In an era during which so many athletes seem to operate from the premise “there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team,’ but there’s a ‘me’ if you shuffle the letters a little,” Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo continues to be a breath of fresh air. You can’t turn around without running into a GOAT debate or the ever-popular “best player in the world” question. Antetokounmpo knows this, and despite two MVP awards, a Finals MVP, and a shiny new championship ring, his take on the best player in the world question is refreshing.
Antetokounmpo and the Bucks aren’t getting a great deal of respect as defending champions. Before the last of the confetti fell from the rafters at Fiserv Forum in July, oddsmakers were saying two other teams were better bets to win in 2022. But it doesn’t seem that Giannis gives the slights much thought. Instead, he goes out and does his thing, usually at an exceptionally high level. Despite all that, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and other players get the bulk of the attention in all the debates.
An NBA Finals breakout for the ages by Giannis Antetokounmpo
Outside of Deandre Ayton, the Phoenix Suns didn’t have much size to throw at Giannis Antetokounmpo in the NBA Finals. When Dario Šarić went down after just two minutes in Game 1, the Suns had even less.
The Bucks took advantage of this. They gave Giannis the ball and got out of the way. While Phoenix wasn’t powerless to stop him, it was close. Antetokounmpo averaged 35.2 points per game in the Finals, finishing off the Suns with a 50-point, 14-rebound masterpiece in Game 6 that included making 17-of-19 free throws.
The championship run came after back-to-back MVP seasons that ended in disappointment for Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. In 2018–19 and 2019–20, Milwaukee finished the regular season with the NBA’s best record. The Toronto Raptors wrecked the party in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2019. In 2020, the Miami Heat burst the Bucks bubble in Orlando with a second-round shocker.
But even with the awards, Antetokounmpo never seems to care much about the accolades. Not even mythical ones.
Giannis Antetokounmpo makes his pick for the world’s best player
During an interview with the Greek television channel COSMOTE TV (per Eurohoops), Giannis Antetokounmpo fielded the best player in the world question. His answer was thoughtful and spoke to his perpetual underdog mentality.
“I like being a hunter. I am not the best player in the world. I am telling you, I am not! KD, LeBron, Kawhi (Leonard), Luka (Dončić), (Stephen) Curry, (Anthony Davis) might be. I am not. I am still hunting the all-time greats. LeBron is still the best player in the world.”Giannis Antetokounmpo
Handing LeBron James the title is a switch from his position during the playoffs when he was trying in vain to stop Durant as the Bucks battled the Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
At that time, Antetokounmpo declared that Durant was the world’s best player. But that can be written off as a heat-of-the-moment thing. After all, the biggest obstacle is always the one directly in front of you.
LeBron James has been in the discussion for an absurdly long time
LeBron James entered the NBA at age 18, straight out of high school, and won his first NBA MVP trophy at 24. But even entering his age-37 season, he’s still playing at a high level.
Last season, James averaged 25.0 points, 7.8 assists, and 7.7 rebounds in 33.4 minutes per game. But he missed 27 games with an ankle injury, the second time in three years he’s missed large chunks of time with a significant injury.
Is he still the best player in the world? Given that the question is impossible to quantify, the most realistic answer is maybe. Durant seems to be the people’s champion right now (at least among the loudest of the talking heads). We’re probably only a few years away from the discussion going international.
Antetokounmpo will be in the conversation for a bit. He’s been in the NBA for eight seasons already, but he won’t be 27 until December. Dončić just signed his rookie extension and turns 23 in February.
Those are the most likely suspects to top the list when James and Durant fade.
And knowing Giannis Antetokounmpo’s track record, he’ll probably tell us it’s Luka anyway. It seems to be the way he operates.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.