2023-24 Kia Season Preview

2023 Media Day: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard welcome championship expectations

At 2023 Media Day, the revamped Bucks gear up for a pressure-packed run at the title.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez are primed to test the rest of the East.

MILWAUKEE – The Bucks had a bounce about them at their Media Day: figuratively, from last week’s acquisition of All-Star guard Damian Lillard from Portland; and literally, in how much better two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo’s left knee feels. Here are key quotes and moments from those two and others Monday at the team’s practice facility.

Damian Lillard

Damian Lillard discusses his transition from Portland to Milwaukee and teaming up Giannis Antetokounmpo.

• Seven-time All-NBA guard Lillard is as eager to pair with the Bucks and Antetokounmpo as they are to add his scoring and knack for clutch heroics. This is a two-way street.

“It’s public record that I’ve always mentioned, if I could team up with one person, it would be [Antetokounmpo],” Lillard said. “The kind of attention he’s going to get is only going to make the game easier and more simple for me. And because of the way I do impose myself and how I attack games, he’s going to have the kind of opportunities I think he hasn’t had as well.”

• And it sounds like Lillard isn’t nervous about his arrival deepening a championship-or-bust mood around the Bucks. This represents his best chance to win a ring – and theirs to win another – in the Greek Freak era.

“In my career, in my life, I’ve never been a part of any situation that was not an underdog. From my AAU program… to Weber State… drafted to Portland… I’ve done a lot more overachieving in my career than living up to what was expected.”

• That in mind, Lillard acknowledges “Dame Time” gets the attention but it’s hours in the gym and film study getting the job done.

“When it comes to having some success, I’m a person who wants to get in the mud and make sure I’m doing the things that are going to earn us the right to have that success. And [Giannis] is too.”

• As for his new hometown, Lillard is encouraged by the early returns: “Every time I’ve been to Milwaukee in my career, I’ve just stayed in the hotel the whole time. Because it’s snowing or something like that. Seeing the sun out and being by water [Lake Michigan], it made me smile a little bit. Like, man, this could be all right.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Giannis Antetokounmpo, in a white Bucks uniform, poses pulling the front of his jersey while smiling in front of a white background on Media Day.

Giannis Antetokounmpo seems reinvigorated after the Bucks’ move for Lillard bolsters their roster after an early playoff exit.

• The Bucks’ star had his left knee arthroscopically cleaned out in early summer, addressing discomfort that lingered through 2022-23. That decision kept him from representing his native Greece in the FIBA World Cup, but for his Milwaukee obligations it looks like a smart decision – he leaped, smiling, several times to demonstrate how good that knee now feels.

“I had the pain all year,” Antetokounmpo said. “It never went away. I was just managing it. I missed 19 games … If you start [the season] with pain that means you’re going to end with pain. I’m happy that I did it. I’m healthy.”

• With Lillard – a player in whom Giannis sees himself, just packaged differently – in tow, Antetokounmpo stressed the need to get cracking, notably in film study, rather than waiting even for the first preseason game Sunday against Chicago to begin building habits together.

“We’ve got to stay locked in,” he said. “There’s going to be so much hype around us … We don’t win the game, we don’t win the championship, by making the move. We win the championship when we’re the last team standing. We’ve got to play the game, not talk the game.”

• Antetokounmpo reminded people that he wasn’t just holding management’s feet to the fire to swing the Lillard deal and improve the current outlook. There are fiscal reasons why signing a contract extension next offseason makes more sense all around – he can get more years and money, the Bucks can get his services for an extra year – than doing it now. He has two seasons plus an option year for 2025-26 left on his five-year, $228 million deal.

“I said it did not make sense to sign a contract right now because money isn’t important, but a lot of [expletive] money is important, so I’m going to sign it next year … I want to be a Milwaukee Buck for the rest of my career as long as we are winning. It’s as simple as that. What do you expect me to say? To be a Milwaukee Buck and be a loser? That’s never going to come out of my mouth.”

• That said, Lillard’s arrival came at the expense of Jrue Holiday, whose contributions and friendship won’t be forgotten after helping the Bucks win that 2021 title.

“You always felt good to go to war with [him],” Antetokounmpo said. “He’s never going to be replaced. … I wish him the best in his journey with the Boston Celtics – not against us, against the rest of the league.”

More to Know

Bucks GM Jon Horst and head coach Adrian Griffin are set to lead the new-look Bucks into continued championship contention.

Adrian Griffin, the Bucks’ first-year head coach, hired to guide a veteran team in the midst of its championship window, said he would draw from his past to thrive in this job.

“I’ve been in the NBA for 25 years [nine as a player, the rest as an assistant coach],” said Griffin, a native of Wichita, Kan., and 1996 product of Seton Hall. “You’re talking to a guy who went undrafted – I had to fight and claw. Pressure is good. It makes you who you are.”

General manager Jon Horst confirmed that he did not consult with Antetokounmpo before trading the popular Holiday, and said he wasn’t surprised by his star’s recent comments about staying only if Milwaukee stays competitive. “What he believes, it completely aligned with what we believe and what we say and more important, what we do,” Horst said. “Contrary to some of the headlines, he hasn’t said anything unique or different or new. We’re completely focused on winning.”

One of the ownership partners, Wes Edens, acknowledged that the Bucks are solidly above the NBA’s luxury-tax threshold. “For one of the smallest markets in the league, we are one of the biggest payers of luxury tax. So from an economic standpoint, we can say we are all-in.

“People tend to underestimate the risk of doing nothing vs. the risk of doing something,” Edens added.

Robin Lopez and twin brother Brook are reunited on the Bucks for a second twin tower tour of duty.

Center Brook Lopez said sure, he would like to play for Team USA. In fact, he was subbing into a game against Golden State last season when he passed Warriors coach Steve Kerr on the sideline – Kerr is Team USA coach – and mentioned it. “I told him I was free in the summer of ’24,” Lopez said. “I would love to do that. Something I dreamed of experiencing since I was a little kid.”

Robin Lopez, Brook’s twin who is back with the Bucks after spending 2019-20 with them, was spotted reading a book while teammates fielded questions from the podium. Turns out it was a biography about classic Hollywood lovebirds Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Said Lopez: “There’s some kind of metaphor there and I’m going to find out. Somebody on this team is Humphrey Bogart and somebody is Lauren Bacall.”

For his part, Brook says it took a parental push to get Robin signed: “He came to my door, he was begging. So I figured he probably needed this. Then my mom told me she would really appreciate it if I helped him out a little bit and got a deal done here for him.”

And Robin is just glad Brook logged a runner-up finish for Kia Defensive Player of the Year: “Thank God he finished second. I never would have heard the end of it if he had finished first. I didn’t hear the end of it when they won the championship.”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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