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Giannis Antetokounmpo and the moving goalposts of greatness

Giannis Antetokounmpo has been relentlessly and consistently great through three MVP-caliber seasons. But the standards just keep increasing.

When Nikola Jokić was named NBA MVP this week, he made all kinds of history. The first Serbian to win the award; the lowest-drafted player to do so (41st in 2014) and the first center since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000. Jokić also made another kind of history. For the first time in league history, five consecutive MVPs have never won a title: Jokić, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and two-time winner Giannis Antetokounmpo. Perhaps no player more than Antetokounmpo invites inquiry into how perceptions of the game’s ultimate team ambition and its highest individual honor have evolved.

Even by MVP standards, Jokić’s numbers were incredible: 28 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists, 2.5 stocks and nearly 10 free throw attempts a game. Those are kind of impossible numbers to beat, right? Except they’re not, because those were Antetokounmpo’s numbers this season, and the season before that, and the season before that. He led Milwaukee to 46 wins and the third seed in the East; Jokić’s Denver Nuggets won 47 and were third in the West. Jokić is an unimpeachably deserving MVP. The fact that he won out over Antetokounmpo is not scandalous. The fact that he got 91 first-place votes and Antetokounmpo just one deserves a raised eyebrow and a huh?

Nature is nothing if not symmetrical. Antetokounmpo’s lower vote totals are, in part, the result of the same bias that helped him win his first MVP in 2019. That season Harden was the defending MVP and played even better than when he’d won the award. But voters, like lovers, spend more time than they’ll ever admit fantasizing about someone new. Harden’s brilliance didn’t dim any; it simply couldn’t help but start to feel familiar. Rote. Another Friday night run-through at the Lomax’s. Back then, Antetokounmpo was the greener grass. Now Jokić is.

How do weigh things like stats, MVP Awards and rings when measuring the greatness of a player like Giannis?

Is this run of title-less MVPs a sign that society, or at least NBA writers, have matured beyond conflating rings with personal value? If you’ve ever met society, you know that’s a no. Our most widely accepted metric for determining how great a player is is counting their championships — something won by a group, an absurd, absurdly pervasive illogic. To put it another way: consider Scottie Pippen and Larry Bird.

A total of 4,374 players have appeared in an NBA game. Pippen and Bird are two of the all-time greats, but no one would seriously suggest Pippen was better, including Pippen. Let’s say he’s a top-50 player all-time and Bird’s top-10. That seems like an enormous gap…until you consider that Pippen would rank higher than 98.9 percent of all players, ever, with Bird above 99.8 percent. That’s not even a one percent difference between two players where there’s unanimity as far as superiority.

When dealing with players whose stories are still being written, whose legends are not yet defined, the postseason is the paper of record. Antetokounmpo’s Game 3 effort against the Nets is now fixed in time. It’s history. How it’s read can still fluctuate wildly, depending on how the rest of the series goes.

The box score says 33 points and 14 rebounds and a W, all of which sound like credits to Antetokounmpo’s account. He made a 3-pointer early in the fourth to give the Milwaukee Bucks a little breathing room as the Nets kept cresting. Three minutes later his pull-up jumper broke a 76-all tie; he and Khris Middleton were the entire offense. Over and over the Bucks’ late-game approach was Neandertal; they brought a blunt object to a knife fight. Antetokounmpo would gather himself and his dribble just behind the arc, then drive at Blake Griffin, usually, and either spin left or spin right or fade one way or the other or sometimes just try to up and power his way through the Nets. Sometimes he succeeded.

Sometimes he didn’t. Antetokounmpo was just 1-of-8 shooting 3s and 4-of-9 at the free-throw line. The Bucks missed 15 of their first 18 shots in the fourth and he was hardly an innocent bystander to the atrocities. In the last minute of the game, he drove to the basket and lost the ball out of bounds, going down hard and looking like his team’s fortunes had, too. But teams win games, not players.

Jrue Holiday’s spinning lay-up with 11 seconds left provided the game-winning points. Middleton’s free throws provided the final margin. Brook Lopez and P.J. Tucker couldn’t hit from anywhere but gave Milwaukee a big lift on the defensive end, at least when Mike Budenholzer wasn’t having Lopez fall back into drop coverage as Kevin Durant took one uncontested jumper after another. Something to remember when considering the flaws in thinking that a player wins or loses a game, a series, a season — sometimes the coach puts the team in an impossible situation.

So Antetokounmpo and the Bucks live to write a bit more of their story. He’s reached a rarefied air, one where putting up MVP numbers not only doesn’t guarantee a title, or a shot at one, it doesn’t even mean a top-3 MVP finish — Antetokounmpo was fourth this year. In that same universe, putting up MVP numbers in essentially a must-win playoff game wins him nothing beyond the challenge of doing it again Sunday afternoon. It’s too late for Antetokounmpo to win MVP this year. But if he keeps playing like the Bucks’ MVP, he and they could be celebrating something bigger and better come season’s end.

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