Why Giannis Antetokounmpo's future with Bucks becomes murkier if NBA playoffs are canceled due to coronavirus
This was supposed to be Milwaukee's year to make its best sales pitch to the future free agent
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to shut down huge portions of our country and the world, the NBA's regular season, and playoffs, continue to be in danger of being called off entirely. Everyone, of course, is hoping that doesn't happen, if only for the fact that a return to NBA normalcy will mean that a lot of things that are a lot more important than sports have gotten a lot better than they are right now. But for the time being, those are just hopes.
The reality is nobody knows what's going to happen with this virus, and as an extension of that uncertainty, nobody has any idea how this NBA season is going to end, or if it already has. And that potentially could call a number of league-shifting factors, some of which were supposed to be largely litigated in the playoffs, into increasing question.
One of those questions centers on Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, who, in the summer of 2021, is set to become the NBA's most prized free agent since LeBron James in 2010. This summer, Antetokounmpo, by virtue of his being selected to two consecutive All-NBA teams, is eligible for a five-year, $247.3 million extension, which would represent the largest contract in league history.
Before the coronavirus struck, the Bucks were in the middle of making a pretty convincing argument for Antetokounmpo to sign that extension. One season after making the conference finals, they were chasing the almost mythical 70-win mark and heading into the postseason as one of three clear favorites -- along with the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers -- to win the whole thing. In late February, ESPN's Tim Bontemps penned the following statement:
Given how well the Bucks are playing, every executive we spoke to expects Antetokounmpo to re-sign with Milwaukee. The Bucks are overwhelming favorites to reach the NBA Finals, and falling short of that bar looks to be the only thing that could put Milwaukee's MVP in play.
Again, the results of this postseason were supposed to be the swing factor. The big markets can sell Antetokounmpo on lifestyle and opportunities beyond basketball and the chance to play on a global stage that Milwaukee simply can't provide. All the Bucks have is basketball. The case for winning. And without the opportunity to prove they're the team that gives Giannis the best chance to win a ring, their case very clearly becomes less powerful.
Perhaps in the potential absence of a 2020 postseason, Giannis will decide he needs more time and more information, before he can comfortably commit his prime basketball years to the only organization for which he's ever played. After all, he's only eligible for an extension this summer; he doesn't have to sign it. He's not technically a free agent until the summer of 2021.
But we've seen how this typically goes when a superstar remains unsigned in his walk year with a small-market team. If that were to happen, blood will most certainly be in the water, and every viable Giannis suitor in the league will be circling. Barring a demand from Giannis, there's almost no chance Milwaukee would trade him. But weighing what would almost certainly be a bunch of very tempting offers against the fear of losing basically its entire franchise for nothing is a predicament Milwaukee is surely hoping to avoid.
This, again, was supposed to be the season to accomplish that: Chase 70 wins, get Giannis his second straight MVP, win the East and potentially the championship, and hope the momentum of all that individual and team success convinces Giannis to sign the extension and be done with it.
If Giannis does decide not to sign the extension, whether this season resumes or not, there are going to be a lot of nervous feet tapping in Milwaukee. Just look at the recent history of superstars signing a second max extension with small-market teams. It doesn't happen often. Just last season we watched Anthony Davis, eligible for the same extension Giannis is set to have on his plate, strong arm the New Orleans Pelicans into trading him to the Lakers.
We watched Paul George do the same thing to the Indiana Pacers. Kevin Durant, after signing his rookie extension, left the Oklahoma City Thunder when it came time for a second max. Kawhi Leonard forced his way out of the San Antonio Spurs. Chris Bosh left the Toronto Raptors. Gordon Hayward bolted on the Utah Jazz. LeBron James, of course, bounced on the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010 when he was eligible for his first post-rookie max contract. Al Horford left the Atlanta Hawks. Kemba Walker fled the Charlotte Hornets.
To be fair, there are examples of true franchise players signing second max deals to stay in small markets. Russell Westbrook did it with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Damian Lillard did it with the Portland Trail Blazers. Antetokounmpo, for his part, hasn't given any indication that he's looking to leave, and, in fact, has gone out of his way to say he remains committed to Milwaukee.
Earlier this season, Antetokounmpo's agent, Alex Saratsis, got Milwaukee's hopes up when he said he could "absolutely" see his client signing long term with the Bucks. But when you listen to the whole statement, it's entirely open-ended.
"Giannis believes in loyalty, he believes in the people who've been there with him from the beginning, and I think he feels that kinship to the city because they have really helped raise him," Saratsis said.
"... Obviously everybody talks about his impending free agency, and I think everything is open," Saratsis said. "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."
Pay particular attention to the "depending on how the team does" part. That's not referring to the regular season. That's all about the playoffs. The Bucks could win 80 regular-season games, and if they were to get bounced in the second round or even fall in the conference finals in a series in which some of their ancillary parts were exposed as less-than-championship material, the Bucks might well be up against it to lure Giannis into signing that extension.
On the flip side, they could also do what most people expect them to do and storm through the East and into the Finals, which would undoubtedly increase their odds of keeping Giannis. To lose the opportunity to do that, to miss out on a real chance to win a championship, might seriously influence the entire future of their franchise through absolutely no fault of their own. That doesn't mean that it will. But it could.
Bottom line: There is little doubt that the outcome of this season was, or is, going to play a role, in Giannis' decision, and now there might not be an outcome. Which, in turn, would make Milwaukee's ultimate outcome even dicier.
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