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MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo is less than a week away from an encore, from starting the daily journey of following an MVP campaign with perhaps another one.
So, an encore?
The NBA’s general managers believe so, even if they’re not sure if he can lift the Milwaukee Bucks to a title, preferring the Los Angeles Clippers over whomever emerges from the East.
Antetokounmpo isn’t used to the adulation, and, of course, doesn’t want to entertain questions about what could happen two summers from now when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
“You know, the old tape players? I’ll just hit the rewind button,” he told Yahoo Sports about how he’ll handle the constant free-agent speculation, referring to his media-day comments when he quickly shot down any speculation about his future.
As surprising as it is that a member of this generation knows what a tape player is, Antetokounmpo thrives on being a little different.
He calls the attention on his future “disrespectful.” Heck, he doesn’t even mind the immature social-media shots from the Houston Rockets and James Harden about him winning MVP last year.
Harden had a banner year, a historic year offensively and again carried the Rockets into contention.
“That's their opinion. They're gonna have James' back,” Antetokounmpo said. “I'm never gonna say I'm better than James.”
But it doesn’t mean he’ll relinquish the award or apologize for it. “The trophy’s in my house,” he said.
The big trophy — the golden ball — is what he really wants after getting close five months ago.
After going up 2-0 in the East finals and seemingly sending the Toronto Raptors reeling back across international borders, the Raps rebounded and stormed back for four straight wins against a team that hadn’t lost two in a row all year.
The MVP hit the rewind button once again.
“It definitely stinks. We [nearly] had them down 3-0. In my head, we were going to the NBA Finals,” Antetokounmpo said. “But it didn't happen. When we were up 2-0, you're up 1-0, 3-1, you gotta finish the job.”
He went through a diagnosis of that series, which probably felt like an autopsy in hindsight.
The Raptors threw everything at Antetokounmpo and took away his aggressiveness.
He played tentative at times and didn’t have a dependable counter. Still, he averaged 22.7 points, 13.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2.7 rebounds in the series.
“When you get to that moment, maybe I wasn't ready,” he admitted. “Maybe my game wasn't ready. But that's OK. As long as you learn from it.”
The Bucks’ franchise did a top-down evaluation of what went wrong. Series can often turn on a moment, and the reasons can range from the predictable to the unforeseen. Antetokounmpo looked across the court and saw what went right for the Raptors: Kawhi Leonard. He was amazed at Leonard’s control of the game, control of his body and grasp of the moment.
“I learned a lot from him,” Antetokounmpo said. “He knocked down free throws. He was calm. When double-teams came, he was swinging the ball but getting it right back. He was aggressive. He was calm but he was on a mission.”
The stunning finish temporarily halted talk of a Bucks dynasty and revived discussion about doubts surrounding Antetokounmpo’s game, the holes in it and if it would hinder the franchise from joining the elite.
“We didn't have a good enough roster,” Bucks general manager Jon Horst said. “Toronto was better than us, give them credit. They beat us. They were a better team. More well-rounded, more prepared, more experienced.”
The Raptors exploited Antetokounmpo’s shaky perimeter shooting, a predictable strategy but one that hadn’t worked until that point.
“If you ask Giannis, he's gonna tell you the five things he could've done better. He's [now] better prepared for that situation,” Horst said. “When in Game 3, and it comes to a possession, three or four times, he's like, ‘I'm more prepared for next time.’”
And while the talk is valid, it’s important to remember Antetokounmpo, 24, traveled the longest road of any modern MVP — the rawest of raw talents who had to prove he was a rotation player, let alone a superstar.
“When I was a rookie, they were telling me, ‘Can I play, is he an NBA player? He's gonna go to the G League?’ Then it was, ‘He can play, but he can't be an All-Star without an outside game.’ It was always something. ‘Can he lead?’ You can listen to that and pout about it or you can keep going. What people don't know about me, when people are loud and have opinions about me, that's when I'm at my best.”
For their part, the Bucks want him to improve his outside shooting, obviously. But they want the progress to be incremental, to grow naturally as opposed to taking away from his all-around evolution.
“He's not even in his prime yet,” Horst said. “Your prime ages, it's a little subjective — 26 to 30, 27 to 29. He's not there yet. Of course, he's not there. ... I know he thinks a lot. I think a lot. His shooting will continue to improve.”
The Celtics believed they were set to dominate the East for the coming years but miscalculations set them back. The 76ers have two freakish players and have hit the fast-forward button on development, but questions abound after so many roster alterations the past two years.
The Bucks seem as stable as any East team, but like playoff series, things can turn on a dime. They just believe they’re prepared for it.
They’re planning for a Spurs-like run over the next decade, so they are not trying to shove everything in the next two seasons in an effort to keep Antetokounmpo.
Is it a gamble? Horst doesn’t seem to think so, treading that fine line between maximizing the present while not mortgaging the future.
“If we were built with 35-year-old guys or in the second year of a two-year window, you might say championship or bust, Finals or bust,” Horst said. “But that's not us. We're at the early stages of what this can be over the next 10 to 15 years.”
They extended point guard Eric Bledsoe last season and gave Antetokounmpo’s running mate, Khris Middleton, the max this offseason. But when the Indiana Pacers’ financial elevator went a couple levels higher than the Bucks preferred for Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee let the dependable guard walk.
The Bucks know it’s a risk, but they try to mix the analytical side with pragmatism — which has its limits. Antetokounmpo doesn’t want any part of player-personnel decisions, preferring to steer clear of those conversations.
“I don't want to overstep,” Antetokounmpo said. “I appreciate the fact that he trusts me. It's a small opinion. But my job isn't to be GM. I won't get involved in his job, so don't get involved in my job on the floor.”
Horst solicits input when necessary, but Antetokounmpo isn’t focused on being an adviser.
“It's a very open door. Giannis and I have an established relationship. Pre-MVP, pre-GM relationship,” said Horst, who was director of basketball operations when Antetokounmpo was drafted. “We talk openly and honestly. When he feels strongly, he shares it. We have a great partnership. I would be silly, a bad executive, if I didn't listen to opinions from my players on a transaction. [But] Giannis doesn't want to be the decision-maker. He wants to be a great player for a great franchise.”
He’s not applying the pressure the Raptors felt with Leonard, that winning a championship was the only chance they had to keep him around.
“Everybody wants to win a title,” Antetokounmpo said. “I want to win a title, but we gotta make the right steps. Maybe it's not this year, maybe it's not in two years.”
He hits the rewind button again, going back to those games that prevented him from realizing a dream.
“I don't make excuses,” he said. “We lost four games in a row. I gotta find my teammates better. I cannot let double-teams and loading on me distract me, take away my game. We gotta work at it.”
Rewind, but not repeat.
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