Milwaukee hasn’t had a basketball talent like Antetokounmpo since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 1970s, and rumors about his upcoming free agency have dominated news cycles since June 2019, if not longer. The Bucks are the only home Antetokounmpo has known during his seven NBA seasons, and they have overseen his development from a gangly teenager to basketball’s most physically imposing superstar. They accrued significant good will along the way but also suffered high-profile defeats in the past two postseasons.
The Bucks’ offseason task was straightforward: Prove to Antetokounmpo, who met with ownership shortly after a stunning second-round loss to the Miami Heat, that they could upgrade his supporting cast so he could lead a championship contender for the foreseeable future. If Milwaukee succeeded, Antetokounmpo could avoid another year of intense speculation by signing a five-year extension worth $250 million by Dec. 21.
The standard for roster-building in the modern NBA is obscenely high. Kawhi Leonard was able to leverage the Los Angeles Clippers into trading the farm for Paul George. LeBron James had his hands all over the Los Angeles Lakers’ decision to move a stash of assets for Anthony Davis. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving orchestrated a team-up on the Brooklyn Nets, and now James Harden reportedly wants in on the action.
The small-market, cold-weather Bucks couldn’t set their sights that high, in part because Antetokounmpo hasn’t sought to play “Buddyball” like so many of his contemporaries or shown much interest in publicly recruiting players to Milwaukee. In an era of player-executives, Antetokounmpo has remained a player, period.
Milwaukee’s counter was to go all-in by moving its minor assets — throwaway contracts, bench players and future draft picks — to land Jrue Holiday and Bogdan Bogdanovic. This was a strong plan, even if neither is a true star. Holiday was a clear upgrade over Eric Bledsoe, who couldn’t handle the postseason pressure, and Bogdanovic was the type of shot-creator with offensive pop that Milwaukee has been missing.
With Holiday and Bogdanovic, the Bucks could field arguably the best lineup in the league with Antetokounmpo, all-star forward Khris Middleton and center Brook Lopez. That group would have four shooters, four plus defenders, size, versatility and far more playmaking than last year’s Bucks. Perhaps most importantly, the oldest member of that quintet was Lopez at 32. As the 25-year-old Antetokounmpo progressed through his prime, he would be surrounded by proven players on a similar age timeline.
That plan came apart shortly after word broke Nov. 16 that the Bucks had agreed to acquire Bogdanovic, a restricted free agent, from the Sacramento Kings on a sign-and-trade deal. Such agreements wouldn’t be legal until free agency opened Friday, prompting the NBA to launch an investigation of tampering. Bogdanovic pivoted by agreeing to an offer sheet with the Atlanta Hawks, leaving the Bucks to salvage whatever backup plan they could on short notice.
Milwaukee filled out its roster by signing a collection of role players: D.J. Augustin, Bobby Portis, Bryn Forbes and Torrey Craig. None arrived on objectionable contracts, but collectively they were a far cry from Bogdanovic, let alone the type of glitzy additions that Antetokounmpo’s rivals have enjoyed in recent years.
Exactly how the Bogdanovic deal came undone is unclear, and it will surely be the subject of finger-pointing and harsh feelings for years to come. All that mattered for the Bucks: Antetokounmpo will be without Bogdanovic this year, just as he was without Malcolm Brogdon, who was traded to the Indiana Pacers, last year. Milwaukee will enter the season as one of the NBA’s top contenders, but it still has a major lineup hole with the clock ticking on Antetokounmpo’s decision.
To be clear, Antetokounmpo has good reasons to sign the supermax deal despite Milwaukee’s bumbling. In a time of financial uncertainty, both for the world and the NBA, the long-term security and peace of mind that a supermax contract represents might take on greater importance.
Signing now would help him avoid a spectacle this season and focus on basketball and his family, which have been his priorities throughout his career. In Milwaukee, everything is geared to him. The franchise has built its offense and defense around him, signed his brother Thanasis and built a new arena with a big assist from local taxpayers.
Many superstars in Antetokounmpo’s situation have looked around and decided they could do better. James departed the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in 2010, on a mission to win his first title and become the undisputed face of the NBA. Durant left the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors in 2016, intent on chasing rings, knocking James off his throne and broadening his business portfolio.
Whether Antetokounmpo harbors such aspirations remains unclear. He has kept a low profile throughout the offseason, aside from participating in an ESPN podcast series about his selection in the 2013 draft. In that series, Antetokounmpo presented himself as a homebody who still couldn’t quite believe he had risen to global fame. He marveled that the Hawks had given him a pair of shoes during a pre-draft workout and stressed repeatedly that he wanted his family to remain with him during every step of his journey to the NBA.
Antetokounmpo hardly sounded like a ruthless power broker concocting the NBA’s next super team. Even so, teams hoping to lure Antetokounmpo away in free agency, such as the Heat, Toronto Raptors, Dallas Mavericks and New York Knicks, have largely avoided handing out long-term contracts that would complicate their pursuits. Antetokounmpo will have good options if he wants them.
After Milwaukee’s careful planning dissolved with the Bogdanovic debacle, Antetokounmpo must weigh the Bucks’ good intentions against their mediocre results. Is it the thought that counts or something more?