There are times in a player’s career when the hoop seems twice as wide, when the game comes easy, when the wins roll in almost nightly and championships follow. That’s when he’s at his peak, and if he’s lucky, he’ll have Twin Peaks, where he enjoys a decade of dominance and a place among the all-time greats.
But before greatness reaches a decade, it must travel a half-decade first.
That’s where we find Giannis Antetokounmpo as he attempts to stitch together five incredible seasons in a row. He’s off to a solid start in that regard, averaging 31.3 points and 11.8 rebounds per game and has the Bucks once again sitting near the top of the NBA heap.
“He does everything the right way on and off the court, plays unselfishly, plays the defensive end, changes games with blocked shots, rebounding and passing,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He has a belief in team, a commitment to team. Giannis is Giannis, he’s special, very unique. We’re all grateful to be part of this while he goes on his journey.”
In the last four seasons (2018-22), Giannis has a pair of Kia MVPs, a championship, a Finals MVP and a Kia Defensive Player of the Year award. He also dropped a 50-piece in the title-clinching game against the Phoenix Suns in Game 6, which was one of the greatest Finals performances ever. And arguably, had Khris Middleton been healthy, Antetokounmpo might have had a second title last season.
With another great season, where would Giannis’ half-decade of dominance place him all time? Well, since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, the league has witnessed a number of players who crushed it for five straight seasons. In order to be considered for this conversation, that player had to win at least one championship — several of them have multiple titles — at least one regular-season MVP and a Finals MVP. Even with that, a player still might not make the cut (sorry, Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett).
Here’s what Antetokounmpo is up against as he pursues his place in half-decade history among these 10 (in no particular order):
Michael Jordan, 1988-93. He’s on the short list of players with multiple half-decades worthy of mention, forcing you to choose one. But in this stretch, Jordan won three MVPs, three titles, three Finals MVPs, led the NBA in scoring all five seasons, got a Defensive Player of the Year award and copped two steals titles. This is perhaps the half-decade gold standard and definitely his stretch of reckoning, when he became an icon and larger than basketball because of all of the above, plus endorsements and “Space Jam” hitting theatres in 1996. When you mentioned the initials MJ from 1988-93, it meant you were discussing Michael Jordan … or Michael Jackson. Either way, a pretty big deal.
LeBron James, 2011-16. Curiously, his half-decade of dominance began auspiciously; LeBron still wore deep scars from his “decision” and an embarrassing defeat in the 2011 Finals to the Mavericks where he struggled. And then he went on a tear. What followed was epic basketball: His 45-point, 15-rebound Game 6 demolition of the Celtics in the 2012 playoffs, the dozens of highlights with the “Big Three” Heat and the searing playoff performances in his return to Cleveland and especially against the Golden State Warriors in 2016 when he brought Cleveland its first championship. It all amounted to three titles, three Finals MVPs and two MVPs that jumped-started water-cooler debate about being the greatest player ever.
Larry Bird, 1983-88. Larry became “Larry Legend” during this time, made even more impressive by the strength of the era. Remember, this decade was arguably the NBA’s Golden Age, before expansion began to dilute talent and before players moved on frequently in free agency. It was difficult for one player to stand out beyond all others, given the amount of greatness. But Bird won three straight MVPs, joining Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell for that honor, along with two titles and two Finals MVPs. His steal against the Detroit Pistons and assist to Dennis Johnson in the 1987 Eastern Conference semifinals ranks among the greatest playoff plays ever. His playoff duel with Dominique Wilkins in the ’88 East semis was mesmerizing; Bird came out on top in that one as well. And then his grudge matches with Magic Johnson and the Lakers became appointment TV and transformed the NBA for good.
Tim Duncan, 2002-07. This is where he won three of his five titles, two of his three Finals MVPs and both of his MVPs. This is where Duncan was in his prime and in his element at both ends of the court. This is when Duncan put the Spurs on one of the all-time great runs and enabled the franchise to own the 2000s. Though Duncan wasn’t statistically superior than others on this list, his overall impact, especially in the postseason where he raised his level of play, was undeniable. Yes, from a stylistic point of view, let’s just say he didn’t sell any sneakers. But in this stretch of his career, all of San Antonio will insist he put the Big Fun in “The Big Fundamental.”
Shaquille O’Neal, 1998-2003. “The Diesel” kept a full tank for these five seasons, all with the Lakers, starting just before the Shaq-Kobe dynasty and ending right after. He was younger and just as energetic with Orlando from 1992-96 but not wiser, and while he won a title with Miami in 2006, he was clearly on the decline by then. The prime Shaq was perhaps the greatest force the NBA had ever seen, certainly since Chamberlain. Shaq won three titles, three Finals MVPs, his only MVP (he’ll insist he should’ve had another that went to Steve Nash) and a scoring title. And that only hints at how truly difficult he was to defend without resorting to Hack-A-Shaq.
Stephen Curry, 2014-19. This is the period where he changed the game, for better or worse, and became an all-time great. He won a pair of MVPs (the first unanimous MVP in NBA history), and claimed three of his four titles. Of course, his 3-point shooting (43% in this stretch) was epic and separated him from all other superstars, both active and retired. Even though Curry won a title last season and his only Finals MVP, and is off to another hot start this season at age 34, it’s hard to imagine him duplicating what we saw in these five legacy-making seasons.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1976-81. He won three MVPs during this stretch, duplicating what he did from 1971-74 when he was a more dominant player (leading the league in scoring twice), mainly with the Bucks before joining the Lakers. (But that was pre-merger, so it doesn’t count.) And he did win more championships later in his career than the one title he captured in this stretch. But Abdul-Jabbar wasn’t the best player on the Lakers in the mid- and late-80s … that was Magic Johnson. From ’76-81 he was consistently great and served as the bridge linking some rather average Laker teams to the start of the “Showtime” era.
Moses Malone, 1978-83. Can’t leave Malone off when he won three MVPs during this time and reached the NBA Finals twice, winning the title after joining the Sixers in ’83. That first year with Philly was magical for so many reasons. Malone came to the 76ers on a sign-and-trade deal as one of the league’s first big free agent defections. He then famously predicted Philly would go “fo, fo and fo” in the playoffs (the Sixers actually lost one game in that run). He spent the previous four seasons with the Rockets, dragging an otherwise average team through deep playoff runs. As Houston made its first NBA Finals in 1981, he issued another famous prediction (that didn’t come true) when he bragged that he and “four guys from Petersburg, Virginia” could beat Larry Bird and the Celtics in that series. Malone won four rebounding titles in those five seasons and finished second in the league in scoring (31.1 ppg) in 1981-82.
Kobe Bryant, 2005-10. He actually suffered in the first two seasons of this stretch while coping with average teammates and dismal results. That said, Bryant was a singular force, with two straight scoring titles (35.4 and 31.6), an 81-point masterpiece and other nightly feats of the spectacular which produced his only MVP season (2007-08). Then, once Pau Gasol arrived, Bryant took those feats on deep playoff runs, winning back-to-back titles and a pair of Finals MVPs. Freed from the shadow of Shaquille O’Neal during their dynasty at the start of the decade, Bryant was hell-bent on proving himself as in the leading man role, and it’s safe to say he aced that test.
Magic Johnson, 1985-90. One of four players on this list to win three MVPs in five seasons, Magic was the league’s premier player, from a winning standpoint, in the latter half of the 1980s. He won three titles and a Finals MVP and of course was the heart and soul of “Showtime,” when the Lakers transformed the game and elevated the league. Johnson led the league in assists in back-to-back seasons and improved as an outside shooter during this stretch, enough to take over the scoring role once Kareem began to age and then retired.
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