Giannis Antetokounmpo, guarded by LeBron James, is averaging 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists. Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Why Giannis-fueled Bucks lose most if NBA scraps season

The Milwaukee Bucks (53-12) stand to lose the most should the NBA cancel the season because of the coronavirus pandemic. Why? For one, the Bucks will miss an excellent opportunity to win a championship. And, more importantly, with Giannis Antetokounmpo becoming eligible for a five-year, $253.8M supermax extension this offseason, the Bucks will lose a critical chance to show their superstar that they have put the pieces around him to win multiple titles. 

Now, Giannis will be forced to choose whether to accept or decline his extension without having a vital piece of data: the 2020 NBA Playoffs. If he declines the option, which most high-profile, championship-less superstars choose to do, he will become an unrestricted free agent in the summer 2021.

In this (hopefully) imaginary world where the NBA is forced to cancel its season, Giannis' situation will be a huge offseason story line. The question many will ask: What does Giannis value above all else — loyalty or legacy?

Depending on his answer, there are three possible scenarios heading into the 2020-21 season. One would be era-defining; one would create mass anxiety among many NBA teams and fans; and one would be league-altering.

1. Bucks offer Giannis supermax extension; Giannis signs.

If Giannis ultimately values loyalty above all else, his decision is simple: He will sign the supermax extension, and he and the Bucks will spend the next five seasons trying to recreate what the San Antonio Spurs accomplished during the Tim Duncan era. The symbolism of Giannis turning away the lure of a Super Team in a major city would be almost poetic. If you recall, the moment LeBron James became the player to define the current NBA era was when he (in)famously announced that he was taking his talents to South Beach. Thus, if Antetokounmpo decides to sign the supermax extension with the Bucks this offseason, something tells me we’ll look back at that moment as the onset of the Giannis era in the NBA.

But Giannis would be crazy to do this. For one, it’s not like 30 max contract offers won’t be waiting for him in 2021 free agency. Secondly, why wouldn’t he want to keep his options open? Giannis obviously understands by now that he has a chance to go down as one of the greatest players in NBA history. When he still has a year to decide, why should he commit the next five years of his athletic prime with an organization that has yet to prove it can surround him with a roster that can win a championship? Have the Bucks built enough equity with Giannis to have him overlook that rhetorical question? We shall see.

Chances of this happening if season is cancelled: 20 percent

2. Bucks offer Giannis supermax extension; Giannis turns it down. Bucks play out 2020-21 season.

This is the scenario small-market teams dread more than anything: The No Man’s Land season. Just ask the 2009-10 Cleveland Cavaliers or 2015-16 Oklahoma City Thunder how fun it was to have a generational superstar with wandering eyes enter the final year of his contract. A lost 2019-20 season means that the Bucks will miss out on a chance to seal the deal with Giannis by winning a title, and it also means that they are officially in the purgatory they’ve feared ever since Giannis’ emergence. All the pressure will be on the Bucks organization to persuade Giannis that Milwaukee is the best place for him to spend his prime and shape his legacy.

On the bright side, the Bucks have done a nice job surrounding Giannis with good two-way players (Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez, Wes Matthews). Compare that to LeBron’s first tenure with the Cavaliers, in which the team didn’t pull the trigger on an Amar’e Stoudemire for JJ Hickson and Zydrunas Ilgauskas deal and failed to pair James with a player better than Mo Williams. Or compare the current Bucks roster construction to the one Kevin Durant had in Oklahoma City, in which the team traded James Harden to save money and never brought in any shooting to spread the court for him and Russell Westbrook. The Bucks have done fine work building what might be a championship roster, but that still doesn’t guarantee Giannis will re-sign with them long term.

Unfortunately for the Bucks, this scenario is the most likely should this season be canceled. The assumption is that Giannis needs to see his teammates come through in big playoff games to feel comfortable committing to the organization for the next five years. Obliterating the rest of the league during the 2019-20 regular season probably moved the needle closer toward staying in Milwaukee, but the reality is that he still doesn’t know if the regular-season dominance will translate to playoff success.

Chances of this happening if season is canceled: 75 percent

3. Bucks offer Giannis supermax extension; Giannis turns it down. Bucks trade Giannis.

This would be the most league-altering trade the NBA has seen in decades. At the same time, this is far and away the least likely scenario for a number of reasons. Few teams have the assets to put together a reasonable trade package. Even fewer teams have the organizational competence and/or geographical location to talk themselves into believing they can re-sign Giannis in the 2021 offseason. And of that group — Miami, Golden State, Toronto, the L.A. teams — the possibility of simply signing him in the 2021 offseason without sacrificing any assets will likely drive down the price they’re willing to pay.

Would the Heat be willing to trade Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler or Tyler Herro for one guaranteed year of Giannis? Would the Warriors trade Steph Curry or Klay Thompson without knowing Giannis would re-up? Wouldn’t the Raptors want to play Pascal Siakam alongside Giannis instead of dealing him and a bunch of assets for Giannis? Would the L.A. teams trade Kawhi Leonard, Paul George or LeBron James for a potential one-year rental of Giannis? One of these teams might, but it’s unlikely that the trade packages Milwaukee receives will match up with what the Bucks would need to even entertain an offer.

Which actually brings about the most obvious reason that Bucks trading him this offseason would be insane: You play to win the game. (Thanks, Herm Edwards.) Why even own an NBA team if you’re going to trade a player like Giannis because of the threat he might leave next offseason? It would be cowardly. Giannis might be the best player on Earth. And the Bucks might be the best team in the NBA. You don’t hedge your bet when you’re dealt this kind of hand — you go ALL-IN!! It may have backfired on the Cavaliers in 2010. It may have backfired on the Thunder in 2016. But those teams didn’t win a championship in their make-or-break seasons, and they made serious mistakes in constructing their rosters. The Bucks haven’t done that — or, at least, we have no reason to believe they have yet.

One of these times it’s going to work out for a small-market team, and it will win a title the year its superstar is about to hit free agency. Then the superstar will re-sign, earning the team a chance to become a dynasty. How could you punt that kind of opportunity if you’re the Bucks?

Chance of this happening if season is cancelled: 5 percent

Pat Heery began his sports writing career in 2016 for The Has Been Sports Blog. He practices real estate law during the day and runs pick & rolls at night. Follow him on Twitter: @pheery12


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