is myopic. Like Pirlo, Giannis is peerless; it may be fruitless to try to replicate him. Giannis’ greatness is comprised of bits and pieces of the stars who came before him; it may be more fruitful to find other effective permutations instead, including aspects of Giannis’ game (like Pirlo’s) as well. We have also seen attempts around the league to adapt to Giannis, like building a wall to defend him; the allure of novelty is at least in part the advantage of being (or at least feeling) one step ahead of the opposition.

On a structural level, however, I think that basketball incentivizes Giannis-esque players more than soccer. Soccer is allergic to salary caps, rendering a massive chasm between the haves (Manchester City) and the have-nots (Manchester United - only somewhat kidding). Basketball at least theoretically is more equitable thanks to its soft cap, with the exception of certain central Californian franchises (in both directions). Soccer features twice as more players on the field of play; individual players wreak more havoc in basketball. The flow of basketball players is supplemented by a draft that allows even the bottom-feeders to feast, whereas most soccer players are acquired on the open market.

Taken together, I think that bad basketball teams are more likely to roll the dice on an unorthodox player to build a team around. Such players are attainable through the draft, can have a massive impact on the court, and may actually translate into success. (For what it’s worth, my sense is that bad soccer teams are more likely to roll the dice on an unorthodox coach who can find affordable players to fill positions.)

There won’t be another player like Pirlo or Giannis. Instead, their games will live on in flashes and moments of subsequent stars. But, if it is indeed more likely that unorthodox players emerge in basketball, the upshot is a more entertaining sport. The star-gazing of modern basketball, albeit arguably a step back from earlier team-oriented eras, is probably preferable to simply seeing which Saudi-backed star-studded trillion-dollar team can beat Manchester City at its own game.