The lineal Best Player Alive title has been held by a handful of players for most of the past 40 years. It’s an informal distinction that’s mostly reliant on word of mouth and public support. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird wrestled for it throughout the 1980s. Shaq and Tim Duncan briefly shared ownership between 1999 and 2003. Then, the lineal BPA title was passed from Kobe Bryant, who reigned until 2010, to LeBron James, who challenged the Black Mamba for the title through the latter half of the decade.
However, LeBron relinquished that honor to Steph Curry during his last hurrah with the Cavs. Age and the rise of Giannis Antetokoumpo knocked LeBron down a tier. However, we’ve never seen two bigs committed to small markets vying to be considered the Best Player Alive. Those factors have made the debate seem more muddled than it is. Nikola Jokic has a hold on the crown for now even after losing out on MVP, but it’s a tenuous one.
When NBA general managers were asked before the season which player they would start a franchise with today, 33 percent said Jokic, and 23 percent answered Victor Wembanyama. Antetokoumpo was third. After an offseason for the Bucks that culminated with them acquiring Damian Lillard and extending Antetokounmpo for three years and $186 million, he’s got all the fuel he needs to make a run at the throne.
Since Antetokounmpo earned his second MVP in 2020, a pair of Defensive Player of the Year honors, and clinched his only title by producing one of the most extravagant stat lines in league history, his BPA crown defense has ended with more of a whimper than a bang, including a gentleman’s sweep at the hands of an eight seed and a loss to the Celtics with Kris Middleton on the bench for an entire season.
The Heat storming into the Finals makes it look like less work, but Milwaukee and Antetokoumpo’s reputation took massive hits because of their unlucky draw. An entire MVP debate took place between Jokic and Joel Embiid last season that neglected a two-time winner hoisting a team that was the Eastern Conference’s best regular season squad onto his back while his secondary scoring option worked his way back into basketball shape.
However, the arrival of Lillard provides the Greek Freak with the offensive firepower to challenge the Nuggets and the Eastern Conference’s upper echelon. Lillard’s presence enhances Antetokounmpo in the same way Jamal Murray did for Jokic. Instead of starting every possession with the ball 30 feet from the basket, he’ll be running the Freak Time pick-and-roll with Lillard.
As triumphant as Embiid is about finally earning an overdue MVP, he’ll be ancillary to Jokic and Antetokounmpo until he wins a title. The turmoil involving James Harden makes that less likely than ever.
Jokic is the PER Gawd, owning the league’s best player efficiency rating and the highest playoff PER in league history, overtaking His Airness. But PER skews more heavily towards emphasizing offensive impact. Defense matters too. And that’s where Antetokounmpo has a case. When the Bucks need a stop against a rangy wing, they’ll turn to Antetokounmpo. Offense is king, and while Jokic’ has a slight edge on that end, Antetokounmpo is a world-beater on both ends. He’s a blend of young Shaq offensively and KG defensively.
In the last four seasons, Jokic has compiled a 30.2 Player Efficiency Rating to Antetokoumpo’s 30.5. Both are two-time MVPs. Antetokounmpo is a year younger than Jokic. Jokic is the superior passer, but that’s also by design. Does anybody remember the early days of Giannis at point guard? Mike Budenholzer put an end to that and molded him into an Iso Joe juggernaut, but that version of Antetokounmpo is still buried underneath 20 pounds of muscle he’s packed on in the seven years since.
Meanwhile, his shortcomings as a shooter and his enrollment in Hakeem Olajuwon’s low-post footwork summer courses were mocked. Lesser players like Gilbert Arenas and James Harden of all people, accuse him of not possessing their level of understanding. The conversation around Antetokounmpo is absolutely deranged.
He has been derided for his 13 missed free throws in Game 5 against Miami, but he’s also worked through a back injury and still managed to generate 38 points, 20 rebounds, drained 10 free throws, and shot 52 percent from the field as the heliocentric focal point of Milwaukee’s offense. There was actually a time when we batted around whether James Harden or Anteokoumpo was better. An extensive offensive trick bag is more aesthetically pleasing, but it isn’t the end all, be all.
Antetokounmpo sounds rejuvenated by the possibility of partnering with a Top-75 all-time teammate who can get him better looks at the cup. He’s starting the year irked about being snubbed from the All-Defensive Team, ending a four-year run of being voted first team. . Replacing Jrue Holiday with Lillard put an even greater burden on Antetokounmpo to be the skeleton key for another top-3 defensive Bucks team. It’s now or never for Antetokounmpo to displace Jokic as the best player alive.
Until Victor Wembanyama is ready to depose one of them from the throne, regular season battles between Jokic and Embiid will wage on in a league that’s in the midst of a run of five champions in five years, the BPA title will be just as volatile.
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