Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks defeated the Phoenix Suns in the 2021 NBA Finals, winning the Greek Freak his first championship in his eighth season in the league.
It took Michael Jordan seven years in the NBA to become a champion.
LeBron James got his first ring in his ninth year.
With the 5-time All-Star, 5-time All-NBA, 4-time All-Defensive (including Defensive Player of the Year in 2020), 2-time MVP already in possession of a fringe Hall of Fame case even if he never plays another NBA game, he’s added a ring to that list of accolades.
But let’s speculate wildly for a bit here. Antetokounmpo is still just 26 years old. LeBron is 36. Jordan, when he finally hung the Nike shoes up for good in 2003, was 40. We could be looking at another decade of dominance for Giannis before he finally rides off into the NBA sunset along with his Player of the Decade honors for the 2020s, an honor held by LeBron for the 2010s and MJ for the 1990s.
Is Giannis on track to make a GOAT case someday, or has that ship already sailed?
Jordan was 27 when he was in the same position—first-time champion and not just “great individual player who never won anything when it mattered”—in his career following the 1991 Finals.
At that point, Jordan was already a seven-time All-Star, five-time scoring champion (and he’d win five more), two-time MVP (out of five total in his career), Finals MVP for the first of six times, and with the greatest players of the 1980s both retiring the following year—Magic Johnson due to HIV and Larry Bird due to his bad back—the inheritor of the “Face of the League” mantle that he would hold until at least 1998 and possibly even beyond as the NBA sank into the Dark Ages after His Airness retired.
But it’s worth noting that most of those awards were in Jordan’s future in 1991. As great as he was—and with the ’91 Finals against Magic and the Lakers serving as both a coronation and a passing of the torch, he was undoubtedly great—he wasn’t “still thought of as the GOAT 30 years later” great yet. That wouldn’t truly come until at least five years later and be cemented seven years later with “The Last Shot” in the 1998 Finals.
Which, let’s face it, sets a high bar. One ring seven or eight or nine years into the league is one thing. Six in eight years of a guy’s extended prime? Totally different situation.
LeBron was also 27 when he got his first ring, having come into the league as an 18-year-old anointed savior of the league from those aforementioned Dark Ages when Cleveland drafted him first overall in 2003.
He was an eight-time All-Star, three-time MVP (out of just four; LeBron hasn’t won that award since 2013), eight-time All-NBA (out of 17 and still counting, James having been voted 2nd Team All-NBA this season), four-time All-Defensive (out of a total of six, though none since 2014), and with the Finals win avenging his losses in 2007 and 2011, out of the ghetto of “best never to win a ring” that now belongs to the likes of Chris Paul—loser of this legacy-defining 2021 championship series—and Karl Malone.
And if we’re talking championships? Yeah, LeBron’s just 4-6 in the Finals in his career, but that’s still tied with Kareem for most Finals appearances by a guy who never played for the Celtics (Bill Russell and ’60s Boston friends, looking at you.) And LeBron made his Finals when there were more teams just in his conference (15) than there were in the entire league when Russell played (8 teams as a rookie in 1957, 14 in Russell’s last year in 1968-69.)
Giannis lags both guys, mainly because as an unheralded mid-first-rounder rather than a top-3 instant-superstar pick like MJ and LeBron, it took him awhile to get going.
Giannis averaged just 6.8 points per game in 24.6 minutes as a rookie. He didn’t sniff the All-Star Game until his fourth year in the league and was generally viewed as a good-but-not-great player whose rotten outside shooting and mediocre rebounding made him little more than a guy with great talent but maybe not “all-time great” talent. He’d only been to the playoffs once on a crummy Bucks team. There was no reason to believe he’d be “50 points in a Finals-deciding Game 6” good just five years later.
This makes the argument that Giannis’s GOAT case is already dead in the water, since MJ and especially LeBron have already done more at about the same age. This is especially true of LeBron, whose GOAT case only grows with everything he does while he’s still active.
The Counting Stats
Giannis’s career high for scoring is 29.2 points per game, achieved in this 2020-21 season just played. He has 12,319 career points so far, which is good, but…
It’s a solid 5,000 points short of LeBron’s total; King James had 17,326 career points as of his age-26 year in 2011.
It’s almost 2,000 points short of MJ’s total; despite coming into the league in his age-21 year and playing only five full seasons (Jordan’s second year in the league was limited by injury to just 18 games and 451 minutes), His Airness had 14,016 points.
Jordan finished his career with 32,292 points. LeBron finished the 2021 season with 35,367, which oh by the way is third all time and just about 3,000 points shy of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar‘s all-time record of 38,387 points. LeBron scored 1,126 points in an injury-shortened 2021 campaign. Even if he continues to decline in his late 30s, he could do what Kareem did and hang on long enough to set a seemingly unbreakable record by the time it’s over, something that’s hard not to see LeBron doing as he approaches 40 and puts one more notch in his GOAT case by winning that ultimate scoring title.
Giannis is already behind. And even great scorers tend to slow down after age 30. Giannis might get to 30,000 career points. But even Jordan’s 32,292 seems a bit over-optimistic for the Greek Freak by the time age catches up with him.
And Giannis isn’t making this up in rebounding or assist numbers either. LeBron has 9,751 career rebounds and 9,696 assists. Sometime next year, he’s going to achieve a sort of career triple-double with at least 10,000 of three different statistical categories, roughly equivalent to putting up a 36-10-10 every night for 12 and a half full seasons (sure, LeBron’s done it in 1,310 games rather than 1,000, but just think about the scale of what a career triple-double truly means.)
Giannis might get 10,000 career boards. He’s not dishing 10,000 assists. He has 5,371 and 2,632 of them, respectively, for his career so far.
The Advanced Stats
Here’s your top 6 guys all-time for Win Shares per 48 minutes:
Michael Jordan, David Robinson, Wilt Chamberlain, Neil Johnston, Chris Paul, LeBron James. (Yes, really, CP3 is fifth; I’ve made the case that he’s the greatest PG of all-time because his advanced stats are utterly mind-blowing. But I digress. And Magic does have five rings, so…)
Giannis is currently 35th on that list; the top 47 guys are either already in the Hall of Fame, still active, or (in the case of Manu Ginobili and Dirk Nowitzki) aren’t eligible yet but absolutely belong there.
But there is a huge difference between “first and sixth, respectively” (MJ and Bron) and “35th and behind a lot of guys who might not have actually been better but have the advanced stats in their corner.”
Yeah, sure, WS/48 grotesquely overvalues big men (Rudy Gobert ranks 10th and Jonas Valanciunas is 40th, calling into question whether that’s going to be a 47-deep list of Hall of Famers at the top when the dust settles), but the point of the matter is that the two guys in the current GOAT debate are far, far ahead of the guy who just knocked on the door asking to get in for an initial consultation.
Sure, Giannis put up .292 WS/48 in 2019 and .279 in 2020 (and .244 this year.) But those early years of struggle are hanging over his head as he ultimately is going to have to step up his already formidable game to achieve true all-time greatness.
If we’re talking catch-all advanced stats that are near-perfect analogues for team wins (as in r-squared over .950, which is as close to 1-to-1 correlation as stats ever get in the real world), let’s try the other one.
Giannis has 35.8 VORP so far through age 26 and 589 career games.
The top two guys in that stat all-time? LeBron (137.28) and His Airness (116.08), and if you assume Giannis will maintain his current rate of racking up VORP for the rest of his career (some years will be better than others and his prime will continue to produce great stats, but he’ll then go into decline, so it’ll be a bell curve), then 35.8 VORP in 589 games is just 79.62 VORP in the 1310 games LeBron has played.
Giannis might do a lot better than 80 VORP. But he’s not finding nearly 60 points in the stat. His career-best for VORP is 7.4; his average for his five All-Star seasons is right around 6.4. He does that for a decade, he’s still not even ahead of Jordan, whose prime lost two years to baseball and whose last truly effective year was at age 35.
Let’s also consider that Giannis is already in the habit of missing games due to injury and load management, playing in only about 90 percent of contests in the past four years.
The Bottom Line
If someone starts jabbering on social media about Giannis potentially being the GOAT someday if he wins more rings, link them to this.
Yeah, Giannis is good. Like real good. Like Greek Freakishly good.
But his GOAT case is already dead in the water—that’s just how good LeBron James and Michael Jordan have been to set the bar as high as it is.
But hey—dude got a ring. And he did it in a city that hasn’t seen a title in 50 years (no, Green Bay is not Milwaukee, the Packers don’t count.) That’s still one heck of an achievement and gets him permanently out of the “best never to win it all” ghetto that Chris Paul is still stuck in.