Lebron James is missing the NBA Playoffs for the first time since 2005, but don’t be fooled: “The Lebron Era” isn’t over quite yet.
His absence, however, does provide someone else an opportunity. A chance to declare, on an international stage, in no uncertain terms, “I got next.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo—just 24, leader of the NBA’s winningest team, All-Star team captain, candidate for both league MVP and Defensive Player of the Year—is best-positioned do precisely that during the Milwaukee Bucks’ campaign.
But does Antetokounmpo have what it takes to be Heir Apparent to the title of “Generational Player?” In 15 years, will we be batting around his name in the “Greatest of All Time” and “Mount Rushmore of Basketball” conversations?
For that matter, are there other players more deserving? Do James Harden or Stephen Curry have better claims? We thought Kawhi Leonard might rise to the job; can he put himself back in the running if he helps the Toronto Raptors win a championship? Is Joel Embiid going to knock Antetokounmpo out of position?
And what must Antetokounmpo do this postseason to convince us he might be The One?
WHAT IT TAKES
Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Bill Russell. These names loom large for a reason. To be the player of an era, a player must tick more than a few boxes.
This is about more than counting championship rings.
The player of a generation must be the one on every opposing coach’s mind before training camp even starts. They must be the one front offices are trying to either beat or sign. They must be the one who only the steeliest opponents can look in the eye without having their heart beat faster.
When players see a full-speed Lebron going coast-to-coast, they don’t take a charge; they make way. When they saw Shaq going up for a slam or block, they shuddered in fear. When they saw Michael on the court anywhere, they knew they could never relax because literally anything might be possible (and it would probably be embarrassing to them).
That is a huge part of the equation: Not only do generational players make themselves look good (as stars do). They possess the constant power to make you look bad for even trying to compete with them.
James Harden and Steph Curry can certainly make the case that their scoring prowess is so outstanding it gives opponents hives.
However, Antetokounmpo is also now one of the league’s leading scorers—one that defenses have yet to find an answer for—and his ceiling still seems to be boundless, whereas Harden and Curry already appear at the height of their powers.
In the past three seasons alone, Joel Embiid has missed more games than Kareem Abdul Jabbar sat during his entire career.
Yes, Kareem only missed 80 games in 20 years. Lebron had only missed 72 in 15 seasons until his injury this year. Michael Jordan had a seven-year stretch when he only missed eight games total; he logged nine 82-game seasons in his career. During one entire 80-game season, Wilt Chamberlain only missed eight minutes total. (And that’s because he’d been ejected.)
Sports science has shown us that rest does play an important part in both fitness and performance, so an 82-game season might not be the ideal goal for a player anymore, nor the badge of honor it once was. However, it shows that to be an all-timer, it helps to stay healthy and rehab well from any injuries.
Yes, there’s an insane amount of blind luck involved in injuries and longevity. But let’s not overthink this: You’re disqualified from being a transcendent star if you keep falling out of orbit.
It’s too early to know if Antetokounmpo will be able to do the same. He has been nursing ankle troubles the past month but, by today’s standards, he has been on the hardwood night in and night out without fail. (The same can be said of Harden.)
The Mount Rushmore players are/were more than just scoring machines. Lebron, Kobe, Michael, Larry, Kareem, West and Wilt were named to the NBA All-Defensive Team multiple times apiece. (Bill Russell only got it once, but the awards were not created until his last year in the league.)
Antetokounmpo checks this box: He is already in the mix for Defensive Player of the Year. Like I wrote last week, “The Greek Freak is strong enough to withstand the battering of big men in the post, fast enough to chase down guards in transition and long enough to contest or alter a shot from nearly anywhere by anyone.”
Signature Moves & Style
As for Antetokounmpo, his fast-break jams are as unstoppable as Dr. J’s, but he’s becoming particularly famous for his Eurostep. By no means is this “his” move—Manu Ginobili and James Harden have better claims to that—but Antetokounmpo does bring something new to the whole manuever.
Giannis’s Eurostep is like a combination of Ginobili’s Euro and Hakeem Olajuwon’s high-post footwork—he can take it all the way from the arc to the iron in one slippery move. He could probably walk across the entire continent of Europe with it in, like, what, five steps?
Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Lebron James are not legends just because they’re good at basketball.
They’re legends because of a demonstrated (pathological) obsession to win, along with the will (and skill) to make it happen. They ripped victory kicking and screaming from the cozy arms of defeat. No matter how much time, sweat, scuffles, loose ball scrambles, or trash talk, no matter how big the deficit or lead was, no matter how insignificant a preseason scrimmage it was, they must win the game. It’s why Philadelphia 76ers fans will always revere Allen Iverson and New York Knicks fans will always loathe Reggie Miller.
As for Antetokounmpo’s contemporaries, Curry’s reputation for competitiveness is above reproach.
The baby-faced assassin will go down as one of the NBA’s greatest clutch performers. Harden’s killer instinct, on the other hand, may forever be questioned (maybe unfairly) after the Houston Rockets rolled over and surrendered halfway through the third quarter during Game 6 of the 2017 Rockets-San Antonio Spurs playoff series.
What of Antetokounmpo? He’s sliced out the hearts of fans across the league, and recently showed his mettle (while Embiid hinted at a shortage of it) during the Bucks’ 128-122 comeback win over the Sixers April 4. That included a 46-point fourth quarter, which included 11 Giannis points, five assists and a giant block on Embiid.
Changing the Game
Wilt Chamberlain set records 50 years ago that today’s players are still trying to beat. The rivalry between Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics and Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers pushed the NBA into the public eye like nothing before it. Michael Jordan…was Michael Jordan. Lebron James has won so often and so decisively, that the Atlanta Hawks and many other teams in the Eastern Conference essentially gave up and began rebuilds, hoping that they would get competitive again right around the time Lebron retired.
Curry and Harden can stake claims here: Curry’s insane three-balling (and the Golden State Warriors’ use of it) changed how teams started using and defending against that shot. Harden’s exceptional ability to score and draw fouls caused the league to change its regulations.
Antetokounmpo has not made any league-wide shifts. Yet.
However, he might be the quintessential “positionless” basketball star archetype; the reason we’re more obsessed with wingspan. If he hasn’t changed the game himself, he’s the archetypal symbol of its evolution.
WHAT MUST ANTETOKOUNMPO DO DURING THE 2019 POSTSEASON?
The Bucks do not need to come home to Milwaukee with a championship ring and an MVP trophy for Antetokounmpo…yet.
They can’t wait too long, but it isn’t essential at age-24.
SHUT DOWN HIS BIGGEST COMPETITION
That said, Giannis does need an opportunity to meet some of his most famous competition for the mantle of “generational player”…and then make them look bad.
To face any of them, the Bucks will likely need to get to at least the Eastern Conference Finals—to test Leonard or unhinge Embiid. Better yet, the Bucks would make the NBA Finals, so he might have a shot at Harden, Curry or Nikola Jokic.
Prove the obsession
Antetokounmpo doesn’t need to be Lebron James single-handedly willing the Cleveland Cavaliers through the playoffs. He doesn’t need to have a Jordan-esque “flu game.”
However, there must be some proof that he now deserves a place at the table. Leading a stunning comeback, pressing his foot on the neck, playing every second of quadruple overtime, nearly getting ejected. Signature moments often define careers, but it’s the constant threat of them that build the foundation.
Make ‘THE Play’
Speaking of moments, though… There must be one play, one exceptional moment that immediately, indelibly stamps itself in the memories of all watching.
The play that everyone must re-watch tomorrow, share with their poor sadsack friends and people on the elevator who, for some foolish reason, watched something other than the NBA Playoffs last night. The gorgeous, impossible clutch play that will be on every “Best of Antetokounmpo” highlight reel forever and ever.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a buzzer beater, a block of a buzzer-beater, a put-back off a missed free throw, or just a really stylish rebound. But it has to get Mike Breen excited and it has to happen.
It’s a lot to show in one little postseason. Yet, if anyone has shown he’s up to the task, it’s the Greek Freak.
Though the Age of LeBron isn’t yet over, we could still witness the moment where the Age of Giannis begins.
Sara Peters is a 17-year journalist who covers cybersecurity by day, basketball by night. She spent the past four seasons enduring a relentless barrage of losses as a featured New York Knicks columnist for Bleacher Report. She loves driving point guards, passing centers, scrambles for loose balls, buzzer-beating blocks, Allen Iverson, and tearful memories of Drazen Petrovic. Sara lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter @3FromThe7.