In a better world, Giannis Antetokounmpo could track down Robert Horry and offer him a simple swap: One Kia NBA Most Valuable Player Award trophy for one of Horry’s seven NBA championship rings.
It would be a win-win, right? Horry, one of the league’s most decorated role players ever, could show off on his mantle the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, presented annually to the NBA’s MVP. (An award for which Horry never got a single vote in his 16 seasons, by the way.)
Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo could forever flash that most coveted piece of sports jewelry, a championship ring. He has yet to win one in seven seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks, and it remains a hole in his remarkable resume that still needs filling. Horry – or Satch Sanders (eight rings), Tom Heinsohn (eight) or Sam Jones (10) – might not even miss one, and be happy to trade for the ultimate individual honor he never won.
It doesn’t work that way, of course.
Modestly talented players pick up championship rings every season, validating their careers in ways the hefty paychecks do not. What makes them so very valuable is that, no, you can’t go out and buy one, not a legitimate one. Can't swap for one, either.
Conversely, only one performer each year gets hailed as the NBA’s most valuable player. A select group have been honored with that award more than once. And an even more elite subset managed to stack up their MVPs back-to-back, distinguishing themselves one year, then defending the status the next.
That’s how Antetokounmpo did it, putting up historic numbers and again leading the Bucks to the NBA’s best record, claiming the same MVP hardware for 2019-20 that he earned in 2018-19.
With that, however, the Milwaukee star joined an even smaller club, one that could meet in a closet and maybe opt to keep the door closed: Back-to-back MVP winners who did not win – or in Antetokounmpo’s case, have not won – a ring.
Total membership? Two. It’s former Phoenix point guard Steve Nash, the MVP in 2005 and 2006, and Antetokounmpo.
Ten other NBA legends have been named MVP in consecutive seasons, and all won at least one championship. Nine, in fact, won two or more titles: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, LeBron James and Steph Curry. (Moses Malone won once, in 1983 with Philadelphia.)
In all, the league’s 65 MVP trophies have been won by 34 players. That includes 20 one-and-done winners, six players who each won twice and eight who combined to claim the honor 33 times: Russell (five), Chamberlain (four), Abdul-Jabbar (six), Malone (three), Bird (three), Johnson (three), Jordan (five) and James (four).
Those eight Hall of Famers earned, between them, 35 NBA championships, led by Russell with 11 and Abdul-Jabbar and Jordan with six apiece.
Of the 34 MVP winners overall, 26 of them also won rings. And fairly or not, the eight who never won might come to mind more quickly than several of those who did.
The ringless MVPs: Charles Barkley (1993), Karl Malone (1997, ’99), Allen Iverson (2001), Nash (2005, ’06), Derrick Rose (2011), Russell Westbrook (2017), James Harden (2018) and Antetokounmpo.
That’s the group from which Antetokounmpo wants to distance himself now, not simply standing out from the other 450 or so active players.
He said as much when he repeated his thought from last year’s trophy announcement, asking that he not be called an “MVP” until he leads the Bucks to a championship. This time, he upped that to not being called a two-time MVP until that team prize is in hand.
The Greek Freak, who actually was in Athens when the award balloting was released Friday, put up historical individual stats in 2019-20, averaging 29.5 points, 13.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists while shooting 55.3 percent and averaging a modest 30.4 minutes. Milwaukee went 56-17, posting the league’s best record for the second season in a row.
But the Bucks lost their formula before or during the long virus shutdown, sputtered in the Orlando restart bubble and suffered a gentleman’s sweep (4-1) by Miami one round earlier than their 2019 exit.
“I always look forward," Antetokounmpo said in a Zoom news conference. “I always try to figure out, how can I get better? How can I do it again? How can I do it for multiple years to come? How can I be a champion? I'm happy. I'm grateful. But how can I do it again?”
It’s not likely Antetokounmpo will win a third straight MVP. It only has been done three times, and all three – Russell, Chamberlain and Bird – had won a championship before snagging their third Podoloff. Past back-to-back winners have faced voter fatigue, a tendency for those with ballots to seek out someone new for change’s sake.
There might be some, rightly or wrongly, who won’t back Antetokounmpo again for the regular season award until he at least gets himself and his team to an NBA Finals.
In the years after Nash’s back-to-back MVPs, the Hall of Fame playmaker finished second, ninth, eighth and ninth in the balloting, though he continued to play at an All-Star level.
By the way, Nash was 32 when he earned his second MVP. Antetokounmpo still is 25. There have been MVPs who had lengthy gaps between their first MVP and their first ring.
Washington’s Wes Unseld was a rookie when he was named MVP in 1969, then had to wait nine seasons to nail down a championship. It took Chamberlain (1960 to 1967) and Bob McAdoo (1972 to 1982) roughly that long before they backed up their individual greatness with a ring. So Antetokounmpo has time.
But even superstars who got from MVP to champion pretty quickly, like Jordan and James (three years each from MVP to champion), heard about the missing piece of their puzzles constantly. Until they finally found it.
That’s why Antetokounmpo, asked Friday to channel the skinny Greek kid who was a steal at No. 15 in the 2013 Draft in reacting to all he has achieved so far, knit together so well his past, present and future.
“My younger self would probably say, ‘I’m extremely proud of what you have accomplished. But we’re not done yet,’” Antetokounmpo said. “The goal is always to be the best. The goal is always to be the champion. The goal is always to make your team successful.”
The goal for Antetokounmpo officially can shift to the Bill Russell Finals MVP Award, which will scratch all sorts of individual and team itches. Can’t swap for that one, either.
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