It’s fitting that piece of hardware is named after Bill Russell, whose 11 rings with the Boston Celtics remains one of the most unscalable feats in sports. In July, Giannis Antetokounmpo became the latest to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy in one hand and the Bill Russell Finals MVP award in the other. The one for the entire team is bigger, but somehow the other seems heavier.
For a talent as rare as Antetokounmpo — a two-time regular season MVP, a Finals MVP and a defensive player of the year by 26 — the legacy of NBA greatness leaves him with a new challenge this season. It’s a fun story line for the league’s 75th anniversary season and a perfect counterbalance to the attention given to two older megastar forwards vying to lead their teams back to a summer parade: LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
The Milwaukee Bucks are the defending champs. But James is in Los Angeles, and Durant is in Brooklyn, and their rosters are loaded with names as big as their markets. Hype makes James and Durant the headliners. Antetokounmpo now has a claim to the throne, though, and he has an organically grown team with a core that has been together longer.
Unlike Durant, the Greek Freak has no Kyrie Irving drama to overcome. He is 10 years younger than James, and he doesn’t need to cover for a roster that has some concerns about age, fit and defensive upside.
Still, the contender status of two active legends who’ve won a combined six titles makes the task clear for Antetokounmpo. It’s an assignment he began preparing for just minutes after the Bucks clinched their first title in 50 years.
Shortly after the buzzer sounded that night, he hugged Coach Mike Budenholzer and said as the confetti rained, “We’re going to do it again.” Then Giannis repeated the sentiment during the trophy presentation and nodded as the crowd cheered.
If you’ve followed the NBA for decades, you can remember a time in which no one dared to project anything more than joy and relief during a title celebration. Thirty-four years ago, Pat Riley stunned his team during the Lakers’ championship parade in 1987 by setting the agenda. The coach declared during his speech, “And I’m guaranteeing everybody here: Next year, we’re going to win it again.” He quickly turned to his team and grinned.
In 1988, the Lakers needed to rally from a 3-2 deficit to outlast the Detroit Pistons in seven games and turn Riley into a prophet. You just didn’t repeat during that era. The 1970s were full of parity. Though the Lakers and Boston Celtics dominated the 1980s, the league was too balanced to dream of partying every year. When the Lakers went back-to-back, they were the NBA’s first repeat champion in 19 years.
Since then, five teams have managed to win two in a row: Detroit, Houston, the Lakers, Miami and Golden State. A trio have achieved three-peats: Chicago twice during the Michael Jordan era and the Lakers of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.
So over the past 33 seasons, 19 of the championships have come in bundles. Thirteen teams have failed to repeat. Now, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks get the chance to see if they can run and jump without their crown falling off.
Giannis embraced it immediately. The funny thing is, it really doesn’t matter, except in those endless debates in which everyone thinks they have a good point but no one truly wins the argument. The conversation creates a bizarre champions league of NBA immortality. Competitors can’t resist wanting in, however.
When the NBA celebrates its top 75 players of the past 75 seasons, Antetokounmpo will be on the list. In my opinion, he can retire tomorrow and make the all-time top 30 cut. If he doesn’t win another championship, the title last season still carries tremendous weight because he stayed with the team that drafted him and helped build something special in a smaller market. He’ll be remembered as the refreshing face of an anti-super-team mentality, and there’s a possibility his example could mark a shift in which staying put in one market becomes popular again.
In his interpretation of NBA stardom, Antetokounmpo accepts the burden and brushes aside much of the entitlement.
“Right now, what I want is to get better,” Antetokounmpo said at the start of training camp. “I don’t care about trophies. I don’t care about MVPs. I don’t care about defensive player of the year. I don’t care about all those things. I care about getting better, because I know if I do that, there’s more things coming with that, and that’s what I’ve done my whole career, and that’s why I’m in this position.”
During the preseason, he showed how serious he is about continuing to evolve. He could’ve absorbed only the validation from last season. He could’ve come into this season adamant about doing only what has worked for him and mocked the people who point out the holes that still exist in his game. Instead, it looks like he has been in the lab.
His shooting form looks better. It’s closer to the functional motion he had upon entering the NBA, not the awkward and long-developing mess he has had since adding muscle and becoming a player who attacks the rim. He’s not obsessed only with the three-point shot like he has been since Budenholzer became the Milwaukee coach. He’s showing progress with counter moves, working on being smoother in getting to midrange jumpers and making quicker decisions when he’s in the post. But forget about fancy moves for a moment. If all this work translates only into improving his free throw shooting percentage — if Giannis can shoot in the 70s like he used to — he would become even more dangerous and have more impact at the end of games.
It remains to be seen whether any of these signs of improvement can withstand regular season intensity and opponent film study. But it’s the desire that means the most. The championship didn’t feed Antetokounmpo’s ego. Even after ordering 50 Chick-fil-A nuggets to celebrate his 50-point Game 6 performance, he still has a big appetite.
The Greek Freak isn’t satisfied. He is ready to play the greater game.