The 2021-22 NBA season is almost upon us, but Hot Take SZN is here, and at the end of another eventful offseason we will see how close to the sun we can fly and still stand the swelter of these viewpoints.
Narrative is back in Giannis Antetokounmpo's favor. So is validation.
Following consecutive MVP campaigns, Antetokounmpo's reputation took a hit in the 2020 NBA playoffs, as the underdog Miami Heat gutted his top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Bucks had fallen well short of their championship goal again, despite operating at an elite level for two straight regular seasons under coach Mike Budenholzer, and Antetokounmpo bore the brunt of the blame.
Of the 13 previous multi-time MVPs in league history, all but Karl Malone and Steve Nash ultimately validated those awards with rings, and we know the storylines that still follow them today as a result. The list of three-time MVPs is as exclusive as it gets in the NBA: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Only Moses joined that club without a ring, and he won his championship with the Philadelphia 76ers in his third MVP season.
No matter how remarkably Antetokounmpo performed last season, he would not garner enough MVP votes again without proving first he could win a title. That qualifier is gone. He resoundingly removed it, his legendary 50-point Finals closeout effort worthy of inclusion with that aforementioned list of legends.
Antetokounmpo is now free to win his third MVP, and he will this season.
His advanced statistics last season did dip just enough to excuse the narrative against him — oh, the horror of averaging a 28-11-6 (57/30/69 shooting splits) for the No. 3 seed instead of a 29-13-6 (57/28/68 splits) for a No. 1 seed. Likewise, he "slipped" from Defensive Player of the Year to First Team All-Defense.
Nikola Jokic of the third-seeded Denver Nuggets was the right choice for MVP last season. Stats supported the pick. Antetokounmpo finished fourth behind Joel Embiid, who missed 30% of his team's games due to injury, and Stephen Curry, the scoring champion for a team that ultimately failed to make the playoffs.
What but narrative could be the explanation for a two-time reigning MVP posting comparable statistics, only to fall outside the top three on the majority of the 100-member panel's ballots — and off nine ballots entirely? He had fewer first-place votes than Chris Paul, whose entire candidacy was based on narrative.
Now, the story supports Antetokounmpo. His third MVP would be the coronation of an icon, confirmation of what we knew to be true by the 2020-21 season's end: Antetokounmpo is the most dominant player alive.
The margin between him and Kevin Durant may be as thin as the toenail that kept Durant's Brooklyn Nets from winning Game 7 of their Eastern Conference semifinals series against the Bucks. In the NBA's annual GM survey, more executives picked Durant and Dallas Mavericks sensation Luka Doncic to win MVP than Antetokounmpo. Doncic, Durant and Embiid all have better odds to win the MVP, according to BetMGM.
Except, Antetokounmpo's Bucks are better than Doncic's Mavericks, while Durant's Nets and Embiid's Sixers are respectively dealing with chemistry-killing dramas starring Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons. Even if the Nets do establish themselves as title favorites, even without Irving, can Durant grab enough of the shine from superstar teammate James Harden not to split the vote? (Harden now owns the 11th-best MVP odds.)
Meanwhile, the Bucks are as under-the-radar as a reigning champion can be, at least one that returns its Finals MVP. What is not weighted in those odds is the switch that flipped for both Antetokounmpo and his team on the last leg of that championship run. He emerged from the Finals with a finer understanding of his ability to dominate, and his team's confidence in him further fueled his ascent to the apex of the league.
And Antetokounmpo is far from satisfied. There is another level inside him, one featuring a reliable outside shot that fully frees him to attack from anywhere and everywhere. If he comes anywhere close to reaching it this season, he will be unstoppable and deserving of entry into the exclusive list of nine three-time MVPs.
Doubt Antetokounmpo — the greatest rags-to-riches story the NBA has ever told — at your own peril.
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