- Size and athleticism made Giannis Antetokounmpo a star, but it's his mentality that will take him to the next level and make him the best player in the NBA. The young star is the key to the future of the Bucks and the NBA at large.
The basketball world just lived through the wildest NBA offseason of all time. Now we’re on the other side. A dozen stars have changed teams, contenders have been transformed all over the landscape, and next season's NBA looks more wide-open than it has been for the past 30 years. Now, as the basketball world passes the time at the end of the offseason, I can’t write another winners and losers column, and we can all survive without a final round of offseason grades. Instead, what follows is an attempt to imagine where things are headed. Who are the five most interesting players in next year's NBA? Whose stories will shape the league we're watching in 2020?
Now the final entry.
It's the dead of summer and I have to assume no one is still reading about basketball, so allow me to take this opportunity to quietly compare Giannis Antetokounmpo to Michael Jordan. Jordan became many things over the course of nearly two decades in the NBA, but on the most fundamental level, his legend began because he was the best athlete in the entire sport. That's what made him magnetic. That's what made him unstoppable. He was the next evolution of guys like Julius Erving and David Thompson. It’s what made him the most popular player on the planet.
What eventually caught everyone off guard was the other half of the equation. In addition to being the best athlete, Jordan was a killer. He was pathologically obsessed with dominating his peers and he was more gifted than anyone. It was that combination that made him the best player of all time.
Giannis won't have the career Jordan had—no modern player ever will—and his tenacity probably doesn’t rise to the “world-renowned psychopath” standard that Jordan set, but there are similar dynamics in play here. Giannis's size made him “The Freak” at the beginning of his career, but as the years pass, his intangibles are every bit as impressive. He works incredibly hard. He improves each year. He cares about the right things. And he wants to destroy people on the court. Watch him stuff Ben Simmons into a locker here—it’s one of my favorite dunks of the past five years. Or, because it’s the end of July and there’s nothing better to do, go back to his rookie year and watch him explain why he couldn't back down to Carmelo Anthony during his first NBA start.
Size and athleticism have made Giannis a star, but it's his mentality that will make him the best player in the NBA. Think of him as Shaq for a new generation, but more motivated to stay in shape and dominate every single season. All of that's why, when the reigning MVP is dead serious and telling the world that he's only 60% of the player he'll eventually be, it doesn't sound quite as crazy as it should. Giannis may not literally become 40% more productive than he was last season, but he's 24 years old. His impact on the sport can definitely get 40% crazier than what we've seen so far.
The question is where it will happen. This is going to take things in a more somber direction, but after a summer that saw a half-dozen superstars change teams, the natural follow-up is to wonder what league-altering move is next. Giannis is the most popular answer. Teams have been waiting on him for several years already. He will be a free agent in 2021, and he'll be eligible for a five-year, $247 million supermax extension next summer. If he declines that extension, the clock will begin ticking and the entire league will be watching.
It's cliche to extol the value of superstars in the NBA economy, but next to Steph Curry and LeBron James, Giannis is one of the most literal case studies the league has. It wasn't all that long ago that the Bucks were considered an afterthought locally and a candidate for relocation to Seattle. Instead, since purchasing the team after Antetokounmpo's rookie year, Bucks owners have been able to build a new arena in downtown Milwaukee (with $250 million in public funding) and seen the team's relevance rejuvenated both locally and nationally. "We all realize this is kind of rarefied air," the team president told Forbes last year. Also according to Forbes: the team has increased in value by $800 million since it was purchased for $550 million by the Marc Lasry and Wes Edens in 2014.
The Bucks story behind the scenes has been more complicated. The GM search conducted by those same owners became a spectacular mess two years ago. The team waited one year too long to fire Jason Kidd and wasted a season of Antetokounmpo's prime. Without rehashing every move along the way, management has made mistakes in the draft (Thon Maker, Rashad Vaughn) and several more head-scratching moves in free agency (Greg Monroe, John Henson, Matthew Dellavedova, Miles Plumlee, Tony Snell). Khris Middleton is a success story who made the All-Star Game last season, but he was already part of the Bucks when the new owners took control of the team. The most successful Milwaukee additions in the past five years are Brook Lopez, Eric Bledsoe, and Malcolm Brogdon.
Brogdon left in July. Milwaukee was concerned about his injury history and paying him this summer would've forced ownership into luxury tax territory, so he was traded to the Pacers instead. The Bucks received picks in the exchange and were eligible for a $10 million trade exception as part of the deal. That exception, coupled with Indiana’s picks, could've been used to go into the tax to find a Brogdon replacement on a more reasonable deal, with fewer injury concerns. Instead, the front office failed to clear an additional $720,000 in cap space that would have been required to retain the exception.
So far, Giannis has made it all work anyway. He warps the dimensions of the court and makes guys like Lopez or Middleton twice as dangerous as they might look anywhere else. And for all the angst surrounding his future or the limitations he's dealing with in Milwaukee, it's entirely possible that he could go out and win a title next season. Philly added Al Horford to a front line with Joel Embiid, but neither one has been able to stop Giannis in the past two seasons. No one in the West can guard him, either. If he improves as a shooter and a decent Milwaukee supporting cast can bounce back from a nightmare performance in the Eastern Conference finals last season, the Bucks can beat anyone.
While we're talking optimism: Giannis's commitment to Milwaukee seems genuine. He may not be ready to sacrifice five years of flexibility and sign a supermax extension next summer, but it's possible that he could choose a third door. Where most stars either sign long-term or decline to commit and create an imperative for teams to trade them, it could make sense for Giannis to be the first supermax-eligible star who opts for a short-term extension and strikes a compromise between security and flexibility.
However this ends, all of it will unfold as the NBA grapples with an era of player movement that has the entire league asking questions without easy answers. Just look at the past 72 hours. On Wednesday, ESPN reported that several owners are lobbying the league to investigate tampering allegations and potential rules changes in free agency. The same day, Steve Kerr told NBC Sports' Monte Poole that the Anthony Davis trade demand and its aftermath was "hopefully not a trend, because it's bad for the league." On Thursday, Thunder GM Sam Presti took to The Oklahoman and wrote, "Given the way the league’s system is designed, small market teams operate with significant disadvantages. There is no reason to pretend otherwise."
As much as fans and media have celebrated the chaos of July 1 and the parity waiting for us next season, teams outside the glamor markets have a more cynical read of what unfolded this summer. I mean, Presti literally printed as much in a newspaper. And whether you agree with him or find his message grating given the history of OKC's ownership, there are a lot more NBA teams that identify with the Thunder than with the Clippers or Lakers. To them, this summer showed that a supermax contract wasn't enough to entice Anthony Davis to stay in New Orleans, a long-term contract didn't keep Paul George in OKC, and literally winning a championship wasn't enough to convince Kawhi to stay in Toronto. If Giannis leaves a perennial conference finalist in two years, how will that be interpreted by all the teams that already feel marginalized?
Now frame that same choice from a player's perspective: is it in Giannis's best interest to spend his prime with Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton and an ownership group that just gave away Malcolm Brogdon and a $10 million trade exception? Or, 10 years ago, would it have been in LeBron's best interest to ignore Dwyane Wade to stay in Cleveland and spend his career with Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao? Those early Cleveland teams were contenders because of LeBron, not the Cavs. Are the Bucks that much different?
At the end of this offseason, the NBA either looks better than ever or it's more broken than anyone would like to acknowledge. The answer you get depends on who you ask. Then there’s Giannis somewhere in the middle of that argument, favored to win next year's Eastern Conference (+225) and to repeat as next year's MVP (+300). With a new CBA looming in 2023, it would be unfair to project the rest of the league's angst onto how far he can carry the Bucks and how long he'll stay in Milwaukee, but it may happen anyway.
The good news is that the one person who doesn't sound worried is the player who will be at the center of all this. "Please, please, please," Antetokounmpo told Bucks fans this month. "Do me this favor so I can be a better player and lead this team to a championship. Please don't call me MVP. Don't call me MVP until I win it again next year." That’s the best answer to what’s next in 2020.
It’s time to go get 40% better.