Washington: In the end, Giannis Antetokounmpo cared more about what the Milwaukee Bucks had given him than what they had not.
The back-to-back MVP on Tuesday signed a five-year, $228 million supermax contract extension that represents the richest agreement in NBA history. By locking in for the long haul, Antetokounmpo short-circuited a year of rumours about his possible free agency in 2021 and enabled the Bucks to focus on their title push.
“This is my home, this is my city,” Antetokounmpo wrote on Twitter. “I’m blessed to be able to be a part of the Milwaukee Bucks for the next 5 years. Let’s make these years count. The show goes on, let’s get it.”
In the never-ending tug-of-war for superstar talent between big markets and small markets, Antetokounmpo’s decision cuts against the grain. Unlike LeBron James in 2010, Kevin Durant in 2016 and Kawhi Leonard in 2019, he did not bail for better weather, brighter lights and a clearer title path. Like those stars, Antetokounmpo has felt unrelenting championship expectations for years. Unlike those stars, he will spend much of his prime bearing that burden without the help of an A-list sidekick and without much hope of recruiting one.
Antetokounmpo, 26, has always been much harder on himself than on those around him. In good times, such as during MVP acceptance speeches, he reflexively downplays his achievements because he has yet to win a title. In bad times, such as Milwaukee’s postseason flame-out this summer, he points the finger at himself rather than at his teammates, his coach or the front office.
That’s a credit to Antetokounmpo’s character, because there were weak links to be found all around him. Milwaukee’s offence was too predictable because his supporting cast lacked playmakers. Coach Mike Budenholzer was too dogmatic and too late to adjust for the second straight postseason. The Bucks needed Malcolm Brogdon, whom they had traded in a regrettable cost-cutting move, and were stuck with the unreliable Eric Bledsoe. Even during the off-season, Milwaukee’s front office came up short when it failed to consummate a sign-and-trade for Bogdan Bogdanovic and had to scramble with its unimpressive backup plans.
Some superstars might look at that series of events and conclude, reasonably, that there wasn’t enough help, the coach could not be trusted, the owners were not fully committed and the front office was not up to a championship standard. Antetokounmpo did not see it like that. He did not request a trade, call for Budenholzer to be fired or demand roster upgrades. He also did not leave the Bucks swinging in the breeze for this season, which would have been the textbook move after the organisation’s underwhelming off-season raised as many questions as it answered.
Instead, he accepted responsibility for his own role in the disappointing run. Antetokounmpo was ejected and suspended one game for a headbutt. He committed a last-second foul on Jimmy Butler that cost Milwaukee a playoff game. He sprained his ankle multiple times and could not finish the series. As the end neared in the bubble, Antetokounmpo looked and acted as though he had let down the Bucks, not the other way around.
Ingrained in that approach were Antetokounmpo’s faithfulness and gratitude. Milwaukee was the team that drafted a relatively unknown Greek teenager in 2013. Milwaukee was the organisation that oversaw his development from a scrawny rookie to a hulking MVP. Milwaukee was the team that hired Budenholzer, who designed his offensive and defensive systems to maximise Antetokounmpo’s abilities. Milwaukee was, shrewdly, the team that added Antetokounmpo’s brother Thanasis to its roster.
Outsiders might view that narrative and credit Antetokounmpo’s constant desire for self-improvement as the key driver. If not Milwaukee, surely the same story would have played out elsewhere.
But Antetokounmpo did not show much interest in surveying alternative homes or forming friendships with other stars because he never took for granted Milwaukee’s role in his rise. Milwaukee was the organisation that made him wealthier than he could have imagined. Milwaukee took a big risk to trust him as a lead ball-handler. Milwaukee kept his family close. Milwaukee tried to improve its roster, paying up to keep forward Khris Middleton and sacrificing major draft assets to land guard Jrue Holiday. Milwaukee was offering him nearly a quarter-billion dollars during a pandemic that has ravaged the league’s finances, with his teammates gifting him pens recently to encourage him to commit.
It was easy to dream up destinations that might improve Antetokounmpo’s title chances or raise his stature: Golden State to play with Stephen Curry, Dallas to play with Luka Doncic, Toronto to play for Masai Ujiri, Miami to play for Pat Riley or even Los Angeles to play with James and Anthony Davis. Those scenarios swirled for the past 18 months, but they have been put to rest because Milwaukee had a history with Antetokounmpo that all other suitors lacked.
“This is a big moment for me and my family, and I want to thank the Bucks organisation for believing in us,” Antetokounmpo said in a statement. “You took a chance on us eight years ago, and now putting my signature on a contract like this is unreal — but it’s all because of hard work.”
Antetokounmpo had the option to play out the season and see whether the Bucks had done enough to improve their roster and to assess Budenholzer’s work in the playoffs. He passed on flexibility and leverage in favour of security and comfort. That decision was made with his mind and his heart, rather than with the cold calculations that have become commonplace in the NBA.
Sentimentality will come at a price. Milwaukee remains a title contender, but the 2021 pack is deeper than last season’s. The Bucks’ roster underwent serious changes, Holiday is set to be a free agent next summer, Middleton probably has peaked as a player, and Budenholzer’s approach will remain under the microscope. There’s no obvious path to bringing in another superstar, and Milwaukee is not a sought-after destination, so Antetokounmpo probably will spend most of his new contract fighting James, Durant and Leonard with one hand tied behind his back. His new contract has a player option, but he will not hit free agency until 2025, when he’s 30.
Antetokounmpo’s decision suggests he would rather take his chances with the Bucks than turn his back on the team that raised him. That might change if his playoff frustrations continue to mount. For now, being disloyal was a worse prospect than being loyal to a fault.