LeBron James Is Still King, but Giannis Antetokounmpo Has His Eyes on the Throne

Vincent GoodwillFeatured Columnist IOctober 21, 2017

Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo shoots off-balance against LeBron James during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Oct. 20, 2017, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Tom Lynn)
Tom Lynn/Associated Press

MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo is no longer an up-and-comer, no longer a trendy name to prop up as next in line, having fully arrived into NBA superstardom and as a bona fide MVP candidate.

But he's still not yet in the class of one LeBron James.

The long-limbed wonder found himself looking up after he attempted to stride around James for a layup on a fast break in the fourth quarter of the Milwaukee Bucks' 116-97 home-opening loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers at the BMO Harris Bradley Center on Friday. 

He evaded Dwyane Wade, but James' long arms and ridiculous athleticism baited the NBA's most otherworldly athlete into a layup that was thunderously swatted off the glass, and the reigning Eastern Conference champions were headed back downcourt.           

James waited…and waited…and finally took a dribble to the left to spot himself up perfectly for a triple, backpedaling before the ball easily made its way to the bottom of the net as if to say, "Nice try, kid, but we're done here."

Antetokounmpo had a more impressive stat line than the four-time Most Valuable Player, scoring 34 points with eight rebounds, eight assists and three steals compared to James' 24 points with eight assists and five rebounds. But just when you think you have an open layup or an open lane to the title of the game's best, James swats you back to reality.

"Great players do that," Bucks head coach Jason Kidd told B/R after his team fell to 1-1 on the season. "That's an internal thing, seeing where there could be a lot of talk or hype around a player, guys are gonna measure themselves against that battle individually."

A teammate of James on the 2008 U.S. men's Olympic team, Kidd said James measured himself against Kobe Bryant. And seemingly since that time, James has taken the title and never looked back.

"It's no different that great players are gonna be challenged by young players, and that's the beauty of this game," Kidd said. "That's what we talk about at the barbershop or on these different outlets: Who's the best?"

It was Bryant who challenged Antetokounmpo to win MVP this season in a series of tweets he issued to various NBA players. The always cognizant James could've been the one who felt challenged, and he replied in kind in the first of four matchups with Milwaukee this season.

"You understand the magnitude of it, and you still wanna claim your throne as well," Wade said to B/R about James' mindset, sitting five feet away from his close friend after the Cavaliers win. "You don't want them to push you off it. It was a great matchup watching those two guys do everything that's needed for their team."

Despite the score, it was a close contest until James' playmaking broke things open in the third. He read an overloading Bucks defense for a pair of Kyle Korver triples and a dunk, turning a 64-63 game into a 13-point Cavaliers lead at the start of the fourth.

At times, it was easy to see James' competitiveness was awakened by the new challenger, and it seemed he made a point to match a spectacular Antetokounmpo play with one of his own.

After Antetokounmpo swiped an outlet pass to go bully-ball on point guard Derrick Rose for a layup, James went backdoor for an alley-oop dunk on the next play.

"I didn't even notice [going play for play with James]. Usually I notice it, but today, I didn't," Antetokounmpo said. "I was locked in, just trying to [get] a W. Take a step at a time, play at a time."

MILWAUKEE, WI - OCTOBER 20:  Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks works against LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the first quarter of a game at the Bradley Center on October 20, 2017 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: Use
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Antetokounmpo even had James at his mercy a few times, making plays that take your breath away and leave you wondering if this is the year someone in the East catches James for individual supremacy.

There was the baseline fadeaway where he put his shoulder into James' chest, hitting an eight-footer. Or the left-to-right drive past James, when he knifed his way through a retreating Cavaliers defense for a layup and sent the crowd into a frenzy as if it were watching a changing of the guard in James' 15th season.

Antetokounmpo is one of the few players James has to respect from an athletic standpoint—even as he does a monstrous blocked shot that leaves spectators wondering if he'll send the 22-year-old to the graveyard of challengers.

At one point, the challenger was Dwight Howard. Then it was Rose. Most recently, it was Paul George. All have been beset by injury and other factors that have left James standing alone.

"That's the part of the greatness that people don't necessarily talk about as much as the statistical part or the championship part of it. Greatness is being on top that long," Wade said. "He took off, and his plane ain't landed at all. It ain't even hit too much turbulence. It stayed up there. That's greatness. It's only a select few that ever would have that kind of career."

In other words, the only thing that should stop Antetokounmpo from ascending in quick time is injury. Even if James won't give him the overwhelming praise—his stamp of validation the younger generation craves—it's clear Antetokounmpo is respected.

"They're very similar," Kidd told B/R. "They both compete, and they both want to win. LeBron and him gotta do a lot. We gotta put the pieces around him to be successful."

Besides the outside shooting, which Antetokounmpo says is a work in progress, the passing and recognition are the biggest differences between the two. The Cavaliers are perfectly built around James' myriad talents, but it took his game fully developing and a trip to Miami for the Cavaliers to put the complementary personnel around him—not an easy task.

Shooters, shooters and more shooters are where you start with James, along with rugged inside players and a perimeter scorer who can get his own. That's led to seven straight Finals appearances and three titles this decade.

For Antetokounmpo, only one of those pieces is easily discernable.

"He needs shooters around him," Kidd told B/R. "Tonight we generated open shots. We didn't make them. Good teams make them. For that, we gotta get better. If we're gonna get wide-open looks, we gotta make them."

With Antetokounmpo leading the Bucks in scoring, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals on his way to being tied for seventh in 2016-17 MVP voting, it's not as easy to point out where he should scale back, although having Khris Middleton as a wingman is a good place to start.

"Not a burden, you want it [to do it all]. Everybody has their window," Wade said. "Because one day, you'll want to put yourself in a position to take a team to the next level. When you're one of the great players in the game, you want that responsibility. Then it comes a time where you want more help. But it's a point in time where you're like, 'All right, give it to me!' A couple losses, a couple early exits, it changes. Right now, it's fine."

And even though Antetokounmpo has raised holy hell in the NBA on his way to winning votes for Most Improved Player the last three years, including his 2016-17 victory, he doesn't believe he's anywhere close to finished.

"I wanted to get better at making the open pass. I've gotten better...but I've got a lot of room for improvement," he said. "Just period. My shot, I can get a lot stronger, my dribble a lot tighter, my passing. And that's scary too."

He smiled.

The rest of the NBA isn't.