- NBA front offices are always looking ahead, and Giannis Antetokounmpo looms as the biggest prize in a post-Anthony Davis trade world. What’s Milwaukee’s plan for keeping the Greek Freak?
Repeatedly, Giannis Antetokounmpo has expressed his desire to stay in Milwaukee for his entire career. He’s said he loves the Bucks, and he would like to play for the franchise for 20 years. And in the middle of an MVP-caliber season, no one wants to think of Antetokounmpo as the next Anthony Davis—a superstar yearning for greener pastures. And yet, front offices will certainly keep their eyes on Giannis and his commitment to Milwaukee. Antetokounmpo will decide next summer—like Davis did this year—if he wants to sign a supermax extension with the Bucks. And it wasn’t too long ago that decision didn’t seem completely obvious.
It all sounds absurd to even think of right now. The Bucks have the profile of a championship contender, with a top-five offense and the best defense in the league, and the No. 1 net rating by a significant margin over the second-place Warriors. And yet, questions about Giannis’s future were once raised the same way they were for stars like Kevin Durant and Davis. There was some tension when Jon Horst was hired to run Milwaukee’s front office in 2017, so much so that ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said other teams were already beginning to monitor the situation, despite Giannis being signed through 2021.
“Milwaukee’s going to go through this with the Greek Freak,” Wojnarowski said then. “That day’s coming, right? Where he’s going to look and say, ‘Where is this organization? What are they doing here?’ Like, you don’t think Giannis has been watching what went on there for the last several months? Of what they allowed to go on with the front office? He’s watching it. And the clock has started. Everybody in the league is trying to figure out how they are going to get him out of there. That has started.”
Of course, Horst has since crafted a roster currently in the middle of an outstanding season, spearheaded by Antetokounmpo. Meanwhile not only does Giannis look like an MVP, he looks like the heir to the Best Player in the World throne. LeBron James, Durant, Stephen Curry, and James Harden will all be over the age of 30 by the start of next season; Antetokounmpo doesn’t turn 25 until December. He’s already putting up Shaq-like numbers in the paint, and he’ll undoubtedly keep working on his iffy jump shot, the only flaw in his otherwise beautiful skillset. Still, the nature of the modern NBA is constant speculation about player movement—fueled equally by the unadulterated lust for trades and gossip, and the players themselves who either request trades or leverage teams with shorter contracts. With that in mind, is there a path for other teams to snag Giannis?
At the time of the Woj report, Antetokounmpo responded with a tweet about loyalty, implying he was happy in Milwaukee. And there are other reasons to believe he hasn’t considered playing elsewhere. As an international player, Antetokounmpo doesn’t really have the same relationships some American players do through AAU or Team USA, where recruiting work often seems to happen (when it’s not in the parking lot after a Finals game.) Of course, winning could ultimately matter more than anything, and that’s when questions about the Bucks start to arise.
Again, Milwaukee has been spectacular this season, and in any other universe in which Durant isn’t on the Warriors, the Bucks are probably title favorites. Their future, however, isn’t neatly mapped out.
Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez are both free agents this summer, and both are valuable contributors to the team’s current success. Both will also be in their 30s on their next contract. Malcolm Brogdon perhaps makes Bledsoe expendable—what about Lopez? He’s helped change the offense this season, but there’s a chance he becomes more expensive than the biannual exception in the summer. It also remains to be seen how Lopez holds up in the playoffs, when teams often play smaller, and how that will change the Bucks’ effectiveness.
Khris Middleton has a player option he will almost certainly decline. He will also likely command a max contract offer. Milwaukee can probably keep him if it meets his market value, but as great of a player Middleton is, the expectations for him will rise considerably if he signs a max deal. Will the Bucks be comfortable paying him to be the second-best player on a championship team?
The Middleton decision will really be a big one. It seems obvious to pay him, but smaller market teams that historically aren’t popular free-agent destinations can’t afford to miss on a deal like that one. A supermax for Giannis only further complicates the issue. Antetokounmpo is obviously worth every penny, but with him on a mega deal, and Middleton on a max one, the Bucks’ flexibility is hampered considerably. Basically, if Middleton is brought back, the front office has to have complete confidence him and Giannis are championship material, because bringing in another star will get complicated.
Milwaukee does have a route to significant cap space this summer. George Hill only has a $1 million guarantee for next year, and guys like Lopez, Bledsoe, and Nikola Mirotic can be renounced to open up some room. Perhaps Giannis will be enough of a magnet to draw in some big names, but with so many teams (and marquee markets) having cap room this summer, it could certainly be tough for the Bucks to swing big in free agency.
The Warriors are the wild card in all of this. If Durant leaves as expected, constructing a title team could be a little bit more normal than it has in the past. It’s possible this summer starts something of a post-Superteam era, where two All-Stars (or one All-Star and one generational talent) puts your team in the conversation more so than it does now. If that’s the case, the Bucks could be well served running it back with their current cast, which has already had success against the Bostons, Torontos, and Philadelphias of the East.
It’s unfair to Milwaukee to cast a pall on its incredible season, but fortune in the NBA favors the planners. The Bucks will need to nail their next three or four moves and continue this year’s progress, and the entire NBA will watching in case they don’t. Though Milwaukee may still be in the middle of the NBA’s ultimate feel-good season, the next challenge is making sure there are many more to follow.