Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press
There will be trade offers. There will be armchair trade proposals all over social media. There will be endless speculation from talking heads who, for the past year, have been openly attempting to speak into existence one of the NBA‘s most magnetic young superstars leaving an unglamorous market for…take your pick of the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat or some other marquee organization.
The Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo need to tune out all of it.
And that appears to be the company line, for now.
Chris Szagola/Associated Press
Ten minutes after his season ended on Tuesday evening, Antetokounmpo sat down for his final virtual media availability and said something Bucks fans should love to hear but that will be less welcome to fans of 29 other teams hoping he may choose them in a year: “Hopefully, we can build a culture in Milwaukee that for many years we can come out and compete every single year for a championship.”
He then told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports that a trade request is “not happening.”
For the second year in a row, the Bucks fell disappointingly short of their championship aspirations despite finishing with the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. This time, after a five-game loss to the Miami Heat in the second round, the stakes were higher.
The soon-to-be two-time reigning MVP will be a free agent after the 2020-21 season, and unless he signs the extension the Bucks are sure to offer him the minute they’re allowed to do so, speculation about his future, which is already rampant, will kick into overdrive.
No one knows if Antetokounmpo will sign the five-year, $254 million extension the Bucks can give him. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertain status of next season, no one even knows when free agency will begin. But one thing is certain: Even if he turns down the new deal and decides to keep his options open, the Bucks shouldn’t outsmart themselves by trading him to get out in front of the possibility that he leaves.
Their only option is to go all-in on one last run.
Aaron Gash/Associated Press
If they fall short again and he leaves after next season, it won’t be the first time a small-market team lost a generational talent after failing to deliver a championship. But it would be a disservice to themselves and their fans not to take that final shot at a title.
As superstar movement and the formation of superteams have become the norm over the past decade, dating back to LeBron James’ 2010 “Decision,” the timeline of “pre-agency” has crept further and further out from the day a player actually hits the open market. In the past two years, Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard forced trades from the teams that gave them their NBA starts, with Davis’ initial trade request out of New Orleans coming a full 18 months ahead of his ability to become a free agent.
Once Antetokoumpo’s future is resolved, the Free-Agency Media Industrial Complex will move on and do the exact same thing to Donovan Mitchell—and then Trae Young and, eventually, Zion Williamson. That’s just how it works.
But unless Antetokounmpo outright asks to be traded—and his Tuesday night comments would indicate that isn’t the route he’ll take—the Bucks can’t entertain the notion even if he doesn’t commit right away to that supermax extension.
The last two players who were this dominant coming up on free agency were in similar situations. James left the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010 to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Heat; Kevin Durant left the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016 to join what was already a juggernaut in Golden State.
Each of their teams was fully aware a year or more in advance that losing them was a real possibility. If they wanted to, they could have gotten out in front and set themselves up for the future with a haul of young players and draft picks.
But you can’t trade LeBron James or Kevin Durant, and you can’t trade Giannis Antetokounmpo.
What could you possibly get back that comes close to fair value for arguably the best player in the league when he’s going into his age-26 season? No young prospect Milwaukee could get has a chance to become as good as him unless Williamson or Luka Doncic is somehow on the table.
The Warriors, one of the teams with long-rumored interest in Antetokounmpo, can offer Andrew Wiggins’ enormous contract and the No. 2 overall pick in what is widely regarded as the weakest draft in two decades. What’s that going to do for the Bucks?
The Cavs made moves around James in 2009-10, adding Antawn Jamison at the trade deadline. The Thunder fired head coach Scott Brooks and replaced him with Billy Donovan going into the 2015-16 season, a move Durant supported, and retooled around him and Russell Westbrook. That Thunder team led the Warriors 3-1 in the Western Conference Finals and came within a Klay Thompson scoring outburst of making the Finals.
If they had won that series, maybe Durant would have stayed. They didn’t, and he left. But if Thunder general manager Sam Presti knew exactly how it would shake out, there’s no way he wouldn’t do it again.
What’s clear after a shocking second-round elimination is that this Bucks team, as presently constructed, isn’t good enough to win a title despite its regular-season record. General manager Jon Horst has to do something more to prove he can build a championship team around Antetokounmpo.
Maybe that means a coaching change. Mike Budenholzer won Coach of the Year last season and helmed the best defense in the league this year. But it was obvious from some of Antetokounmpo’s postgame comments during the Heat series that he was annoyed with Budenholzer’s inflexible rotations and refusal to play him and Khris Middleton more than their regular-season allotment of minutes.
If Antetokounmpo signals to the front office that he still believes in Budenholzer, he should stay. But if they think a new coach will give them a better chance to keep him, that’s a change they have to make.
Maybe it means some small tweaks to the roster, replacing Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver with some younger, more mobile wings or trading Eric Bledsoe or George Hill for an upgrade at point guard. Antetokounmpo and Middleton are a terrific one-two combo, but the supporting cast needs to be better.
Or maybe they take a home-run swing and trade for Chris Paul, who is very available as the Thunder look to rebuild, a move they telegraphed with their surprising Tuesday night decision not to bring back Donovan as head coach.
Paul is still owed a lot of money ($85.6 million over the next two seasons, including a $44.2 million player option for 2021-22), but he had an All-NBA-caliber season this year and led the Thunder to the playoffs, where they took the Houston Rockets to seven games in the first round.
It would be hard to make the salaries match, and they’d probably have to part with starting center Brook Lopez, but that’s the kind of move that would materially increase their short-term ceiling and show their star they’re serious.
Antetokounmpo’s comments Tuesday night don’t guarantee he’ll ultimately choose to sign long-term. There’s a long line of stars who said similar things before leaving. But they at least signal he’s willing to give the Bucks this final shot to show him why he should.
It’s on them not to mess it up.
Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers’ Association. Follow him onTwitter, Instagram and in the B/R App.