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Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokić and the quiet battle between two NBA titans

The next generation has already begun to take the mantle and the two torch bearers are having a quiet battle before our eyes — one that could take a dramatic turn this June, if we’re all lucky.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokić could lead the Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets back to the Finals this year and settle things on the floor in a way they haven’t yet been able to.

They’ve led their franchises to two of the last three NBA titles, with Stephen Curry getting one in the middle. Each titan has two MVPs — with Jokić installed as a favorite this year to win his third — and a Finals MVP.

The basketball world has been bracing for the inevitable aging out and retirement of the mainstays, LeBron James, Curry and Kevin Durant, openly wondering if Ja Morant or Anthony Edwards or rookie sensation Victor Wembanyama will snatch the light and lead the way for the next generation.

(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports Illustration)
(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports Illustration)

What we’re missing in the meantime is a battle between two supernovas who, in their own way, have made the league their own right before our eyes. And these two are not stopgaps, they just haven’t been handed anything because so much oxygen is taken up by the older fellas — who are still very much remarkable and deserving of attention.

But back to the matter, a third MVP would put Jokić in historic company we haven’t had to talk about in quite awhile. And even though NBA MVPs traditionally come in clusters, only Michael Jordan (five), Magic Johnson (three), Larry Bird (three) and James (four) have accumulated three or more of those trophies in the last 40 years. Individually, it could vault Jokić historically ahead of Antetokounmpo, who last won the award in the COVID-truncated 2019-20 season. Antetokounmpo is quietly making a late charge for candidacy but it could be too late due to Jokić and Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander having somewhat of a head start.

Minds aren’t made up yet, but Antetokounmpo’s all-around game could close the gap as Milwaukee finds its way back to its usual standing following its early-season struggles, culminating in the firing of first-year coach Adrian Griffin.

Antetokounmpo is a devastating two-way force who’s returned to those ways, a former Defensive Player of the Year who’s also finished second and in the top 10 every year since coming into his own.

Perhaps a Finals matchup would cement these two being on the marquee, and it seems the league would be better for it. Antetokounmpo is the irresistible force, Jokić the inevitable monster who can’t be stopped.

The Nuggets, going for a repeat after silencing the doubters last spring. The Bucks, should they overcome the early drama and have Doc Rivers lead them back to June, would be a great silencer for all involved.

This iteration of the Bucks is treated almost as if 2021 didn’t exist, like they’re a squad that didn’t overcome self-inflicted demons along the way. Part of that is winning just one playoff series since that 2021 run and being knocked out in a stone-cold stunner in the first round last year.

Some of it is earned, but Antetokounmpo deserves trust here, and on a different level, so does his new running mate, Damian Lillard.

“That’s who I’d like to see in the Finals,” TNT broadcaster and Hall of Fame big man Shaquille O’Neal told Yahoo Sports recently. “So many questions and things you wish you could answer right now, but we just got to wait.

“Milwaukee is starting to pick it up, Denver is in position, they could be four [seed], they could be two. But they definitely have the blueprint on how to win a championship, and I can tell they want to win another one.”

There’s also this matter of the invisible trophy, probably still held by Hakeem Olajuwon as the best international player of all time (if we don't count Tim Duncan as an international player). Some would say Dirk Nowitzki and there wouldn’t be but so much of an argument, although Olajuwon’s two championships over Nowitzki’s one could be the deciding factor. Who knows if it matters much to either. Jokić goes out of his way to illustrate how little he cares for everything outside of the game, although he certainly doesn’t mind profiting off all the heavy lifting he's done.

Either way, he’s a historic player, perhaps the most bankable commodity in today’s game who’s proven he can handle the on-floor responsibility and pressure at the most high-leverage moments, almost an inevitable force when he has the game in his hands late.

Antetokounmpo has stated numerous times the MVP doesn’t matter, but he certainly plays like a man who wants the validation from the media and basketball world. In a space where nonchalance has seeped into basketball at all levels and players have become too cool to compete, too afraid of being embarrassed for the social media world to use their thumbs to laugh, it’s refreshing to see someone with a go-hard mentality all the time.

Antetokounmpo is averaging 33.6 points, 11.4 rebounds and 7.6 assists in this short month, as the Bucks are still without Khris Middleton, who’s played just 43 games with an assortment of injuries — most recently an ankle sprain.

We haven’t seen the Bucks in full form, and the Nuggets seem more likely to get back to the Finals as a well-oiled machine. Jokić is having another outstanding year, with very little drop-off from his last three campaigns: 26.2 points, 12.3 rebounds, 9.2 assists.

The toxicity from last year’s MVP race is thankfully gone, but the race itself hasn’t been truly compelling, which isn’t at all a bad thing. We tend to associate Jokić with Joel Embiid because they play the same position, but Antetokounmpo has two third-place finishes and one fourth-place finish since his back-to-back wins, and it did take us a few years before we got to see Magic and Bird in the Finals.

Once that happened in 1984, they officially took the mantle from Julius Erving and made it their league, even though they were already champions.

This matchup isn’t inevitable, with many twists and turns yet to be made before we find out who emerges from their respective conferences. But it would sure be fun, and that’s why we’re here.

DENVER, COLORADO - JANUARY 29: Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets backs down Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks at Ball Arena on January 29, 2024 in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images)
A Finals matchup between Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokić would be one for the ages. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images) (Jamie Schwaberow via Getty Images)