Giannis Antetokounmpo’s ‘steps to success’ now include Damian Lillard, and he knows there’s no room for error

MILWAUKEE — Good is considered the enemy of great, and “good” very well could’ve been the thing that helped usher Giannis Antetokounmpo right on out the door when his time for free agency beckoned.

But enter Damian Lillard and the game rewinds.

The bar is reiterated and affirmed that a championship is the expectation for this season and beyond for the Milwaukee Bucks. Antetokounmpo didn’t alarm or annoy anyone inside the Bucks facility when making proclamations over the summer about his future in the NBA; it wasn’t anything Jon Horst and his staff weren’t aware of before the offseason began.

And no one is surprised he hasn’t yet signed an extension beyond the two years he has on his deal, because it doesn’t make financial sense. Due to cap projections and Antetokounmpo’s years of service, he would be eligible to make $80 million more by waiting until the summer to extend, if he so chooses.

“Money is not important. A lot of f***ing money is important,” the two-time MVP said with a laugh. “I want to be a Milwaukee Buck for the rest of my career … as long as we are winning. It’s simple as that. What do you expect me to say? To be a Buck if we were losing? That’s never gonna come out of my mouth.”

You could easily pencil in the Bucks for 50-plus wins and a high seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs without the Lillard acquisition. But the bottom line, they’ve won one playoff series since capturing the 2021 title.

And given how much pressure was exerted from Antetokounmpo, implied or in quotes, one can imagine how he would’ve felt if Lillard came to the Eastern Conference but to a rival — the air would’ve been very thick in the team’s practice facility, if it was a stroke of fortunate circumstances that landed Lillard to Milwaukee anyways.

“[Bucks co-owner] Wes [Edens] and I were speaking the other day and he had this stat: I think it’s a third or fourth time in 25-plus years where our team has been able to acquire a top-level player while already having one,” Horst said. “It’s incredibly hard to do. It’s unique, and hopefully very impactful.”

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and guard Damian Lillard pose for a photo during media day in Milwaukee on Oct. 2, 2023. (Benny Sieu/USA TODAY Sports)

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and guard Damian Lillard pose for a photo during media day in Milwaukee on Oct. 2, 2023. (Benny Sieu/USA TODAY Sports) (USA Today Sports / reuters)

Now it’s a newness, a refreshing sense around the building and yet, the Bucks can’t avoid the pressure. Not pressure in terms of consequences surrounding Antetokounmpo’s long-term future, but the general belief that through all the parity in the league, a lot of eyes are on the Bucks now.

High expectations on the group, which means pressure on Antetokounmpo. The man who hesitated to call last spring’s first-round loss a failure but referenced “steps to success” now realizes the line for what’s acceptable is much higher than before — that a repeat result will be even more disastrous.

They brought him the one player he probably coveted most to play with, the player who openly said Antetokounmpo would be the perfect running mate.

“Plays the game the right way, is from the same cloth,” Antetokounmpo said.

Now the NBA presidential ticket says “Giannis, Dame, ’24” and it’s hard to see a more perfect match until you get to the Rockies and encounter the defending champions’ twosome of Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray.

Antetokounmpo watched Lillard’s situation reasonably closely, but didn’t get a sense of it being realistic until much, much later.

“I never thought he could come to the Milwaukee Bucks,” Antetokounmpo told Yahoo Sports. “No idea. I’d never thought he’d be here. The same way you heard about the teams [on his list], the Miamis, the [Nets]. I’m happy, I’m very happy.”

Unprompted, in his opening statement, Lillard referred to Antetokounmpo as the “best player in the league.” It’s not an uncommon take or bold one, but it sets the tone that there won’t be any power struggle in this pairing.

“I know the player he is, I know the player I am,” Lillard said. “I know how to make my presence known. Being myself doesn’t always mean I gotta be out front or everything’s gotta be about me.”

Lillard mentioned playing at Weber State, with upperclassmen around, respecting the hierarchy while establishing himself. He mentioned being a young player in Portland where LaMarcus Aldridge was the star, and Wes Matthews and Nic Batum were the established veterans — again, he made his impact in his own way before things turned to him.

Things will turn to Lillard, probably in the last five minutes of critical games, and he’ll welcome that challenge of being the closer. But everything still revolves around Antetokounmpo, the majority of the weight will be his to carry.

He’ll be responsible for Lillard having the real estate on the floor to be his best self — Lillard is established enough that many will know if there’s some discomfort, it won’t be because his game fell off overnight.

Adjustments will be made, which is why Antetokounmpo expressed the importance of watching film with Lillard, so the two can get on the same page as quickly as possible. There’s ground to be gained in the East, as every contender has a major issue or addition to address.

Boston added Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porziņģis while losing Robert Williams III, Grant Williams, Marcus Smart and Malcolm Brogdon. Miami missed out on Lillard and didn’t re-sign two key members from its Finals run.

Everyone seems to understand things will be different. New coach Adrian Griffin is not Mike Budenholzer, the fine championship-winning coach who had one playoff disappointment too many for Horst and anyone with significant equity in the Bucks.

Khris Middleton will take on more of Holiday’s defensive assignments, presumably, and take a step back on offense to make way for Lillard. How exactly he fits on offense remains to be seen, but he understands everyone will start at square one with a new system and new way of life.

Health had been an issue for the Bucks the last two years, with Antetokounmpo missing games in the first round against Miami and Middleton missing the 2022 second round against Boston, then battling those same ailments and more last season.

Milwaukee Bucks players (L-R) Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez pose for a photo during media day in Milwaukee on Oct. 2, 2023. (Benny Sieu/USA TODAY Sports)

Those circumstances aided in the Bucks’ inability to repeat, which led them to this day, where they can no longer fly among the pack but must lead.

Antetokounmpo, though, refuses to admit they’re the favorites.

“We haven’t even practiced yet. You gotta win. It’s steps toward the right direction,” he told Yahoo Sports. “I think we’re the worst team in the NBA.”

Clearly tongue-in-cheek, Antetokounmpo took steps toward a team photo featuring Brook Lopez, Middleton, himself … and Lillard.

He laughed. Even he knows he has a good hand and has to deliver.