All In on the Milwaukee Bucks, Still
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LONDON — The plan was to meet up in London and, if everything fell right, maybe even watch the big game together.
Aston Villa played Manchester City on Sunday in the League Cup final at Wembley Stadium, pitting your humble newsletter curator (and lifelong City fan) against Wes Edens, who doubles as the co-owner of Villa and the Milwaukee Bucks. Once the matchup was cemented, I tried to make this even more of a duel by proposing we attend as side-by-side spectators, two Americans abroad who probably never would have met if not for our associations with the N.B.A.
Edens was all-in on the idea — until the weekend drew near and the volume from his conscience grew louder. As badly as he wished to attend what would be only the fourth Wembley cup final for Aston Villa since 1996, Sunday’s match conflicted with meetings and earnings calls for two publicly traded companies that Edens heads and manages in New York: Drive Shack and New Fortress Energy.
“It was the adult decision to stay behind,” Edens, who estimated he traveled about 200 days a year, said by phone on Monday. “But I was very unhappy about it.”
So as Villa, the huge underdog from Birmingham, unexpectedly pushed deep-pocketed City early and late, when many were expecting a rout, Edens was watching at home in New York — in solitude. It turns out that the desire to consume soccer alone when the only option is watching your team on TV is something else Edens and I have in common beyond our shared fascination with English soccer.
“It’s funny,” Edens said. “Basketball I can watch with 10 people and I’m perfectly fine.”
The “big consequence” attached to “every goal and every mistake” in soccer and the emotional reactions they inspire are what make it preferable, he said, to be solo.
Soccer fans in Britain are forever skeptical of American businessmen who invest in their clubs, but Edens won the admiration of many Villa fans when he was caught on camera fist-pumping vociferously after a goal from the Egyptian forward Trezeguet in late January that secured victory over Leicester City in the League Cup semifinals.
On Sunday, those cameras were trained on Prince William, Villa’s most famous supporter, as he reveled in Mbwana Samatta’s headed goal shortly before halftime that halved City’s 2-nil lead and changed the tenor of the game.
Yet Edens’s fallback vantage point did provide at least one benefit. Not long after Villa’s defeat, which led several of its players to collapse to the ground in disappointment at the final whistle, he switched the channel to the Bucks’ game in Charlotte, N.C. Giannis Antetokounmpo duly delivered 41 points, 20 rebounds and 6 assists in just 35 minutes in a 93-85 victory that gave him his first career 40/20 game and nudged Milwaukee to a tidy 52-8 record.
The Bucks dropped the second half of their back-to-back on the road Monday night in Miami, but it is not lost on Edens that his two franchises on separate continents are in two completely different places competitively.
Despite the Miami setback, Milwaukee remains on pace to become just the third 70-win team in league history, while Antetokounmpo closes in on a second straight Most Valuable Player Award. The Bucks awoke on Tuesday ranked third in the league in offensive rating and No. 1 in defensive rating, looking like the closest thing to a juggernaut in the first season following the Golden State Warriors’ five successive trips to the N.B.A. finals.
Villa’s outlook isn’t nearly as rosy. In its first season after winning promotion from England’s second tier, Edens’s club sits 19th in the 20-team Premier League with 11 games to go. Villa must finish 17th to stay in England’s top division and avoid a return to the Championship, which, for starters, would inflict the estimated loss of nearly $150 million in television revenue.
So there is no resting easy for Edens, even though it is true that Milwaukee’s success and Antetokounmpo’s nightly ferocity have hushed much of the usual free-agent speculation that a player of his stature would generate heading into a summer in which he is eligible for a contract extension. The reality persists that, for all of its regular-season quiet, Milwaukee may well need to win the championship to persuade Antetokounmpo to sign that extension.
If the Bucks don’t go all the way this time, after squandering a 2-0 lead over Toronto in the Eastern Conference finals last season, it would undoubtedly give hope to teams such as Toronto, Miami and, yes, even the Knicks — all of whom have been plotting to make a free-agent run at Antetokounmpo in the summer of 2021 should he bypass the $247 million extension Edens and his partners Marc Lasry and Jamie Dinan will surely offer him in July at the first allowable minute.
A similar story, for added stress, nags at Edens and the Egyptian billionaire Nassef Sawiris, his co-owner at Villa, surrounding the future of their midfield star Jack Grealish. Numerous Premier League rivals are expected to try this summer to pry Grealish away from the club he joined at age 6 — even if Villa avoids relegation.
Yet as Edens readily acknowledged when I wrote about him last May, when Villa and the Bucks both played season-defining games in the space of 72 hours, no one feels sorry for the rich owners of big-time sports franchises.
He knows he is living an absolute dream, even if that means isolating himself in his living room so no one else can see him “screaming at the screen.”
“I take a lot of comfort from the time that we’ve had with the Bucks and what it took for us to go from being a very hungry and very young team to really being the prominent team in the league this year,” Edens said. “It was a process. We hired the right people, they made a lot of great decisions, and we’re blessed to have this guy named Giannis.
“When I look at the experience with Villa, there’s a lot of parallels. We have a bunch of very talented young guys and we want to build ourselves into a top-six team and be involved in all the big competitions around the world. But it’s not going to happen overnight, and it’s not going to happen by accident.”
Relieved as he and Sawiris would be in May if Villa preserves its Premier League status, they invested in English soccer with much loftier goals.
“This is a long-term journey for Nassef and myself,” Edens said. “Staying there would be a big accomplishment, but that’s still far short of where we want to be.”
The aim is to restore Villa, the 1982 European Cup winner, to the sort of prominence that would make it more of a known quantity worldwide — including in the Bucks’ locker room.
Although Aston Villa’s star defender Tyrone Mings traveled to France in late January to see the Bucks play the Hornets in Paris, Milwaukee’s players who are interested in soccer, Edens said, typically follow teams such as Paris St. Germain and Arsenal.
“But that’s only because, as I tell these guys, they don’t know any better yet,” Edens said.
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You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.)
Q: This season is WIDE open. You have two favorites (Lakers and Bucks) and five other teams with a really, really good shot (Rockets, Raptors, Celtics, Nuggets and Clippers). And you have one dark horse (Blazers) if they can get healthy. — @conqueredkozmos from Twitter
STEIN: I’ve been writing for some time now, and tweeted again last week, that the list of viable championship contenders isn’t nearly as long as it was widely billed to be back in September. The enclosed tweet from @conqueredkozmos clearly disagrees with my premise.
But I’m holding firm here. I simply can’t support the notion that there are seven potential champions as we move into the final 40 days (and change) of the regular season — let alone endorse Portland as some sort of sleeper pick when the Trail Blazers, even accounting for all of their injuries, have slipped so far down in the West standings.
Milwaukee is in a tier of its own, if you assess the Bucks objectively on the various facets of their regular-season dominance. The two Los Angeles teams are next in line. I give a puncher’s chance to Toronto, out of sheer respect for the stubborn excellence that the Raptors’ proud veterans and Coach Nick Nurse have produced all season after losing Kawhi Leonard. Ditto for Houston, despite my initial skepticism, because of the dramatic success that the Rockets have found (especially defensively) since trading for Robert Covington last month and going all-in on microball.
But that’s it. That’s my list. I am extremely confident in saying that your N.B.A. champion in June will be one of those five teams — and, as usual, I refuse to amend my preseason pick and thus will stick with the Bucks.
Q: Anyone know the N.B.A. record for the biggest disparity between home and road record? — Rob Ostrom (Strongsville, Ohio)
STEIN: Yet another question I could not possibly answer without consulting my dear friend @MicahAdams13 for help. (This is the second week in a row for those of you tracking that stat.)
Your curiosity, I presume, was inspired by Philadelphia’s killer mark of 28-2 at home (tops in the league) compared with its 9-22 struggles on the road.
After huddling with Mr. Adams, I can confirm that Philadelphia’s split personalities are unprecedented in the modern N.B.A.
Adams had to rewind to the 1950s to find a team or two, such as the 1951-52 Indianapolis Olympians and the 1954-55 Boston Celtics, with a disparity similar to that of today’s Sixers. Yet that era bears little resemblance to what we see now. To cite just one example, teams played numerous neutral-site games back then.
So maybe this will explain it best: With that gaudy 28-2 home record, Philadelphia has established a pace that would secure a place for the 76ers on the list of the top 20 home teams in N.B.A. history. But the 19 teams they would join, Adams notes, posted a composite road winning percentage of .616, which equates over a full season to a road record of 25-16. The Sixers are nowhere close to that level when they play away from Wells Fargo Center.
Furthermore, only four of those 19 teams finished with losing road records.
Of course, Adams being Adams, he had to remind me that the 1994-95 Orlando Magic reached the N.B.A. finals after going 39-2 at home and just 18-23 on the road. The 1986-87 Boston Celtics also reached the finals after going 39-2 at home and 20-21 on the road.
Perhaps all hope, then, is not lost for the 76ers — provided that Ben Simmons’s back injury isn’t as worrisome as it sounds.
Q: Are you English? Or just a huge soccer fan? — Adam Taylor (Birmingham, England)
STEIN: Thank you, Adam, for the laugh-inducing question of the week.
I know it may have been hard to tell in recent days, when I was tweeting rampantly about Manchester City’s latest exploits, but, no, I am not English.
I am merely a longstanding Anglophile whose overly romanticized fondness for your country stems from being introduced to English soccer as an 11-year-old — then not actually having the opportunity to visit British soil until I was almost 30. That gave me a long time — after reading stacks and stacks of Shoot! magazine, ordering my own Subbuteo set and swiping my father’s Kevin Keegan signature Patrick boots for my own use — to build up the place to mythic proportions. Such are the powers of a teenage sports nerd’s imagination.
I have only fallen harder for England over the past 20-plus years and too many soccer-watching trips to count. This edition of the newsletter was even assembled in London at the end of a five-day stay that was as intoxicating as any I’ve had.
But I will be back on U.S. soil as of Wednesday, and my tweets should soon start sounding normal again. Promise, mate.
There have been 19 games this season in which an N.B.A. player scored 50 points, including three in the 60s from Portland’s Damian Lillard (two) and Houston’s James Harden. Lillard (four) and Harden (five) have combined for nine of the 50-point games.
Eight other players have registered 50-point games besides Lillard (who is nearing a return from a recent groin strain) and Harden. They are: Washington’s Bradley Beal (two), the Nets’ Kyrie Irving (two), Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Lakers’ Anthony Davis, Houston’s Eric Gordon, Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton, Minnesota’s D’Angelo Russell and Atlanta’s Trae Young.
Last week, Beal became the first player to score at least 50 points two nights in a row in nearly 13 years, since Kobe Bryant did it in March 2007. Before Bryant, it hadn’t been done since 1987, when Michael Jordan achieved the feat.
Shake Milton, who has spent much of his pro career with Philadelphia’s team in the N.B.A.’s developmental G League, scored 39 points on Sunday in the 76ers’ road loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. Milton became the first 76er since Allen Iverson in 2006 to score 35 or more points with at least five made 3-pointers and five assists, according to Basketball Reference. Milton’s G League scoring best is 36 points.
In our recent piece leading into the Kobe Bryant memorial in Los Angeles, Del Harris — Bryant’s first coach with the Lakers — spoke of his sorrow upon realizing that the two youngest players he had ever coached in the pros were no longer alive: Bryant and Moses Malone. My NBC Sports colleague Tom Haberstroh took that point a sobering step further when he noted recently that of the 34 players to win the N.B.A.’s annual Most Valuable Player Award since it was introduced in 1956, only three have died: Bryant, Malone and Wilt Chamberlain.
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