Giannis opens up, calls this year the ‘hardest season’ of his NBA career despite being in MVP race – The Athletic

Sam AmickMar 14, 2024

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Giannis Antetokounmpo wants the red pill.

In this NBA life where he has already reached living legend status, and where his Milwaukee Bucks experience this season has been more challenging than any of the 10 that came before, he has long since learned the secret about his professional existence: It’s not real, and the only people who don’t realize that healthy truth are the ones who chose blue.

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He is, for the purpose of this parallel he’s sharing late Tuesday inside the visitor’s locker room at the Golden 1 Center, the basketball version of Neo from the 1999 classic, “The Matrix.” The topic at hand, and the thing that inspired this revealing pop culture reference during a wide-ranging interview with The Athletic, is the NBA MVP race and Antetokounmpo’s place in it. Even with all the suboptimal optics surrounding his team, from the midseason coaching change to the underwhelming record (42-24; tied with Cleveland for second in the East) and the Damian Lillard integration that has been so much trickier than many expected, the 29-year-old Antetokounmpo is having the sort of special season that is on par with his two previous MVP campaigns (2018-19 and 2019-20).

He’s averaging 30.8 points (fourth in the league among eligible players), 11.2 rebounds (sixth) and 6.4 assists per game (a career-high pace) while posting a true shooting percentage of 65.4 that is also on pace to be his personal best. Five months after signing a three-year, $186 million extension in the wake of the blockbuster Lillard trade in late September, he’s playing some of the best basketball of his storied career. Yet everywhere you look, from the Las Vegas odds to the media coverage of the award that matters most, he’s widely believed to be trailing the likes of Denver’s Nikola Jokić and Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in this race.

So, he was asked, is he being underappreciated and overlooked because of all the uncertainty and turmoil that has come with this Bucks season? The answer, as he shared in the most philosophical of ways, was a whole lot deeper and more meaningful than the award itself.

“I’m never going to make myself look like I’m crying for a trophy,” said Antetokounmpo, sitting at his locker with both of his knees wrapped in mountains of ice. “One thing I’m never going to do is, I’m never going to fall into the bubble, (and) I believe this is a bubble. This is a matrix.”

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With several Bucks staffers listening nearby, all of his teammates already gone to the team hotel and a trip home awaiting after their disappointing 1-3 road trip had come to an end, the animated Antetokounmpo entered full storytelling mode for the captivated crowd.

“Have you seen that movie ‘Matrix,’ with Neo?” he continued. “It’s reality, and they’re on this ship, and then they put this…”

Then the acting began, with Antetokounmpo doing his best impression of Neo when he awoke from inside that slimy chamber and left the Matrix behind by removing the tubes that controlled his body and mind.

“And then he (escapes), and he’s incredible,” said Antetokounmpo, who has three young children with the longtime love of his life and fiancée, Mariah Riddlesprigger. “This is what we are, you know? I come here, I put this jersey on, and all of a sudden, I’m this incredible figure, this myth, a Greek Freak. But when I take it off, and I go back home, I change diapers, you know what I’m saying? I refuse — I refuse — to fall into the bubble (where people tell him), ‘Oh, you got the most votes in the All Star Game,’ or ‘Oh, you shot 60 percent from the field,’ or ‘Oh, after the All-Star break, you’ve been shooting 40 percent from 3 (-point range).’

“Guys, when you go to drop your kid at school, and you have a conversation with the parents and the teacher about how your kids are doing, nobody thinks or talks about how you shot 62 percent from the field. Nobody f—ing cares. Nobody — like nobody — really f—ing cares about this.”

Don’t get it twisted, though. He might not be obsessed with the prospect of winning a third MVP award this season, but he certainly cares about the Bucks’ team-wide goal of growing through all these hardships en route to another title run.

Antetokounmpo, whose Bucks won it all for the first time in a half century in 2021 and make the Lillard deal with visions of doing it again, has no illusions about that desire. No matter how hard it might be to make it a reality.

(The following interview was lightly edited for brevity and clarity.)

So when we’ve had these talks in the past, the mood is typically pretty hopeful and optimistic. But this feels different, like a really challenging, probably frustrating, experience where you’re trying to push through and grow to get to where you all want to go. How different is this for you?

What do you mean?

The Dame integration. The coaching situation. You’ve already talked about all the change and how you’ve never had to take on this much leadership before.

Yeah, it’s … it’s … it’s hard. I feel like for me, this has been the hardest season that I’ve played — not only physically, because I had the procedure done on my left knee in the end of June. And I had to get back to myself. I feel like when the season started, I wasn’t (myself). And the reason was that I hadn’t played basketball until like the second week of training (camp). I had to get back to being by myself. But emotionally, and mentally, it’s been draining. I’m not going to lie to you. It’s been extremely tough, from Coach Bud (Mike Budenholzer) being let go (after the Bucks fell to Miami in the first round of the playoffs) to Coach Griff (Adrian Griffin) coming in, being let go, then (interim) Coach Joe (Prunty) for three games, Coach Doc (Rivers) coming in, and then you have Dame. It’s been tough. But at the end of the day, I think when you face adversity in life, that’s when you excel the most. So I’m just trying to, as a leader, as a basketball player, as a person, just trying to do what I do, keep on enjoying the game of basketball, keep on hanging in there, keep on trying to improve my game, doing the right thing. And hopefully, step by step, I get where I want to go and I’m able to help the team get where we want to go.

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Is it harder when you and Dame, in particular, you don’t have the history? With Khris (Middleton), for example, you know what you have accomplished and you have that database. But with Dame, you’re trying to build it. Does it impact your level of belief or your vision? 

His voice goes high. He’s shaking his head.

Noooo, no. Not at all.

I hear you, but when we talked in L.A. earlier this season — and it was early — we (in the media) were all acting like this was gonna pop right away…

I said the same thing (then). I said that just because you have two great players doesn’t mean that it’s gonna work (immediately). It doesn’t work that way. You have to put in the work, you know? At the end of the day, I don’t feel like we haven’t been doing a good job. Can we get better? Yeah, for sure. But I feel like with what we have been given, we’ve done the best job that we could possibly do. Obviously, as you say, me and Dame don’t have that history together. But every single game, we’re getting closer. Now today (a 129-94 loss to the Kings) wasn’t a game where we played to our level. But at the end of the day, I know what having that guy next to me (means). I know what he brings to the table, and he knows what I bring to the table. And as a team, we’re just going to keep continuing to get better, to keep building habits. Hopefully Khris (who has missed the last 15 games with a left ankle sprain) can come back healthy and elevate this team. But we cannot use that in our mind as an excuse, like, ‘Oh, Khris is gonna come back and (fix everything). It doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t. You have to put the work in. But yeah, it’s a hard season for (Lillard) too.

For sure. And he’s been open about off-the-court stuff. 

As Lillard shared in mid-January with Yahoo! Sports’ Vincent Goodwill, he is going through a divorce that has made the transition to Milwaukee even more difficult. Not only is he adjusting to a (much colder) Midwest city after spending the first 11 seasons of his NBA career in Portland, but he’s doing so while being away from their three children.

Yeah, and the off-the-court stuff is hard (for Lillard). But let’s put that on the side. Just being on the court is hard for him. He’s coming out of his comfort zone, playing with a guy like me on a team where guys can make plays. Maybe a lot of time in Portland, he didn’t necessarily have guys who can make as many plays as we can make. You have Brook (Lopez). You have Bobby (Portis). You have Khris. You have Pat (Connaughton). You have Malik (Beasley). You have Jae (Crowder). Guys can make plays, you know? It’s easier (in Milwaukee) to give it up and wait for something to happen. So that’s something new for him. (He’s) playing for something. We’re not playing to make the playoffs, you know what I’m saying? It’s good. We are happy. I’m grateful for every single day that I’m alive, but I’m competing. I’m competitive.

He claps his hands together to pound the point…

We’re not playing to make the playoffs. Obviously, when we go to the first round, we’ve got to compete there, then go to the second round, go to the third round. We’ve got to do it step by step. That’s how it works. But at the end of the day, we have a goal in our head that we’re trying to accomplish. So on the court, it is hard for him, you know? Coming to a team and then having three coaches in six months, that’s hard.

“Just being on the court is hard for him. He’s coming out of his comfort zone, playing with a guy like me on a team where guys can make plays,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said of Damian Lillard. (Petre Thomas / USA Today)

Even the adjustment to the city itself. You have a guy who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area (in Oakland), plays in Portland his whole life and is now in Milwaukee for the first time and getting used to that component.

It’s different. There’s not a lot of things to do in Milwaukee, obviously. Totally different weather. I believe that he was maybe around his family when he was in Portland, in the same way that a lot of my family members are in Milwaukee. When you make that change, it’s kind of hard to pull everybody with you. So it’s hard for everybody to make a transition like that. But I think out of everybody (who might make that change), you don’t expect as much (from them) as you expect from Dame, you know what I’m saying?

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At this point, Giannis decides to lightheartedly incorporate one of the nearby audience members into his analysis…

Eric (Ofcharsky), our beautiful equipment manager, our handsome equipment manager, can make that move, but he’s not expected to perform in front of 20,000 people and be Dame every single night. That might be hard at times. But that’s why we get paid the big bucks. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do and keep going. Keep on moving, man. Keep on moving.

Now back to the MVP discussion. When I first asked Antetokounmpo to revisit this annual debate, I mentioned how our longtime Bucks beat writer, Eric Nehm, had made a spirited case for his candidacy on a recent episode of my “Tampering” podcast. Yet as I also shared, I haven’t viewed Giannis as the leader, in large part, because he bears significant responsibility for the Milwaukee situation being so inordinately messy this time around.

So I basically said (to Nehm), ‘Listen, man, I hear you. But the optics of the team this year have been more challenging. When you have coaching changes, and when you have a record that isn’t what people might have thought it was going to be, voters are impacted by that stuff.’ But then I did some more research on what you have done this year, and there’s an argument to be made that this might be your best season. So are you being overlooked in this MVP conversation?

Giannis exhales loudly for a solid two seconds before speaking… 

I’ll be very (honest). What do you expect me to say? You tell me…

We’ve had this conversation before, and I know that you’re confident in yourself…

No, I’m confident in my work. If I don’t work, I’m not confident in myself. If I don’t put the work in, I’m the most not-confident guy ever. But when I work, when I go after the game and I lift my weights, I’m confident that when I play Philly in two days (on Thursday) I’m confident. I put the work in, and no matter the outcome, I can live with it. That’s how I get my confidence. I am not as talented as Dame. I am not as talented as Malik. I am not as talented as Bobby. But I’m confident in the work that I put in, and I can live with the outcome.

So at the end of the day, answer me this (about) this season. I don’t follow the media. I don’t follow my stats. I don’t know. I work my mind so hard to not fall into this bubble — the stats, the this, the that. But listen, has this been one of my best years? Yes or no?

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Yes. 

So you tell me what I think.

But what do you feel?

No, no, no, don’t worry about what I feel. I feel like I’m the worst player in the NBA. I’ll be honest with you. I feel like in a moment this can be taken away from me.

My point is that if you didn’t feel like you’d played to your standards, I trust that you’d say that was the case. That’s obviously not how you feel.

I never said this was my best year. I asked the question. I said, ‘Is this one of my best years?’ You said yes. That doesn’t mean that I am the MVP of the league. That doesn’t mean that I am not the MVP of the league. What I know is that I put the work in, and I try to be the best version of myself, and I’m able to do that. That gives me dopamine to continue to be who I am to leave this place with my head high. I know from the first year that I won my first MVP until today, have I played at an MVP level?

Absolutely.

Every single year, correct? That’s all I can ask for, man. Now if the matrix (laughs), the bubble, will say, ‘Heeee’s the guy!’ Great. But nobody can say I haven’t (played at that level). So if I ask you, and I ask him…

He’s pointing at other people in the room now…

I ask you, and you. I ask everybody, or I ask my wife, ‘Babe, am I the MVP of this league?’ She’ll say, ‘Babe, you’re the MVP of my heart. I don’t care.’ If I ask my brothers, they’ll say, ‘We’re the MVP of life. We don’t care.’ I will never, never, in my life, fall into the bubble and say, ‘Yeah, I’m the MVP of the league’ and whine and cry or say, ‘Give it to me. I deserve it more.’ That’s not what I do, man. That’s not what I do. I don’t do that. But that, sometimes — my agent says this, but I don’t give a f— what my agent says — he says that s— hurts me too because they overlook me. Yeah, they overlook me. OK (shrugs). What can I do? What can I do? We can go home, huh?

Everyone in the room, no doubt relieved that this extra media session has finally come to an end, laughs as they all head for the exits.

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(Top photo of Giannis Antetokounmpo: Tim Warner / Getty Images)

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Sam Amick is a senior NBA writer for The Athletic. He has covered the Association for the better part of two decades while at USA Today, Sports Illustrated, AOL FanHouse and the Sacramento Bee. Follow Sam on Twitter @sam_amick

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