Milwaukee hasn’t had a basketball talent like Antetokounmpo since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 1970s, and rumors of 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 watched his progress from lanky teen to basketball’s most physically imposing superstar. They have amassed significant goodwill along the way, but have also suffered significant defeats in the past two postseason.
The Bucks’ offseason job was straightforward: Prove to Antetokounmpo, who had met with possession shortly after a formidable second-round loss to the Miami Heat, that he could upgrade his supporting cast to 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 through December 21.
The standard for creating rosters in the modern NBA is incredibly high. Kawhi Leonard was able to use the Los Angeles Clippers to swap the farm for Paul George. LeBron James had his hands throughout the Los Angeles Lakers’ decision to move a stash of assets for Anthony Davis. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving orchestrated a team on the Brooklyn Nets, and now James Harden reportedly wants to join.
The Bucks with a small market and cold weather couldn’t set their goals so high, partly because Antetokounmpo did not try to play “buddy ball” like so many of his contemporaries or showed great interest in publicly recruiting players for Milwaukee. In an era of player managers, Antetokounmpo has remained a player.
Milwaukee’s counterattack was set to go all-in by amassing his small assets – throw-away contracts, bankers and future draft picks – to land Jrue Holiday and Bogdan Bogdanovic. This was a strong plan, even if neither player is a real star. Holiday was a clear upgrade over Eric Bledsoe who couldn’t handle the post-season pressures, and Bogdanovic was the type of shot creator with offensive pop that Milwaukee missed.
With both Holiday and Bogdanovic, the Bucks were able to set up what is probably the best line-up in the league with Antetokounmpo, All-Star striker Khris Middleton and Center Brook Lopez. That group would have four shooters, four plus defenders, size, versatility, and a lot more fun than last year’s Bucks. Perhaps most importantly, the oldest member of this quintet was Lopez at 32. When the 25-year-old Antetokounmpo was in its prime, he was surrounded by proven players in a similar age group.
That plan was disbanded shortly after it became known last Monday that the Bucks had agreed to sign Bogdanovic, a restricted free agent, from the Sacramento Kings on a sign-and-trade deal. Such agreements were not legal until the free agency opened on Friday and prompted the NBA to open an investigation into possible tampering. Bogdanovic, a restricted free agent, agreed to an offer form with the Atlanta Hawks, leaving it up to the Bucks to save any backup plan at short notice.
Milwaukee filled its list with the signing of a collection of role-playing players: DJ Augustin, Bobby Portis, Bryn Forbes, and Torrey Craig. Neither came up with offensive contracts, but together they were a far cry from Bogdanovic, let alone the dazzling additions Antetokounmpos rivals have enjoyed in recent years.
How exactly the Bogdanovic deal came about is unclear, and it is sure to be the subject of hints and harsh emotions in the years to come. All that mattered for the money: Antetokounmpo will be stuck without Bogdanovic this year, just as he would be stuck last year without Malcolm Brogdon, who was traded to the Indiana Pacers. Milwaukee will start the season as one of the NBA’s top contenders but still has a huge line-up gap as the clock ticks on Antetokounmpo’s decision.
To be clear, Antetokounmpo has good reasons to sign the Supermax despite Milwaukee’s bumblebees. At a time of financial uncertainty, both for the world and for the NBA, the long-term security and peace of mind that a supermax represents could become more important. Signing would help him avoid a spectacle this season and focus on basketball and his family, which have been his priorities throughout his career. Everything in Milwaukee is geared towards him. The franchise has built its offense and defense around him, signing his brother Thanasis, and building a new arena with great support from local taxpayers.
Many superstars in Antetokounmpo’s situation have looked around and decided to do better. James left the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010 for the Miami Heat to win his first title and become the undisputed face of the NBA. Durant left the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016 for the Golden State Warriors to hunt rings, remove James from the throne, and expand his business portfolio.
All these years later, it remains unclear whether Antetokounmpo has such aspirations. Aside from participating in an ESPN podcast series about his 2013 draft selection, he has held back throughout the off-season. In this series, Antetokounmpo presented himself as a homebody who still couldn’t believe he had risen to global fame. He wondered why the Atlanta Hawks had given him a pair of shoes during a pre-draft training session, and repeatedly insisted that he wanted his family to stay with him every step of his journey to the NBA.
Antetokounmpo barely sounded like a ruthless power broker putting together the next NBA super team. Even so, teams hoping to lure Antetokounmpo away from a free agency like the Heat, Toronto Raptors, Dallas Mavericks, and New York Knicks have largely avoided long-term contracts that would make their activities difficult. Antetokounmpo will have good options if he wants them.
After Milwaukee’s careful planning broke up with the Bogdanovic debacle, Antetokounmpo must now weigh the goats’ good intentions against their mediocre results. Is it the thought that counts or something more?