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Giannis Antetokounmpo will be the final arbiter whether the Bucks have done enough

Seerat Sohi
·8-min read

The world tugs at people who want to leave home. The potential caves in on us, coalescing into pressure: new hobbies, new jobs, better weather, new friends, a newer and better you.

It tugged at LeBron James, at Kevin Durant, at Anthony Davis.

It does not seem to tug at Giannis Antetokounmpo. He believes he can win without forming a superteam. He doesn’t work out with opponents or have many friends on other teams. He wants to be one of the lucky, patient, industrious players who found a permanent home where they were drafted, like Kobe in Los Angeles, Wade in Miami, Dirk in Dallas.

He arrived in Milwaukee lanky and wide-eyed and morphed into a two-time MVP. Despite free agency, the NBA’s attention has homed in on him, and whether or not he’ll sign a five-year supermax extension that’s likely been available to him since Friday.

Things were looking good as early as last Tuesday. Jrue Holiday was about to be a Buck. Bogdan Bogdanovic was about to be a Buck. Giannis had allegedly recruited him. Momentum pointed toward him signing on the dotted line. Plugged-in reporters were softening the ground, and at that moment, Milwaukee was infinite.

 Giannis Antetokounmpo, basketball player for the Milwaukee Bucks of the National Basketball Association (NBA), attends the 2020/2021 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Regular Season Round 6 match between Olympiacos Piraeus and Anadolu Efes Istanbul.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is eligible to sign a supermax deal with the Milwaukee Bucks. (Panagiotis Moschandreou/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images)

And then it occurred to somebody that the ground shouldn’t be this soft. Bogdanovic would have had to agree to a sign-and-trade, which would be against the rules with free agency not starting until Friday evening. The league investigated. The deal died.

A lot has been made of the trades the Bucks did and didn’t execute, but Antetokounmpo will be the final arbiter on whether or not they did enough. It often feels like the only way he’ll leave Milwaukee is if he doesn’t give them a choice. The last week was a publicized reminder of just how capable they can be of doing that.

The unknown Bucks GM tasked with building a contender

Weeks before the 2017 NBA draft, 34-year-old relatively unknown Jon Horst, the director of basketball operations for the Bucks, was promoted several rungs after a hiring process mired by team ownership disagreements.

Suddenly, Horst was tasked with building a contender around the NBA’s next rising superstar. A harsh and necessarily unforgiving spotlight for someone who could use time to learn on the fly.

At first, things went well. The Bucks dumped Greg Monroe — whose legs were getting too slow for the league — to the Phoenix Suns and attached some picks to secure Eric Bledsoe, who famously tweeted “I Dont wanna be here.” Bledsoe was a question mark with untapped potential, a bulldozing but unfocused defender who could slash but had a rickety shooting stroke. The price was right — until March, when Bledsoe was signed to a four-year, $70 million extension.

Milwaukee Bucks guard Eric Bledsoe (6) during the Milwaukee Bucks vs Los Angeles Lakers game on March 06, 2020, at Staples Center.
Eric Bledsoe signed a $70 million extension in March and was traded last week to New Orleans. (Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Horst also fired Jason Kidd and hired Mike Budenholzer, the top coach on the market at the time, who modernized the offense and defense. The Bucks won 60 games, Budenholzer won Coach of the Year and Giannis won MVP. But all along, the Bucks were bungling the process.

On Dec. 7, 2018, they traded Matthew Dellavedova, John Henson and a 2021 first-round draft pick for George Hill, an excellent 3-and-D guard with a championship pedigree. But he was 32. Not someone you give away a first-round pick (in the most anticipated draft in years, no less) for.

In two months, Jason Smith, who was also part of that deal, was sent to New Orleans for four second-round picks to nab Nikola Mirotic, a spacing forward whose contract was expiring at the end of the season. The price was steep, but the fit seemed perfect. If he helped get the Bucks to the next gear and re-signed in the offseason, it would all be worth it. But Mirotic disappointed in the playoffs, and that offseason, he shocked the world by moving back to Europe to play.

Jrue Holiday vs. Malcolm Brogdon

To the Bucks’ credit, both Hill and Bledsoe became a part of the package that landed Holiday, which is really a roundabout way of packaging two guys who didn’t solve your problems for one guy who almost does.

Holiday is one of the league’s best defenders, a crafty scorer, an All-Star in any world that’s just. But his height isn’t the only reason he’s always been a combo guard. Holiday isn’t an intuitive playmaker — much like his future teammates, he is willing, but he won’t take command of an offense. He’s not a timekeeper who can keep account of everyone’s needs and find easy buckets for Antetokounmpo — who, by the way, should really be scoring more easy buckets.

Holiday is a good scorer, but you don’t want to rely on him in crunch time. The regular-season cluster might convince you that you can, and that maybe you don’t need that dude to win it all anymore. But pretty soon it’s the playoffs and Bam Adebayo just switched onto you with a smile and you realize, oh wait, you do need that dude, and while Holiday is a great many things, he is not that dude. And you don’t give away two unprotected first-round picks for that.

Jrue Holiday #11 of the New Orleans Pelicans reacts against the Minnesota Timberwolves during the second half at the Smoothie King Center on March 03, 2020.
Jrue Holiday is the new point guard in Milwaukee. (Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

(Sorry, I skipped ahead.)

Back to 2019: The day before the 2019 NBA draft, the Bucks traded Tony Snell and the 30th pick to the Detroit Pistons for Jon Leuer, who they stretched and waived. It didn’t make much sense. Sure, Snell’s a little overpaid, but he’s a solid bench piece for a playoff team.

But with Brook Lopez, Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon and Mirotic’s deals expiring, the Bucks needed to dump some money — that pesky Bledsoe contract — so they threw away a 3-and-D wing and a first-round pick to save about $4 million.

And then they didn’t pay Brogdon, signing and trading him to Indiana, despite the fact that before free agency opened, Mirotic had already signed with Barcelona. Brogdon, who the Bucks have been trying to replace since, makes $21.7 million a year. Holiday makes $25 million. And they still owe Leuer $3 million this season.

And then there’s this, what The Athletic’s John Hollinger calls a “salary cap own goal”:

“The Bucks originally agreed to a two-year, $8 million deal with Pat Connaughton that included a second-year player option. Only one problem: As an Early Bird Rights player, Connaughton wasn’t eligible to receive a second-year player option on his deal. As a result, the Bucks (almost certainly) would have had to go back to his agent with hat in hand and request a different arrangement. That’s why a new arrangement for Connaughton was reported later this afternoon. This time they ended up paying twice as much money, to do a three-year deal worth $16 million. Wait, it gets worse. Despite the error, the Bucks didn’t even need to do the second part. They could have signed Connaughton to the original with their mid-level exception.”

Have the Bucks taken enough calculated risks to keep Giannis?

Perhaps the worst indictment of the Bucks is not what they’ve done but what they haven’t. They haven’t taken enough fliers or tried in earnest to develop them. They haven’t won enough trades. They haven’t taken big swings.

In fairness, most franchises don’t, but the teams vying for Giannis’ employment do. So here’s the curve:

Duncan Robinson thought he was going to be a sportswriter before the Miami Heat found him. He started in the NBA Finals alongside rookie Tyler Herro, who they groomed all season.

The Golden State Warriors developed one of the most successful second-round picks of all time in Draymond Green. They relied on late picks like Festus Ezeli and Jordan Bell to fill their rotation during their championship runs, and they might have found their forward of the future in Eric Paschall, with the 41st pick in last year’s draft.

The Raptors just signed Fred VanVleet to the biggest contract of all time for an undrafted player. They came out of nowhere in the Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes.

Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks looks on against the Orlando Magic during the third quarter in Game Five of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2020 NBA Playoffs.
Milwaukee's world hinges on Giannis Antetokounmpo. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Championship front offices take calculated risks. They don’t bleed assets. Little victories accumulate into big ones. They seek out edges and every once in a while, they strike on bad odds. In fact, that’s exactly how the Bucks were built. Former general manager John Hammond wasn’t perfect, but he took Giannis with the 15th pick. He took a flier on Middleton when he was a rookie second-rounder scoring six points per game in Detroit. In his final draft with the Bucks, he plucked Brogdon out of the second round.

None of this matters if Antetokounmpo decides to stay.

It would be a new way to put the free in free agency, to insist on a destiny so many feel he should leave behind. If Antetokounmpo stays, that’s the ballgame. If he doesn’t, all the unprotected first-round picks (2022, 2025, 2027) they spent on trying to secure him will suddenly have a lot more value. Their world, as ever, hinges on him.

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