For the second year in a row, the Milwaukee Bucks, led by Defensive Player of the Year and likely MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, posted the NBA’s best regular-season record. And for the second straight year, Milwaukee is in danger of going home early.
Trailing fifth-seeded Miami 2-0 in their best-of-seven series, reality is setting in for the Bucks and it’s not pretty. With the Celtics and Heat not going anywhere and Brooklyn expected to be a threat next year with recovering superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving both on the mend, Milwaukee’s championship window may be closing quickly, particularly with Antetokounmpo headed for free agency in 2021. Whether the Greek Freak would be amenable to signing a new max deal with Milwaukee, the city that transformed him from a little-known international player to one of the league’s brightest young stars, remains to be seen.
Should he reach the market next year, Antetokounmpo will instantly become one of the most coveted free agents in recent memory. However, some basketball minds, including Richard Jefferson (a former Milwaukee Buck himself), aren’t convinced the 6’11” Antetokounmpo has what it takes to be a franchise centerpiece on a championship team.
“Giannis might be a Pippen,” Jefferson tweeted Wednesday, alluding to Bulls legend Scottie Pippen, considered by many to be the greatest sidekick in NBA history. “He needs his Jordan.”
Pippen wasn’t so quick to dismiss Antetokounmpo, defending the Bucks superstar in his retort while questioning Jefferson’s own qualifications.
Jefferson’s Antetokounmpo musings are good for generating content (case in point), but it’s hardly an original take. As many will recall, Durant weathered similar criticism before finally claiming a pair of championships with Golden State and even then, some accused him of merely riding Steph Curry’s coattails (a narrative that likely played a role in his departure after just three seasons). LeBron didn’t win his first title until his age-27 campaign. It took YEARS of playoff heartbreak and a change of scenery in Miami for him to get over the hump. So why does Giannis have a gun to his head?
NBA players wield significantly more power than their NFL and MLB counterparts and boy do they know it. In a star-driven league, could Antetokounmpo, eager to silence his critics, force the Bucks’ hand much the way Anthony Davis held New Orleans hostage last year? Not only is such a scenario possible, but according to Yahoo’s Vincent Goodwill, the Raptors (who ended Milwaukee’s season a year ago) and Heat, the Bucks’ current opponent in the Eastern Conference semis, have already emerged as early frontrunners in the Giannis sweepstakes.
If the Rockets’ Russell Westbrook trade cost them a future Hall-of-Famer (Chris Paul) and two first-round picks, imagine the type of package it would take for the Bucks to even consider moving Giannis. Whether it’s the Raptors, Heat, Mavericks (who are also expected to pursue Giannis when and if he becomes available) or another mystery suitor yet to emerge, the risk would be considerable with no guarantee of the 25-year-old re-signing. Rentals can work in the right circumstances—one year of Kawhi Leonard was all Toronto needed to win a championship—but that’s putting an awful lot of eggs in one basket.
Maybe the Bucks will wake up, win the Eastern Conference and all of this will be a moot point. But if Milwaukee goes quietly in Orlando, the cloud of uncertainty surrounding Giannis’ tenuous Bucks future will only grow larger.