There are still no NBA games in sight as we approach the two-month mark since Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus and the league suspended play indefinitely, but games have often taken a backseat in recent years to discussion surrounding increased player movement.
Since Paul George’s trade request from Indiana in June 2017, superstars have headlined an endless supply of transactional drama. Kyrie Irving’s trade request from Cleveland a month later bled into LeBron James’ looming free agency during the 2017-18 season, Kawhi Leonard’s trade request from San Antonio in June 2018, Jimmy Butler’s trade request from Minnesota three months later and a 2018-19 campaign that began with the looming free agencies of Kevin Durant, Irving, Leonard and Butler, spanned an Anthony Davis trade request, and ended with another George trade request.
Much of that momentum was quelled this season by a Bradley Beal contract extension that barred him from being traded until July 2020, the expectation that Davis will re-sign with the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency, the absence of another superstar in this coming summer’s 2020 free agency class and a COVID-19 outbreak that has ground the league to a halt. But just because there are no games to watch does not mean we must cease speculating about looming superstar transactions.
So, let the Giannis Antetokounmpo drama begin in earnest. The NBA’s reigning MVP has a potential league-altering decision to make when the Milwaukee Bucks offer him a supermax extension during the 2020 offseason, which we may be in the midst of for all we know. Reports of Antetokounmpo’s rumored intentions have circulated since the start of the 2019-20 season, including one this week.
(And it has nothing to do with Thursday’s abhorrent hacking of Antetekounmpo’s Twitter account.)
Keep in mind, speculation ended with each aforementioned superstar changing teams, some more than once. There is a reason discussion of Stephen Curry’s 2017 free agency never grew louder than a whisper, because there was never a doubt he would sign his supermax deal in Golden State.
A looming supermax extension offer
Antetokounmpo will be eligible for a five-year extension in the neighborhood of $250 million once the NBA calendar turns to the 2020-21 season, and Bucks GM Jon Horst confirmed the obvious: an offer will be on the table as soon as that bell rings. Whether or not it is July 1 could play a significant role in whether or not Antetokounmpo signs the deal, which will determine whether or not we spend the next 14 months discussing his possible exit from Milwaukee, so we might as well start now.
Antetokounmpo has made clear his love for Milwaukee and the importance of loyalty in his life, but he has not outright pledged to re-sign with the Bucks. Now, part of that is just good business. Even a player of his caliber should not yield an inch of leverage, especially one who accepted a slightly discounted rate the last time around. The favorite to become the first back-to-back MVP since Curry can dictate the terms of his salary, but Antetekounmpo will also enter contract discussions with with incredible negotiating power on everything from a no-trade clause to personnel decisions.
Curry also left his 2017 free agency open to interpretation, even as he declared at the start of 2016 training camp, “I want to be back here. I like playing here. That’s it.” But Antetokounmpo’s attempts to address his future in Milwaukee have come with less subtle caveats and a broader interpretation.
In retrospect, LeBron’s departure to Los Angeles in 2018 and the union between Durant and Irving in Brooklyn a year later seemed obvious, considering the breadcrumbs they dropped along the way. Antetokounmpo is similarly leaving a trail that would be easy to follow to that end if he blazes it.
The caveats to Antetokounmpo’s loyalty
As soon as Milwaukee’s 2018-19 season ended in a six-game Eastern Conference finals loss to Leonard’s Toronto Raptors, ESPN’s Malika Andrews reported, “A source close to Antetokounmpo said that getting to the NBA Finals is not just an ambition, it could tip the scales as he weighs his contractual future.” And it was likely this report that led him to storm out of his final postgame press conference of the season without answering Andrews’ question on the benefit of playoff experience.
The 2019-20 campaign began with a similar sentiment Antetokounmpo reportedly expressed himself during a Harvard Business School study: “I want the Bucks to build a winning culture. So far, we have been doing great, and, if this lasts, there’s no other place I want to be. But if we’re underperforming in the NBA next year, deciding whether to sign becomes a lot more difficult.”
Antetokounmpo refuted the language in the quote, but not its context. Harvard professor Anita Elberse stood by her findings, and Bucks co-owner Jamie Dinan — a participant in the study — told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “He clearly said it because she said he said it and she taped it.”
Within days of each other around the 2020 All-Star Game in mid-February, Antetokounmpo and his agent, Alex Saratsis, all but confirmed the essence of Andrews’ reporting and the Harvard study.
Saratsis told TMJ4 News in Milwaukee, “I think he's someone who could easily say, ‘I’d like to be in Milwaukee my entire career.’ I think he’s also someone who, depending on how the team does, could say, ‘I need a change.’ But for him, staying is absolutely a viable option.” (I should think so!)
And Antetokounmpo told USA Today’s Mackenzie Salmon, “I’m a guy who wants to be with a team for awhile, as long as we’re winning. We’re winning so far, so I don’t think anything’s gonna change.”
He added of the potential to team with brothers Thanasis and Kostas, “I think that’d be amazing. Obviously we’d spend more time together. I’m 100 percent sure my mom would love that. But if we could end up on a team in Milwaukee, L.A. whatever, that’d be awesome.” This after telling The New York Times’ Marc Stein in 2017, “I’m a low-profile guy. I don’t like all these flashy cities like L.A. or Miami.” And it is easy to be cynical of the Lakers’ intentions in claiming Kostas off waivers in July.
None of this adds up to a whole lot, especially since Kostas will be a free agent this summer, and the Bucks could make realize that dream in Milwaukee before Giannis ever hits free agency, but it does offer the eldest Antetokounmpo an out based on his interpretation of what it means to win.
A stall in the championship process
The Bucks owned the league’s best record entering the hiatus and were heavy favorites to reach the Finals and among the leading candidates to win it. If the season returns, Milwaukee’s momentum is halted, and the Bucks fall short of expectations, there is a scenario where Antetokounmpo declines the supermax contract offer in favor of finding out whether the 2020-21 season unfolds similarly.
There is also a scenario where this season never resumes and Antetokounmpo never gets a chance to determine Milwaukee’s championship mettle in 2020, leaving everything to chance next season, before which a handful of valuable role players have the option to leave in free agency this summer.
Either way, teams around the league will be champing at the bit for the opportunity to pitch Antetokounmpo on their championship futures in 2021 — if not before then, should he decline the extension and Milwaukee get the feeling he will leave for nothing in free agency. Per ESPN’s Tim Bontemps, the NBA executives he polled in February all believed Antetokounmpo would re-sign, “given how well the Bucks are playing.” Months later, nobody is playing, and the season is in doubt.
Regardless, practically every team will be clearing cap space for 2021 free agency, since Antetokounmpo is not the only superstar who could hit the open market. James, Leonard and George are among those who can terminate their current contracts that same summer, so front offices around the league will be prepared if and when Antetokounmpo becomes available.
Golden State is among the teams specifically targeting him, according to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Connor Letourneau, whose report on Wednesday confirmed a similar report by ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne in September and cited league sources who “believe that Antetokounmpo would want out of Milwaukee if he loses confidence in the franchise’s ability to win championships.”
There is no guarantee the Bucks will be as good as they were pre-outbreak, whether play resumes this season or next, which means there is no guarantee Antetokounmpo remains in Milwaukee. Chemistry and rhythm are delicate balances, and Antetokounmpo’s aspirations also hinge on having Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe as the second- and third-best players on a championship team.
The Bucks are all but locked into their current roster. That paid dividends through 65 regular-season games, but should they fall off pace, the path to upgrading the roster around Antetokounmpo will be awfully difficult with Middleton, Bledsoe and Brook Lopez due a combined $71 million in 2022-23.
If Antetokounmpo becomes convinced he cannot win a ring with his supporting cast, he will have little choice but to leave small-market Milwaukee in 2021. The window between closes by the day.
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