Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.
Back in December, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s decision to re-sign with the Bucks was cause for major celebration by an organization and fanbase that might’ve come apart sometime between then and now had he instead spent the season mulling it over. As the NBA’s two-time defending MVP and Defensive Player of the Year Antetokounmpo agreed to a mammoth five-year, $228 million extension nine days after his 26th birthday. Now, after one of the most dominant individual postseason runs in history, capped off by a 50-point, 14-rebound, five-block performance in the Finals-clinching Game 6, he’s also a world champion.
The signing of Antetokounmpo’s third contract was in doubt until the moment it wasn’t. His preemptive commitment was surprising and significant. It was also antiquated and endearing, particularly when he spoke about not wanting to put his teammates through six months of stressful will he leave or will he stay? speculation.
Setting aside the astronomical amount of money a supermax affords—or the loyalty other stars like Damian Lillard, Steph Curry and Bradley Beal have, so far, pledged to the team that drafted them, through varying degrees of frustration and euphoria—Antetokounmpo’s conspicuous journey mirrored a seemingly bygone era when great players were constrained (and somewhat compelled) to spend all or most of their careers wearing the same jersey.
When awesome players become synonymous with said jerseys their success is indelible for fans who endured heartbreak and enjoyed victory: Think Tim Duncan’s Spurs, Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavericks, Kobe Bryant’s Lakers or even Paul Pierce’s Celtics, where the emotional magnitude of his 2008 Finals MVP was grounded by all the turmoil that preceded such a career-defining achievement.
This is not a denigration of championships that weren’t spearheaded by a beloved hometown hero. (Approximately zero people in Toronto care that Kawhi Leonard was their leading scorer in the 2019 Finals instead of DeMar DeRozan.) There’s nothing wrong with switching teams in a league that’s governed by a collective bargaining agreement that has accelerated player movement via shorter contracts and a recent inrush of capital that deemphasized the guaranteed fifth year teams are able to dangle in front of their own free agents.
But speaking anecdotally with an extremely small sample size, those who win “the hard way” are, at first, more adored and/or appreciated than those who used free agency or a trade demand to change their zip code. Two predominant examples are LeBron James and Kevin Durant. James was a self-proclaimed villain during his first season with the Heat. Durant was discredited after joining the Golden State Warriors. Neither should be criticized for doing what they wanted to do; each won multiple Finals MVP awards for the trouble. Two other high profile cases were Leonard and Anthony Davis, who preferred Los Angeles over their small markets.
As presumed heir to the Best Player Alive throne that arguably all four of those players have sat on at one point, Antetokounmpo would have surprised no one if he had opted to shake the NBA’s foundation by teaming up with Curry in San Francisco, Luka Dončić in Dallas, Pascal Siakam in Toronto or Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo in Miami. Instead he stayed, despite numerous reasons to flee—from Milwaukee choosing Eric Bledsoe over Malcolm Brogdon, to an embarrassing pursuit of Bogdan Bogdanovic, to casual cap mismanagement, all the way back to Giannis agreeing to a four-year, $100 million contract in 2016 because some in the organization thought Jabari Parker could be more deserving of the lone five-year designated player max they had to offer. (To their credit the Bucks also turned Bledsoe, George Hill, three unprotected first-round picks and two pick swaps into Jrue Holiday, whose masterful defense through the Finals was a padlock wrapped in barbed wire.)
The shadow of Giannis’ decision—almost exactly a decade after LeBron’s—has yet to reveal itself. Maybe it has no effect. The next CBA will have a greater say than Antetokounmpo ever could on whether player movement continues to surge or is restricted throughout the league, but in the same way a 26-year-old LeBron paved the way for fellow All-Stars to fearlessly leverage their power in free agency, it’s conceivable 26-year-old Giannis leads a shift back towards the deep-rooted relationship iconic players used to have with the team they played for. (Also: the supermax guaranteed Giannis $83 million more than every other team could offer, which doesn’t hurt.)
The league’s economics were in a very different place 10 years ago, and there are countless variables that dictate the number of alternatives individual stars get to sift through. But LeBron helped empower those after him to explore new opportunities and prioritize their own happiness. It’s a hefty part of his legacy.
Said with full understanding that every situation is different, every person is not the same and some organizations are more committed to winning than others, it will be interesting to see if dissatisfied, hyper-competitive megastars look at what Giannis just did and ask themselves if it’s worth following those more patient footsteps; spending the bulk of their athletic prime 1) keeping the team that drafted them relevant, and 2) elevating it to a championship.
Every career writes its own story. Every so often the NBA meets one that’s influential enough to shift the league’s paradigm. In Antetokounmpo’s case, imitating his game won’t be possible. But what other stars can do is strive to match the sentimentality that sprouts from his outlook.
Again, Antetokounmpo is singular. As are LeBron, Durant and the few other billion-watt megastars who’ve wanted out. All are also great enough to impact more than how the game is played and who wins and loses: They steer off-court behavior and hold a soft authority over those who want what they have. Right now, Giannis is on top of the NBA food chain and the highest-paid individual in league history—something neither LeBron (who was never even the highest paid player on his own team before his second stint with the Cavaliers) nor Durant could claim when they sought a new team.
There was no real sacrifice on Giannis’ part. He had his cake and ate it, too. The persistent initial (and ultimately foolish) criticisms that obsessed over the “easier” route LeBron and Durant made by leaving their respective small markets to nab a ring don’t even apply here. Antetokounmpo did what they could not, and there’s really nothing anybody can say about it—or the frailties in his game—because the dude won.
“I couldn’t leave. You know, there was a job that had to be finished,” Giannis said last night. “I wanted to get the job done, but that's my stubborn side. It’s easy to go and win a championship with somebody else. It’s easy…. I don't want to put anybody on the spot, but I could go to a super team and, you know, just do my part and win a championship. But this is the hard way to do it. And we did it. We f---ing did it.”
So even though any expectation of things reverting entirely back to the way they were 15 years ago is entirely unrealistic for dozens of reasons, don’t be shocked if others in this generation and the next to come (Luka, Zion Williamson, Karl-Anthony Towns, Trae Young, Ja Morant, Nikola Jokić, Donovan Mitchell, etc.) find Antetokounmpo’s fairytale path more desirable. Who wouldn’t want everything he has?