By winning NBA championship, Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo put himself on track to reach rare level of greatness

Shortly after leading the Bucks to their first title in 50 years with one of the greatest NBA Finals performances in league history, Giannis Antetokounmpo spoke to ESPN’s Malika Andrews about his journey to the top of the NBA mountain and the significance of reaching his goals in Milwaukee. While Antetokounmpo admitted he was already thinking about what he could do in order to capture another ring, the NBA Finals MVP did manage to take a moment to reflect on what he had accomplished.

“We might never win another one. It’s fine. We did it,” Antetokounmpo told Andrews. “We did what we were supposed to do. I’d rather do it this way, win one this way, than go somewhere else and [join] a super team and win two or three.”

Those comments tell you a great deal about Antetokounmpo as a player and person. His competitiveness, his dedication, what he values — Antetokounmpo laid it all out right there, and that’s part of what makes him one of the NBA’s most likable stars.

But his response to Andrews’ question also did something else. It put into perspective how much Antetokounmpo has achieved at such an early stage of his career.

At 26 years old, “The Greek Freak” is a five-time All-Star, five-time All-NBA selection, four-time All-Defensive selection, Most Improved Player, Defensive Player of the Year, two-time NBA MVP and NBA Finals MVP. After defeating the Suns in Game 6 of the championship series, Antetokounmpo joked that he wanted to “develop a time machine” so that he could go back to 2013 and win the Rookie of the Year award. Does Mike Budenholzer have Dr. Stephen Strange’s number by chance?

Multiverse theories aside, Antetokounmpo is on a timeline that could end with him standing alongside some of the game’s greatest players. Consider this: Antetokounmpo established himself as the clear No. 1 option on his team and won his first title faster than the likes of Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James. When factoring in accolades, age, stature within the league and surrounding talent, it’s hard to find someone historically who belongs in Antetokounmpo’s category.

Dwyane Wade (O’Neal), Magic Johnson (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Tim Duncan (David Robinson) all won titles at a young age as their team’s best player, but they had significant help. Larry Bird was second in the league in MVP voting and won a title at 24 years old, but he only averaged 21.2 points per game. His back-to-back-to-back MVP run would come years later. Bill Walton may be the closest comp, as he was a champ at 24 and the clear leader of the Trail Blazers, but his career ended up being short-circuited by injuries.

The scary part for the rest of the NBA? Antetokounmpo can get better as he approaches what are typically the prime years of a superstar’s career. After running into postseason walls against the Raptors in 2019 and Heat in 2020, a light bulb appeared to go off above Antetokounmpo’s head during the 2021 NBA playoffs.

He averaged a ridiculous 30.2 points, 12.8 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.0 steals in 21 playoff games and shot 56.9 percent from the field. In the NBA Finals clincher, Antetokounmpo went off for 50 points on 16-of-25 shooting and went 17 of 19 from the free throw line. The old walls that stood tall in front of him suddenly had cracks he could attack and exploit.

Jordan had to struggle against the “Bad Boys” Pistons. O’Neal had to get outplayed by Hakeem Olajuwon. James had to learn from his failures against the Mavericks. Antetokounmpo will take the floor next season with the confidence reserved for only those who have risen above painful losses. It was the type of breakthrough that could propel him into a different stratosphere.

How much should we bump up the ceiling for Antetokounmpo? It will depend somewhat on elements outside of his control.

The Bucks must continue to build around Antetokounmpo over the next half-decade and be prepared to take big swings, whether it be chasing free agents or pursuing Jrue Holiday-like trades. Current contenders such as the Nets and Lakers will present major challenges, and new super teams will emerge in the future. After catching a few breaks this past year, the injury bug could bite Milwaukee at some point.

Even with those caveats in place, it would be unwise to place any sort of limits on Antetokounmpo. Could he win a few more championships? Are more MVP trophies back on the table? It feels as though doors previously closed off to an awkward, skinny kid from Greece have suddenly been unlocked. 

Antetokounmpo and the Bucks did exactly what they were “supposed to do,” and for that reason, his legacy in Milwaukee is secure. It will be fascinating to watch how much he can add to it in the years to come.

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