Giannis Antetokounmpo loves playing for the Milwaukee Bucks, but he loves competing for NBA championships more. That was in an interview with the New York Times' Tania Ganguli, and again in a recent appearance on "48 Minutes," a podcast hosted by former Bucks assistant coach Ross Geiger.
"At the end of the day, I am a winner," Antetokounmpo said (at the 23:26 mark of the podcast). "I want to be a winner. Contracts, fame, status, comfort zone does not matter to me. What matters the end of the day is that thing right there." Then he pointed to the Larry O'Brien Trophy behind him. "That's what matters. And I don't want to be able to get stuck in this lifetime to keep on talking about the same story: 'Oh, we went to Game 6 in the NBA Finals, we won. We were down 2-0, we came back, we won four games.' I'm tired of hearing the same story over and over again."
"I feel like people get stuck on that -- which is unbelievable, it's great, I know people are excited, I know that we hadn't won a championship for 50 years -- but at the end of the day, I want to create new memories. I want to win another championship. We talk about Hakeem [Olajuwon, with whom Antetokounmpo plans to work out before the season starts], he has two championships. The moment I win a second championship, then maybe I can be compared to Hakeem. Right now, I cannot be compared to Hakeem. He has two, I have one. Let me just say it as simple as I can.
"But at the end of the day, if the Milwaukee Bucks organization -- which is the same thing I say every single year I've been with the Bucks -- as long as we are in for a championship, as long as nobody's comfortable, as long as everybody's sacrificing the same amount of time and sweat and blood that I've sacrificed for this city to win a championship, we are all good. The moment I feel like people are complacent and they're OK -- because at the end of the day, this is the NBA, you are taken care of. You stay in a five-star hotel, you eat the best food, lobsters. You go and ... drink wine. I don't drink, but you know. You get in a charter, your plane. On the 15th and the 1st, you get your paycheck. Everybody is comfortable. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. No way, no way. By being comfortable, I cannot reach my full potential. As you guys have seen, every year I try to get better. Better every year. Every year, that's the approach I have for the game and that's the approach I have for life. I don't want to be comfortable. I want us to win another championship.
"But at the end of the day, I talk too much and the game is played, it's not talked. But as long as we play and we approach the game every single day the right way and we all sacrifice for a common goal, I can see myself being with the Milwaukee Bucks for the rest of my career. But the moment I feel like people are not as committed as I am to get that golden thing in the back, I am not. It's more than the money, it's more than the fame, it's more than the lobsters, it's more than the charter flights, private flights. For me, it's all about that [trophy]. And I want that.
"So as I said, if the Milwaukee Bucks are on the same page for the rest of my career, great. If not, I have to win. I have to win. And I think the city and people will understand it. Because I'm one of the most competitive guys, and I've given everything that I can for the city of Milwaukee. I bleed green. I'm actually wearing the Milwaukee Bucks [shirt] on this interview. I'm actually wearing that and the shorts, and I'm actually about to go to bed. So I'm a Milwaukee Buck. But most importantly, I'm a winner. I want to win. And I have to do whatever it takes for me to win. And if there's a better situation for me to win the Larry O'Brien, I have to take that better situation."
Antetokounmpo's comments make for big news because he is one of the best players on the planet (No. 2 on Damian Lillard's. If you're a franchise player, you want to believe that your franchise is on the same page as you are.) and he can become a free agent in 2025. They are not, however, unusual or unorthodox. Typically, NBA superstars expect to compete for championships, and the teams that employ them feel a responsibility to surround them with the talent necessary to do that. The language that Antetokounmpo uses -- commitment, sacrifice, being uncomfortable -- is particular to him, but his perspective isn't all that different from
In this case, it is difficult to separate Antetokounmpo's comments from Milwaukee's current situation. It has a new coach, Adrian Griffin, and an aging roster. It re-signed 32-year-old forward Khris Middleton and 35-year-old center Brook Lopez this summer, but 33-year-old guard Jrue Holiday's future is unclear. Holiday has a player option for 2024-25, so he could hit free agency in less than a year. He's also eligible to sign an extension in February, but he said in 2022 that he was planning to retire when this contract expires.
Provided that the Bucks' core players stay healthy and productive this coming season, they could be in the mix for the title. They lost in the first round against the Miami Heat last season, but before that compiled the league's best regular-season record. There is no clear roadmap, though, for Milwaukee's front office office to sustain the success of the past five seasons for, say, the next five. It has either missed or traded all of its first-round picks during this run, with the possible exception of MarJon Beauchamp, a 6-foot-7 wing who was drafted No. 24 in 2022 and, according to Griffin, will have to earn a spot in the rotation.
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Antetokounmpo has wanted the Bucks to be all-in on winning for years, which is completely unsurprising coming from a future Hall of Famer in his prime. It is also unsurprising, though, that going all-in has left them without a stable of young, improving players that could make their medium- to long-term future look brighter. If it were easy to find gems outside of the lottery and on the scrap heap, then everybody would do it. This is a challenge for any team in win-now mode, and the pressure increases whenever a star nears the end of his contract.
In a way, Milwaukee's predicament reinforces how remarkable its rise was in the first place. The Bucks whiffed on a No. 2 overall draft pick (Jabari Parker in 2014) and a No. 10 draft pick (Thon Maker in 2016) but built a perennial contender anyway because the skinny 18-year-old drafted No. 15 out of the Greek second division turned out to be transcendent, the throw-in from the Brandon Jennings-Brandon Knight trade turned into an All-Star and the 30-year-old big man who signed for the bi-annual exception reinvented himself as one of the league's best rim protectors.
Hey, if the Bucks just pull something like that off again, there's nothing to worry about.