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The Milwaukee Bucks Have Changed. So Has Giannis Antetokounmpo.

SportThe Milwaukee Bucks Have Changed. So Has Giannis Antetokounmpo.

For the first time in his 11-year career, Giannis Antetokounmpo is going through a season defined by change.

In his time with the Milwaukee Bucks, Antetokounmpo has seen it all. He’s been through two ownership changes, five coaching changes and innumerable roster changes. He’s seen in-season trades, offseason moves and everything in between.

But never has one season featured so much instability.

Look at everything that has transpired since the last time Antetokounmpo returned to Milwaukee from the NBA All-Star Game.

On April 14, 2023, right before last season’s playoffs, the NBA Board of Governors approved the Bucks ownership share purchase by Haslam Sports Group. Two weeks later, after an injury that sidelined Antetokounmpo for two and a half games, the No. 8 Miami Heat upset the No. 1 seeded Bucks in five games. A week after the loss to the Heat, the Bucks parted ways with head coach Mike Budenholzer. A month after firing Budenholzer, the Bucks officially hired head coach Adrian Griffin on June 5, 2023.

But it didn’t stop there. At the end of September, just days before the start of this season’s training camp, the Bucks pulled off the stunning trade for All-Star point guard Damian Lillard. A month later, Antetokounmpo signed an extension to remain with the Bucks through the 2026-27 season.

Then, after an uneven and sometimes chaotic start to the season, the Bucks dismissed Griffin on Jan. 23 and hired Doc Rivers as their new head coach three days later. As the Bucks return from the All-Star break, they are looking to find their footing with a new coach in a season unlike any that Antetokounmpo has experienced before.

In a wide-ranging, exclusive interview with The Athletic heading into the All-Star break, Antetokounmpo reflected on it all: the ill-fated Griffin chapter, the need for him to become a more vocal leader during these challenging times, the early days with Doc Rivers, his relationship with Damian Lillard and the constant theme of change that has surrounded these past 10 months.

“It’s been hard because so many changes, so many injuries, so, so many things,” Antetokounmpo told The Athletic. “A lot of things, up and down. Changes, as I said, game plan, structure, all of the BS.

“We can start from f—— ownership, changed. Coach, changed. Coach, changed again. Star players, changed. From Khris being in and out. Like so much f—— s—. It’s just up and down. Up and down. So many things changing, man. But we got to stay together, I don’t like to victimize myself. I don’t like to feel bad about myself. That’s not who I am.”

Despite the tumult, Antetokounmpo has managed to put together one of his best individual seasons.

He’s averaging more than 30 points per game (30.8) for just the second time in his career, with the first coming last season. He is also averaging a career-high 6.4 assists and 11.2 rebounds. On top of that, Antetokounmpo has played in 54 of the Bucks’ 56 games this season in Year No. 11. That puts him on pace to play 79 games, which would be the most games he has played since appearing 80 games in his fourth NBA season.

If Antetokounmpo ends the season with those numbers, he would join Oscar Robertson as the only player in NBA history with per-game season averages of 30 points, 11 rebounds and six assists (Robertson posted those numbers – 30.8 points per game, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists – while averaging a triple-double in the 1961-62 season).

On top of that, this has been the most efficient season of Antetokounmpo’s career, posting career highs in effective field goal percentage (62.7 percent) and true shooting percentage (65.1 percent). He has eliminated most of the 3-point attempts from his repertoire and his rim finishing looks an awful lot like it did during his first MVP season in 2019.

In that season, Antetokounmpo took a career-high 66 percent of his shots at the rim and made 81 percent of those attempts, according to Cleaning the Glass. This season, Antetokounmpo is once again taking 66 percent of his shots at the rim, tying his career-high, and making 78 percent of those attempts, while dunking significantly less than he did in the 2018-19 season.

Yet, at this point in Antetokounmpo’s storied career, his seasons are judged by team success. It’s a reality that the Bucks forward understands and accepts. With so many individual accolades, the two-time MVP and eight-time NBA All-Star forward knows his seasons will only be viewed as successful if the Bucks not only compete for championships but win the whole thing.

And that, as he sees it, means that Antetokounmpo must still find a way to do even more for this Bucks team that sits in third place in the Eastern Conference at 35-21, 8.5 games behind the first-place Boston Celtics.

“Personally, I have to keep on pushing,” Antetokounmpo told The Athletic. “If I have to talk more in the film sessions like I’ve been doing all year, if I have to f—ing grab the f—ing board and write something down — if I don’t, I don’t know — but you cannot just let opportunities like this go to waste.

“I feel like I don’t want to look back and be like, ‘Damn, I had some great teams and I wasn’t able to get over the hump.’ We have to stop feeling bad about ourselves. I’m tired of this. We have to stop doing that. Things are not going to be given to us. We have to go and take it. Like I’ve played with guys that never felt bad about themselves. Came in, did their job, went home, did their job, went home, did their job. That’s what we have to do. We’re not doing it right now, but hopefully we can do it.”

They certainly weren’t able to do it in the first half of the season. And Griffin, whose Bucks tenure began with a nod of approval from Antetokounmpo in the interview process, paid the price.

While the Bucks compiled a 30-13 record with him at the helm, players regularly spent their postgame media sessions discussing the team’s disorganization. Whether they were complaints of mismanaged end-of-game situations in Las Vegas or difficulties understanding what the team was trying to accomplish defensively in Houston, the Bucks lacked cohesion on both ends of the floor.

That led to Antetokounmpo putting more on his own shoulders as a leader, which included walking teammates through drills in practice, drawing up plays and diagramming actions more than he ever has in his career and being far more vocal as a leader.

“I just had to do it. I had to be more vocal this year,” Antetokounmpo said. “Things (weren’t) the way they were supposed to be, how can I say it? The last couple of years, I’m used to a specific structure of things, a specific culture, there’s a certain way that you have to do things in order for you to win games, you know?

“And if that level is not being met, as a leader, you have to push that envelope. Push everybody, your coaching staff, your teammates.”

Even with Antetokounmpo’s more vocal leadership, the Bucks couldn’t manage to get on the same page on both ends of the floor. So general manager Jon Horst, as well as the Bucks ownership group, decided to make a change and hired veteran head coach Doc Rivers to run the show.

Under Rivers, the Bucks won just three of their 10 games before the All-Star break, but that hasn’t materially changed what Antetokounmpo feels his new head coach has brought to him in Milwaukee.

“Some peace of mind,” Antetokounmpo said. “He’s tough. He’s Doc f—ing Rivers. He knows his s—. Same thing for Coach Bud. Same with Joe Prunty, J-Kidd. And Coach Griff was a great coach, a great person to work with, but, at the end of the day, it was his first time.

“He was figuring things out, how to lead a group of guys, how to operate with star players and sometimes, that might be hard. I think everybody did a good job. His coaching staff did a good job too, helping him and making him adjust and I think he did a tremendous job leading us to a 30-13 record, but Coach Doc has won 1,100 games. So it’s totally different.”


The Bucks are 3-7 under coach Doc Rivers in his first 10 games as coach. (Benny Sieu / USA TODAY)

With a veteran coach at the helm, Antetokounmpo feels like quite a bit has been taken off of his plate.

“Now it’s almost like I don’t have to do that anymore,” Antetokounmpo said of the extra emphasis he had put on leadership to start the season under Griffin. “I just have to keep the guys together and try to go out there and try to win.

“Coach Doc, he’s a great guy, been in the league for a lot of years, won a lot of games. Like you go to bed, you sleep well at night. Win or lose, you know that the coaching staff is going to be prepared. And not just him, from Rex (Kalamian), from Dave Joerger, like come on, man, Joe Prunty, we have guys that are extremely smart and know the game of basketball. So, from that aspect, you don’t have to worry anymore.”

While Antetokounmpo might not feel like he needs to spend as much of his mental and emotional bandwidth organizing his teammates with Rivers leading, the Bucks are still far from being true title contenders. While they certainly have the talent to stick with any team when healthy, their form has been inconsistent throughout the season.

“It drives me crazy,” Antetokounmpo said. “It drives me crazy, I’m not gonna lie … Like, (against Denver), I felt like. ‘Hmm, we got something going on here.’ Now, (against Miami), I feel horrible. But there’s going to be ups and downs. We have to keep on working.”

“Coach Doc’s coached great players, he’s coached great teams. But our team is different, it’s unique. (There are) things that have been working and things that haven’t been working. They’ve added so many new things that we’re like, ‘Oh, s—. We can take advantage of this.’ And there are some things that we have to recover.

“We have to keep on evolving. We don’t have to change our identity. Of course, we gotta be stronger. We gotta be tougher. I have to play better. I have to see the game better. But we have to keep on evolving. We have to add coach Doc’s philosophy with what has been working and hopefully can create a great mix for the next 25 games that we have and compete in the playoffs.”

Improving the Bucks defense was one of Rivers’ top priorities when he took over in Milwaukee and he has accomplished that, despite facing one of the league’s toughest schedules over the two weeks before the All-Star break. During Rivers’ tenure, the Bucks have been the league’s 10th best defense. Under Griffin, they were 21st in defensive rating.

But while the team has found a higher level on defense, it has lost its way on offense. While the Bucks were second in offensive efficiency under Griffin, the Bucks have been 24th in the same category under Rivers, scoring 111.9 points per 100 possessions.

And while Rivers was adamant that the Bucks needed to be a good defensive team to compete for a championship this season when he first arrived in Milwaukee, the Bucks will need to find a way to be great on both ends.

If the Bucks want to contend for an NBA title this season, they need to pair great offense with great defense. And as Rivers emphasized when he took the job, the Bucks need to find a way to help Lillard perform at a higher level.

In 51 games with the Bucks, the 33-year-old point guard has put up 24.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game – solid enough numbers to put him in position to start his first All-Star Game this past weekend – but as Lillard himself has discussed at length, it’s different than what he was able to do as the leader of the Portland Trail Blazers for the last decade.

Once Lillard became a high-usage, 25-point-per-game scorer in his fourth season, he averaged 27.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 7 assists per game over the next eight seasons. He shot 44.3 percent from the field and 37.4 percent from behind the 3-point line during that span.

In Milwaukee, Lillard has made 42.3 percent of his shots from the field and only 34.1 percent from deep.

If the Bucks are going to transform into contenders this season, it will require getting more out of Lillard. No one knows that better than Antetokounmpo.

All season long, Antetokounmpo and Lillard have been peppered with questions about their pick-and-roll partnership. And while the Bucks have found success while running pick-and-rolls with Antetokounmpo and Lillard, after two-thirds of a season together, Antetokounmpo believes the Bucks still have more work to do to make that action more effective and a larger part of their offensive attack.

“It has to be organic,” Antetokounmpo said. “It can not just be, ‘Give the ball to Dame. Giannis set the screen. It’s going to work.’ It doesn’t work like that. While we are operating, guys have to be moving, keeping guys occupied. While the pick and roll is happening, guys have to change spots, so the load men are occupied. While things are going on, Brook’s gotta dive. While this is going on, somebody has to go for the offensive rebound. Like, that’s how it works.

“It’s not (as simple as) ‘You go set the screen’… The days that it is within the flow of the offense — I come set one, he hits me, I come back, I hit him — that’s when we’re finding success.”

For those things to happen organically, Antetokounmpo needs to find more ways for Lillard to find his offensive flow outside of just high pick-and-rolls with Antetokounmpo. As the season has progressed, Antetokounmpo has started to pick up on those tendencies.

“One of the things that I see, when I rebound, early in transition, throwing the ball ahead to Dame, it allows him to operate at a high level,” Antetokounmpo said. “From 3s, from driving the ball, getting and-ones, getting in the paint. Like when they’re loading (up) and you throw the ball ahead and you let him operate, it’s very good for him. It’s really, really good. Also, I try to set as many screens as I can for him to be able to operate.”

During the Bucks’ title-contending seasons, Antetokounmpo has worked regularly with Khris Middleton, his teammate of 11 seasons. And while Antetokounmpo thought part of the reason why he struggled to find pick-and-roll chemistry with Lillard through the first quarter of the season was their unfamiliarity with each other, he has since learned that might actually have more to do with Lillard’s tendencies and strengths in the pick-and-roll.

“The other thing is, you gotta give him space,” Antetokounmpo said. “You gotta give him space. Like he’s not like Khris, you don’t need to always set screens for him in order for him to get that little space to operate for the floater, for the mid-range, for the space for two, or the behind-the-screen three. Khris is kind of different.

“Sometimes, you need to set screens for Dame. Sometimes, you’ve got to give him space. When I come down and you see that I’m on the right side, he’s on the left side, I always throw the ball sideways to him because once they’re loading and I throw it there, he just operates. That’s been helping the team.”


If the Bucks want to meet their postseason goals, Damian Lillard and Antetokounmpo will need to find a post-All-Star Game rhythm. (Petre Thomas / USA Today)

Antetokounmpo and Lillard got a head start on the work that needs to be done in the final third of the season this past weekend as part of NBA All-Star festivities. Lillard had a massive weekend taking home both the NBA 3-Point Contest championship, as well as All-Star Game MVP, but as the veteran point guard laid out following the Eastern Conference’s win, the time they spent together might have been even more important than anything that happened on the court.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Damian Lillard turns All-Star Weekend into Dame Time with game MVP, 3-Point Contest win

“When you go somewhere outside of your team with a teammate, you usually naturally turn to each other more, just a lot of conversation,” Lillard said. “I think it was just a positive weekend for us because we just had a lot of interactions.

“We were able to have conversations about where our team has been lately and what we want to do, how we can help each other better. When you can break away from not only the season and have All-Star break, but also break away from the team and be able to just be man-to-man and just bond like that, it’s always helpful.”

Now, they need to put what they learned over the weekend to use and figure out how to reach their full potential together before they start their first playoff journey together in two months.

In the end, as Antetokounmpo knows, Lillard simply must understand that the Bucks are now his franchise as well. But considering the massive part Antetokounmpo has played since arriving in Milwaukee back in 2013, and his place in Bucks lore after the 2021 NBA title, that sort of superstar balance has proven more evasive than the pair initially expected.

Antetokounmpo is the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. His personal logo adorns the hallway outside of the Bucks locker room in Fiserv Forum. He is, for all intents and purposes, the face of Bucks basketball.

For this to work, Antetokounmpo explained, Lillard needs to know that the best player in Bucks franchise history is ready to hand him the keys in the moments that matter most. And if the Bucks are going to compete for a championship this season, Lillard will need to take over just like he did during all those “Dame Time” years in Portland.

“I am his biggest fan,” Antetokounmpo said. “Good or bad, I ride with Dame until the f—ing end. I ride with Dame. Like I’ve been saying this over and over again. This. Is. His. Team. Down the stretch, he’s going to get the ball. There’s nothing else that we will do. I don’t know how else to put it. I don’t know what else to say.

“But at the end of the day, he has to believe it too.”

(Top photo of Giannis Antetokounmpo: Justin Ford / Getty Images)


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