It is routine at this point: Giannis Antetokounmpo has once again topped the offseason roster rankings of every player for the Milwaukee Bucks, a nine-year streak that started back in 2014. The two-time league MVP and 2021 NBA Finals MVP has firmly established himself as the greatest Buck ever; he took the franchise scoring record last March (on a three, no less!) from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and has cemented himself as the most important athlete in franchise – and Milwaukee – history.
He’s done everything that could be asked of him at this point. He went from unknown international prospect, to first round draft pick, to enticing young talent, to legitimate two-way contributor, to Most Improved Player, to proven playoff performer, to Most Valuable Player, to champion, to “best player in the league,” all in the last decade. There are few stories that even come close, basketball or otherwise. And at 27 years old, Giannis now has the league-wide reputation that only players like LeBron James enjoyed: he’s at the pinnacle, and everyone can see it (even if they don’t always want to admit it.)
According to ESPN’s panel of 15 NBA coaches, scouts and executives: it’s Giannis’ world and we’re just living in it. pic.twitter.com/Hn6WIDBEn8— Mo Mooncey (@TheHoopGenius) August 30, 2022
So what’s left? What items remain unchecked on the list for someone who has already achieved both personal success and team success? What’s left for Giannis to strive for?
In a word: legacy.
Giannis already has the resume of a Hall of Fame player. His name is written in pen for enshrinement, and he was already named a member of the vaunted NBA 75 team. He’s become one of the game’s greats, but based on both his words and his actions, his drive is to become one of the game’s Greats. To do that, he needs to surpass more than just his contemporaries, but build a legacy of basketball success and athletic triumph that eclipses that of those who have come before him.
If “legacy” is the end-goal, then the clock is ticking for Giannis.
To be fair – which this expectation isn’t – Giannis is still on-track for this level of achievement. He’s 27! But if we are being honest with ourselves, he has likely passed (or at least reached) the midway point of his career; after ten years in the NBA, few can muster up an additional decade of high-level play. Just getting close to that point is awe-inspiring by itself. The list of names that fit that description is a short one: LeBron. Kareem. Dirk. Kobe. Giannis is on the path to add himself to that list, and the path that his could most closely mirror is one that might not live in the spotlight, but seems like the most natural fit for the player – and person – that Giannis is.
That path leads us to San Antonio, and to Tim Duncan.
It was around the time that Giannis was drafted that the national media started discussing Tim Duncan’s legacy. In fact, this Bleacher Report piece went up eight days before the 2013 NBA Draft, and had this to say about the 2020 Basketball Hall of Fame inductee:
History is subjective that way. We inflate the memories of players we adore, sometimes at the expense of those we merely respect but don’t have fond feelings for. [...] That legend’s lore will grow in the years after he retires. Absence will make [Tim] Duncan seem that much more special, and no one will forget that he was the best to ever play his position.
“The best to ever play his position.” This is the mantle that Duncan owns (greatest power forward ever) and Giannis seeks to usurp. Duncan’s greatness had already been acknowledged by the time of that article, and the Spurs had accumulated four championships to show for it. It’s fitting that San Antonio absolutely dismantled the Miami Heat (and all other challengers along the way) a year after the above post was published, and added a fifth ring to Duncan’s collection.
But what is Tim Duncan’s legacy? What is the story that follows Duncan, and could apply to Giannis someday? I couldn’t come up with anything better than what we already have from Pounding The Rock:
Duncan’s legacy is expansive and hard to summarize, but I think one part that seems to still be evolving is just how much of what San Antonio did in that two-decade span was because of him rather than him being propped up by his circumstances. There used to be more of a push that if, say, Kevin Garnett and Duncan had swapped situations that Garnett would’ve had the same number of rings because of how ideal an organization the Spurs are. But Pop has said it again recently—“No Duncan, no championships”—and the past few years have confirmed that having a singular superstar like Duncan in the huddle and on the court, in teammates’ ears and in partnership with the coaching staff, was an irreplaceable element for the sustained success here. What he accomplished on an individual level are enough to vault him into the top 10 consideration, but when you start splitting hairs between him and the other greats, as you kinda have to do when you argue these things, it helps that he was the quintessence of winning for one of the sport’s great dynasties.
So much of this paragraph, especially the comparison between Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, could apply to Giannis Antetokounmpo and any of the league’s other current superstars…if the Bucks become a dynasty on par with the Duncan-era Spurs. Fortunately for everyone (including us!), the ingredients are already in-place for Milwaukee to be in position to live up to the San Antonio standard. Mike Budenholzer (a Gregg Popovich disciple) is the culture-focused head coach who gets the most out of everyone, Jon Horst is the front office partner that supplies the coach with players that fit the vision, and Giannis’ teammates (Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, Brook Lopez, Bobby Portis, and Pat Connaughton, just to name a few) are the perfect hand-in-glove fit with what makes Giannis special on the basketball court, in the locker room, and everywhere else.
Whether or not they will actually get there? It’s a team effort, but most of that burden will fall on Giannis’ broad shoulders. It’s said that the hardest rung of the ladder to climb is always the next one, and Giannis is pretty high up that ladder already. How much higher can he go?