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Giannis Antetokounmpo’s patience is a gift to Milwaukee. Don’t blow it, Bucks.

Two-time reigning NBA most valuable player Giannis Antetokounmpo is staying in Milwaukee, and now the pressure is on the Bucks to make it work (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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There are no parades to celebrate rich athletes getting insanely rich contract extensions, but Milwaukee could be forgiven if it felt like establishing a precedent for Giannis Antetokounmpo. His fresh signature is the closest the city has come to prolonged contention since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar left in 1975. And in a league obsessed with the pursuit of glamour and hype, his commitment seems like an astonishing feat.

In this transient era, it’s rare for a franchise in Milwaukee’s position — small market, considerable playoff disappointment — to receive the opportunity it has now that the Greek Freak has agreed to a five-year supermax extension worth an NBA record $228 million. The Bucks can’t blow it, and even though they now have breathing room, they still should consider it an urgent matter to maintain Antetokounmpo’s happiness.

In each of the past two seasons, the Bucks have had the league’s best regular season record only to fall short of the NBA Finals. In 2019, they blew a 2-0 lead to Toronto in the Eastern Conference finals. Last season, their NBA bubble experience burst with a second-round loss to Miami. They’re really good — but really stuck. Despite being one of the sport’s best stories, they have no hopes of creating a super team because they are considered an ordinary market. In the past year, it felt as if rivals and even media outlets were hoping to speculate Antetokounmpo’s exit into reality.

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The great escape is always the expectation now. LeBron James wanted out of Cleveland. Chris Paul wanted out of New Orleans. Carmelo Anthony wanted out of Denver. Dwight Howard wanted out of Orlando. Deron Williams wanted out of Utah. Kevin Durant wanted out of Oklahoma City. Kawhi Leonard wanted out of San Antonio and then Toronto. Anthony Davis wanted out of New Orleans (poor New Orleans). They all got their wish, via trade or free agency.

For NBA stars, the best thing is often the next thing. That fickle mentality has carried the league, for better or worse, for a decade. Teams know they are operating on a two-contract timeline. If a franchise drafts one of the game’s best players, it can feel good about its ability to keep him for two contracts, or about eight seasons. These players learn and grow during their rookie contracts and are eager to sign their first max deal. After that, the itch for change and pressure to win and join forces become extreme influences.

But Antetokounmpo is as different in thought as he is in playing style. His path will remain aligned with his journey thus far. Born in Greece to Nigerian parents, developed in a European basketball system, he entered the NBA without all the fuss. He was hungry, not spoiled. His success was possible, not guaranteed. His journey affects how he thinks about commitment, about loyalty. He’s not playing to fulfill a prophecy whispered to him since he was a teenager. He has been left to create his own superstar habits on the fly.

So he wants more time in Milwaukee. He wants to keep chasing a title for his team, for his city. He wants a third contract, one that will keep him from free agency until he’s 30. For the Bucks, the ability to retain a two-time MVP — without having won a title or built a transparently dominant squad for the long term — represents a gift that eluded so many other franchises that can’t count on market size or rich tradition as advantages. Their challenge is clear: Make the most of this precious opportunity to reinvent themselves.

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In recent times, most franchises have been granted the patience to hit the wall just once. Usually, they have time for one attempt to build around a developing franchise player, one stretch of hunting trophies and sustainable success. Maybe, if they are lucky, they will have time for one adjustment to combat stagnancy, but they often must make those commitments blindly, without assurance the alterations will enable them to keep their superstar.

Losing a great player is devastating enough. Compound it with exorbitant contracts acquired to appease a departing star and an inflexible roster that doesn’t make sense without its centerpiece, and that’s how franchises get sentenced to ineptitude and irrelevance.

However, the Bucks can pursue improvement with clarity. Antetokounmpo can be written in ink. It makes it easier for Jon Horst, the team’s general manager, to start working on an extension for Jrue Holiday and justify that blockbuster trade to acquire the tough, defensively brilliant guard. In everything the Bucks do, they can continue the process of building with the Greek Freak in mind. They don’t need any contingency plans. They can go all in.

Still, for as reliable as the Bucks haven been, they have no clear route to a championship. As long as Antetokounmpo is healthy, Milwaukee will win plenty of games and be a threat during playoff time. But the most direct path to a title is through a roster that features multiple all-NBA players. The Bucks have a dominant No. 1, and they have Khris Middleton, who is a nice player and an all-star but not elite. Holiday is somewhere close to Middleton territory. Both resemble coveted No. 3 options on championship teams.

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Can a squad featuring an MVP, two No. 3 guys and decent role players win it all? Antetokounmpo hopes so. It’s possible because he is such an exceptional talent, but considering what we’ve seen from Milwaukee in the past two postseasons, the Bucks are a team desperate for greater versatility and a coldblooded, three-level scorer on the perimeter who is content playing their brand of pace-and-space basketball. They coveted Bogdan Bogdanovic because, while not a star, he was the kind of shot creator who could make Coach Mike Budenholzer’s system less predictable. The alleged tampering blunder with Bogdanovic felt so crushing because Milwaukee has limited salary cap flexibility to fill that glaring need.

It’s on Budenholzer to be more creative. But most of all, it’s on the Greek Freak to reach another level, and for all that he has accomplished in seven NBA seasons, he can grow quite a bit as a shooter and as a scoring threat from more areas on the court. It may seem like a lot to ask of a back-to-back MVP who may already be a top-30 player all-time. But LeBron James was in a somewhat similar position when he entered his eighth NBA season 10 years ago.

The difference is that James bolted for Miami to diversify his game and grow into a champion. Antetokounmpo won’t budge — and not just in the paint.

Milwaukee doesn’t have forever. Antetokounmpo could grow frustrated and demand a trade. If the Bucks continue to fall short, innuendo will overtake the happiness of this moment. But for now, they can appreciate the opportunity. They can attempt reinvention thoughtfully, without panic.

By itself, his patience will not change the league. Everyone will just focus on James Harden’s trade demand. But Antetokounmpo and the Bucks have a chance to create a new best practice, which is really an old one: patience.

It has worked before. The NBA, spinning in a vicious, capricious cycle, would be better if it worked again.