DETROIT — Giannis Antetokounmpo was given an out, to say the thing that plays directed into his true-to-life image of humility and claim he doesn’t care about winning his third MVP.
“That’s a lie,” Antetokounmpo told Yahoo Sports recently. “I won’t say I don’t care. I want to compete. If you say I don’t care, it’s a lie. Do I think it’s a priority for me? No. The priority for me is to get better, to help my team win a championship, to get that feeling again.
“If God can bless me with an MVP again, I’ll take it.”
Antetokounmpo smiles a bit on that last part, because he’s aware of the MVP conversation to date and the competitor in him wants the recognition. He listens to the names without knowing the significance, then repeats them: Kareem, Jordan, Russell, Chamberlain, LeBron, Bird, Magic (Moses and Julius, too).
“Three MVPs,” he says.
If he wins the MVP again, he would consider it a blessing from above, but it comes from the humans with their own basketball sensibilities and criteria.
Despite being recognized, almost universally, as the league’s best player the last few years, the most undeniable, irresistible force on both ends of the floor, he doesn’t have the additional hardware to match it.
And it could happen again this year. Back-to-back winner Nikola Jokić and back-to-back runner-up Joel Embiid could be in a dead heat for MVP, yet it’s Antetokounmpo who’s had his team on a roll the last few months. The hardest-working man in basketball puts on that cape every night and plays till the band gets tired.
That 16-game winning streak and 21 wins in a 23-game stretch from late January to mid-March is usually enough for someone of his caliber to not just elbow his way into the conversation, but to run away and hide from the competition.
The best player on the best team that could still win 60 games? It takes some rare circumstances — or absolute boredom — for someone of his caliber and stature to not win it.
If we were to take just the last 30 years, it’s just a few glaring cases: In 1997, when Michael Jordan’s Bulls won 69 games the year after winning 72 and somehow voters gave Karl Malone a sympathy MVP — for which he’d pay dearly in the next two NBA Finals.
In 2017, neither Stephen Curry nor Kevin Durant won the award for the 67-win Golden State Warriors — because they were on the same team. Again, one could argue narrative carried Russell Westbrook’s then-unprecedented triple-double quest to the award.
Antetokounmpo knows the conversation revolves more around Jokić and Embiid, to which he says, “That’s OK.” He even gave a scouting report on both, and how voters could come to a conclusion of giving a vote to either.
On Jokić, he said: “I see one guy that helps his team win. I see a guy that understands the game of basketball, plays the game of basketball the right way. I see a guy that’s very competitive, plays to win. He’s a good guy. He’s a great human being. He has a great support system behind him, his brothers, his wife.”
On Embiid: “I see a guy that’s hungry, that plays with a chip on his shoulder to help his team win games. He’s tried to be available for them as much as he can. Because he had the ailments early [in his career] but now he’s here and he’s dominating every other night and dominating every big he plays. A guy that you know draws so much attention to himself [on the floor], makes his teammates better.”
He calls them both, “f***ing unbelievable.” He also urges the world not to take players he mentions frequently, LeBron James and Kevin Durant, for granted.
“Never. He’ll be out of the league and people will say, [in a crying voice] ‘LeBron is gone.’ Appreciate him, appreciate KD while he’s here. I don’t take this job for granted so nobody should take me for granted.”
While the advanced stats don’t have Antetokounmpo at the highest of highs from his previous MVP campaigns, consider he’s had to operate this season without his running mate Khris Middleton for most of it — recovering from surgery that caused him to miss the second round against Boston last spring.
Antetokounmpo’s usage is at a career high 38.7%, carrying a heavier load a bit more quietly than his contemporaries. His scoring is at a career-high 31.2 points per game with 11.8 rebounds and 5.7 assists while still being a defensive menace.
Middleton’s permanent return in January signaled the start of the 16-game winning streak. At full Voltron, it’s hard to see any team — West or East — beating a healthy Bucks team in the playoffs.
“I don’t take Khris for granted because I saw how important he was for me to be successful. To win a championship,” Antetokounmpo said. “I don’t take it for granted. He was a big part of what we do. I don’t take Jrue [Holiday] for granted, Brook [Lopez], he’s the Defensive Player of the Year.”
He repeatedly calls himself a historian of the game, so he knows where a second championship and third MVP would put him. Antetokounmpo was amazed when he heard a Jordan stat that could very well apply to himself: From 1987 (Jordan’s first full season back from a foot injury in his second year) to 1998, Jordan finished either first or second in MVP voting every year he started the season — except once.
In 1990, one of the closest MVP races ever, he was third behind winner Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley. Barkley had the most first-place votes (38), Johnson had 27 and Jordan 21. Jordan went further than the other two, eliminating Barkley’s 76ers in the semifinals before falling to the Bad Boy Pistons in the conference finals.
Aside from that, he either won the award or very well could’ve.
Antetokounmpo, who finished third and fourth the last two years respectively, won’t be able to have that exact streak. But he owns an invisible title hardly anyone can dispute: The best player development story in NBA history.
Perhaps the late Kobe Bryant could have an argument, but Bryant had a higher starting point than Antetokounmpo did as a skinny high schooler. Antetokounmpo came in, all arms and legs, just hungry to get on the floor.
If you squinted during Bryant’s second year, you could see shades of Jordan. You could see greatness from James and Durant from the moment they arrived.
With this guy?
It took two years to see a future All-Star, then he became a big point guard under Jason Kidd. Then in years four and five, you saw a real All-Star and possibly, a future MVP.
Antetokounmpo’s memory is as great as his athletic ability — almost an impossible feat. When he won his first MVP in 2019, he told the world he was only “at 60% of my potential.”
“Remember I said that? Was that true?” He pauses, as if waiting on an answer. “When I said that, people were like [in a mocking voice], ‘What is this dude talking about?’”
He declines to say how close he is now to his full potential, but his will seems indomitable.
“I have more that I can prove. So much more and I’m willing every day to do the hard work. Gonna go till I can’t go any more. Fight through the pain,” he said.
Antetokounmpo has done it before, carrying the Bucks on an ailing knee to one of the best performances this league has ever seen. Now, if he’s snubbed from a third MVP, he’ll have even more fuel for the next few months — even if he won’t outright say it.
“I want a championship,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s the truth. The truth is the only thing that exists. I want … to win … a championship. More.”