Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks will reconvene Monday for the first time since their season ended with a heartbreaking six-game loss to the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals.
It also will be the first time this season Antetokounmpo will be asked about his future, but far from the last. It will happen again both times he plays in Los Angeles and all three times he visits New York. The same goes for when he travels to San Francisco. And Miami. And Chicago. And Dallas.
And, frankly, just about everywhere else.
There won’t be a more discussed topic in the NBA this season, for good reason. The Bucks have already said they intend to offer Antetokounmpo a supermax extension on June 30, 2020. What Antetokounmpo decides to do once that extension is offered will have ripple effects across the league for years to come. This all hangs over the Bucks as they begin what they hope will be a season that ends with Milwaukee winning its second NBA title.
“We want to be successful over a long period of time and be competitive for a long time and be resourceful,” Bucks general manager Jon Horst told ESPN. “That’s the answer. That’s the direction. That’s the focus. Yes, I believe if we do that, that’s what I think Giannis wants to be part of. Winning. A family environment. He’s a loyal guy who loves Milwaukee, and WISconsin, and the Bucks, and we want to continue to grow and sustain something that we want him to be part of and build.”
The Bucks will spend the next 10 months building their case for why Antetokounmpo’s future should lie with them.
A future where Giannis signs
“As long as … we are all on the same page and we are all focused on [winning a championship],” Antetokounmpo told reporters this summer, “why not play for the Bucks 20 years? Why not play 25 years?”
Forget 20 or 25. The Bucks will be perfectly happy if the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player simply signs on for another five next summer. And despite seeing so many stars change teams this summer, Horst and the Bucks are solely focused on convincing Antetokounmpo that he shouldn’t follow their lead.
“I don’t want to sound naive, and it definitely isn’t arrogant,” Horst told ESPN. “But I don’t really concern myself with other superstars, other teams or their ability to keep or recruit guys.
“We are intentionally laser-focused on Milwaukee and building the culture, success and sustainability of our organization. I think if we stay focused on that, we’ll be fine.”
Milwaukee has made tangible strides in each of those categories and can credibly sell that to Antetokounmpo, both this year and beyond. Culturally, the Bucks today are a vastly different team from the one that drafted him six years ago. The ancient, nondescript Bradley Center has been replaced with the state-of-the-art Fiserv Forum, which is paired with an equally modern practice facility across the street. Meanwhile, the hiring of Mike Budenholzer — arguably the top coaching candidate on the market last summer — showed that Milwaukee can compete with any team for talent. Budenholzer built a system perfectly suited to accentuate Antetokounmpo’s skill set, helping the 24-year-old become the league’s MVP.
After Antetokounmpo struggled at the FIBA World Cup earlier this month, with Greece falling in the group stage as he averaged just 14.8 points per game, it’s likely he appreciates Budenholzer’s system even more.
The most obvious thing Milwaukee can sell is success. The Bucks won a league-best 60 games last season and enter the season as the favorites in the Eastern Conference. Caesars Sportsbook lists the Bucks at +550 to win the title, behind only the the Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers. After not winning a playoff series since 2001, the Bucks came within two wins of advancing to the NBA Finals. The Bucks will hope to build on that this year by playing in the NBA Finals for the first time since the days of Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the early 1970s.
Milwaukee can point to what happened this summer as support for its sustainability argument. Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and George Hill all re-signed on long-term deals. Budenholzer is signed to one too. Meanwhile, having Antetokounmpo means veterans chasing playoff success — like Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez, who signed this summer — will prioritize the Bucks.
“Giannis being there was a part of my decision,” Lopez said. “He’s the best player on the planet right now. He makes everyone on the floor better. He makes the Bucks what they are.
“We’re a team, and we got to where we were playing as a team. He’s going to do what he’s going to do. But if we all do our jobs these next few years, it’s going to be hard for him to say no to being in Milwaukee.”
Then there is the money. The Bucks can offer Antetokounmpo a five-year extension worth $253.8 million, per ESPN’s Bobby Marks. Any team hoping to sign Antetokounmpo in free agency using cap space in 2021 would be able to offer him only a four-year deal worth $161.3 million.
There are other factors too. For one, there’s no NBA team to lure him “home” like the Clippers did with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard this summer and the Brooklyn Nets did with Kyrie Irving. Milwaukee is the only home Antetokounmpo has known in the United States. Unless the NBA expands to Athens in the next 10 months, or Antetokounmpo makes the very unlikely choice to leave the NBA to play in the Euroleague in 2021, the option to play in front of his hometown fans won’t be available to him.
Meanwhile, unlike George, Leonard and Irving — all of whom were with their prior teams for two seasons or less — Antetokounmpo has spent his entire career in Milwaukee, putting down extensive roots while growing with a team that’s now a legitimate title contender.
That wasn’t the case for the Charlotte Hornets, who lost Kemba Walker to Boston this summer. Walker had repeatedly said he had no desire to leave Charlotte, but eventually the lure of winning — not a larger market — became too much to ignore.
“Guys know what it takes to be good in this league as far as competing and having the best players and teams,” Walker told ESPN. “There are guys who still love to be in small markets — including me, of course. But obviously it didn’t work out.”
“I’ll never leave the team and the city of Milwaukee ’til we build the team to a championship level team …,” he wrote.
Milwaukee has built that championship-level team. If Antetokounmpo stays, Milwaukee will remain one for years to come. And after several stars chose to go to big markets this summer, Milwaukee will hope to buck that trend next year.
“You could say this summer that the big markets won [in free agency],” Horst said, “but what I think players want is to love where they come to work and to feel they can win at the highest level. I think we have a chance to be a top market in the NBA landscape because the top markets in the NBA do those things and not because of the weather or per capita income or location or whatever.”
A future where Giannis doesn’t sign
“As long as … we are all on the same page and we are all focused on [winning a championship], why not play for the Bucks 20 years? Why not play 25 years?”
Antetokounmpo did say those words this summer, but how many times have we heard stars say similar things in the past — only to leave soon afterward?
• Kyrie Irving, last October, about staying in Boston: “If you guys will have me, I plan on re-signing here.
Those are just a few of many examples. And, like everyone else, players are certainly allowed to change their minds. And until he signs his name to that $253.8 million contract extension, Antetokounmpo will have the option to do so as well.
ESPN’s Malika Andrews reported after that devastating loss to the Raptors in May that reaching the NBA Finals this season could play a part in what Antetokounmpo chooses to do. And that was before the Raptors lost Kawhi Leonard — clearing a significant hurdle from Milwaukee’s path to doing just that.
Dave McMenamin and Jorge Sedano compare the Lakers signing Giannis’ brother Kostas to the strategic move to add Kentavious Caldwell-Pope before LeBron James joined the team.
And while cash works in Milwaukee’s favor when it comes to the amount it can pay Antetokounmpo, the team’s reticence toward paying the luxury tax this summer is seen around the league as a strike against the Bucks.
“They didn’t pay the tax,” said one Eastern Conference executive, when asked for a reason Antetokounmpo could choose to leave. “They actively avoided doing it.”
Milwaukee could’ve retained former Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, who started all 64 regular-season games he played last season. Instead, the Bucks agreed to a sign-and-trade with the Indiana Pacers in July for a first-round pick and two second-round selections.
The move gave Milwaukee long-term flexibility, both financially and in terms of the additional draft capital. And if Milwaukee wins the title in June, or even just reaches the Finals, the Bucks’ decision to let Brogdon go will be vindicated. But if the Bucks fall short of their goals, losing a key contributor to duck the tax line will be seen as a contributing factor.
And in a league where players are exerting more control over teams than ever before, every little thing teams do matters.
“Players have all the leverage,” said an executive with a small-market team. “I would say it’s a players’ league right now. They get to dictate where they want to go and what they want to do.”
That was certainly the case this summer as one star player after another changed teams. Leonard’s departure, in particular, raised eyebrows. No, he had never declared he would stay in Toronto during his season with the Raptors. But the NBA has always maintained that small-market teams can attract and retain star talent if those teams are run well and compete for championships. Leonard’s choosing to leave Toronto after a season in which the Raptors won a title dealt a blow to that argument’s credibility.
It also generated a ton of chatter this summer at the league’s annual meetings at the Las Vegas Summer League, where NBA commissioner Adam Silver admitted there remains room for improvement.
“At the end of the day, you want to make sure you have a league where every team is in a position to compete,” Silver said. “We have work to do.”
Finding a solution won’t be easy. The supermax has not been enough to entice players like Leonard and Anthony Davis to stay with their original teams. That has led some within the league to argue that teams need to have an even greater advantage than what the supermax currently offers them. However, radical structural changes such as a hard salary cap or an NFL-style franchise tag system have always been, and remain, non-starters in the eyes of the union, sources said.
Still, even within the current system, it is possible for small-market teams to compete at the highest level. Milwaukee is proof of that. So too are the Utah Jazz, and the Spurs have been one of the league’s model organizations for decades.
Pulling it off, however, requires walking a fine line of chasing championships while being judicious when it comes to spending — be it draft capital, money or both.
On the other hand, a team like the Clippers — owned by the 14th-wealthiest man in America, playing in the nation’s second-largest TV market — can make a trade like the one it did for George involving several first-round draft picks and know that it can always fall back on free agency as a reasonable alternative.
“The big-market teams can say, ‘Who cares?'” said the small-market executive. “They can say, ‘We can replace their picks in free agency because we know we can get players that way.'”
If Antetokounmpo turns down the supermax extension next summer, he’ll immediately become one of those players big-market teams target. Without a long-term deal in place, the Bucks would almost be forced into trading him a year before his contract is up so as not to risk losing him for nothing in free agency in 2021 the way the Raptors did with Leonard this past summer.
And if Antetokounmpo decides his long-term future isn’t in Milwaukee, he’ll also have the leverage to affect where he winds up. Davis certainly did in getting to the Lakers this summer. Leonard, on the other hand, wound up being traded to Toronto in 2018 despite his demands to go to Los Angeles.
It certainly worked out for the Raptors. But it also worked out for Leonard, who had to wait only a few extra months to get what he ultimately wanted and added a second championship ring along the way.
“At the end of the day, we want to be a league where strong management is rewarded and that every team has the opportunity to compete,” Silver said.
If, 10 months from now, Antetokounmpo decides not to reward the Bucks with his signature, the NBA will have to accept that the argument has been dealt a powerful blow.