“This is my home. This is my city.”
The Bucks got their man. “Whew!” sighed Milwaukee collectively.
While Bucks fans (there are some, yes?) waited with bated breath to see whether Giannis Antetokounmpo would re-sign for the supermax contract (more on that later), the Greek Freak barely hesitated, putting an entire city’s mind at ease. He will be a Milwaukee Buck for at least the next four years.
ESPN and its surrounding sisterhood of networks will now laud him as one of the most likeable and dedicated young athletes in professional sports, all for staying with the team and city that drafted him.
I suppose there’s something to be said for loyalty being a virtue, no matter what the price tag.
For some reason, we fans can’t stand when players jump ship. LeBron’s four titles with three different teams are somehow tainted because a) a lot of people still don’t like him and b) he didn’t stay with Cleveland, the team that drafted him in the first place, never mind that he eventually went back and brought that town its first major title since the 1960s. He didn’t do it the way we wanted him to so shame on him.
He’s not the only one. Kevin Durant is routinely criticized for leaving Oklahoma City for a ready-made winner in Golden State. Perhaps not even a title in Brooklyn where he now plays with Kyrie Irving will get that moniker off his back. What’s done is done.
There are others. We don’t know what’s going on with James Harden. Going into his eleventh season in the league, he’s only played on two NBA teams (Oklahoma City and Houston) and potentially his third with trade rumors swirling. He’s starting to wear out his welcome with fans. Russell Westbrook is also no longer a fan favorite. For years, he was revered for being the face of the Oklahoma City Thunder, wanting to show his dedication to a small market team but a lack of support left them, and him, title-less and ultimately downtrodden. After a brief Chris Paul experiment, OKC is now admittedly rebuilding. More often than not, superstars leaving franchises leaves the superstar in better shape than the franchise and that generates resentment.
Meanwhile, the league’s other veteran superstar, Steph Curry is looked at in a different light, having been the centerpiece of three NBA titles (and two MVP awards). It should be remembered that, as talented as he is, Curry did not win those titles on his own. That being said, he’s never given us any indication he wants to play elsewhere. For that dedication, we pat him on the back. Loyalty is lauded; looking elsewhere is verboten.
The only time we forgive players for leaving their franchises is after they’ve exhausted all their options. Allen Iverson played 12 seasons in Philadelphia and will always be considered one of the town’s most revered athletes. When they could no longer surround him with the talent required to win an NBA title, Iverson moved on in search of that elusive title which he never got. The same can be said for Charles Barkley years earlier in that very same town. Similarly, Kevin Garnett played 14 seasons in Minnesota, having even less success than Iverson, never reaching an NBA Finals. Garnett would ultimately go to Boston and win a championship with the two most talented players he’d ever played with: Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
Complain all you want about the power of the NBA player, there are really only a handful of them that can dictate the terms of their trade. Most of the time, they are at the mercy of the teams that hold their fates at stake. Yes, that means uprooting their families on a whim and yes, that’s the job they’ve signed up for. They make millions for playing a game but in this time of COVID, there’s more than just chatter about them having to forfeit back a fair amount of their salaries if league revenues are not met. So, let’s cut these guys some slack.
That brings us back to Giannis and his decision to stay in Milwaukee. About to enter his eighth year in the league, he’s already won back-to-back MVP awards… and he’s only 25 years old. Michael Jordan won a title in his seventh year, LeBron in his ninth. While it’s probably unfair to compare Giannis to two of the greatest (the two greatest?) players the league has ever known, that’s what happens when you’re blessed with the talent of Giannis. With LeBron James’ NBA reign of terror likely ending in the next two to three years, the door will open for Giannis to make his mark… but he’ll have to get out of the Eastern Conference first, which he and his Bucks have yet to do. Michael Jordan never won a title without help. Neither did LeBron James, Steph Curry or any other superstar that’s ever won a championship. Giannis needs that help.
Teams win titles, not individuals. The Bucks’ front office has convinced Giannis to re-sign. Now they’ll have to bolster that roster to help him. Like most NBA superstars, he’ll have to be involved in those personnel meetings and he’ll have to make some tough decisions. With great paycheck comes great responsibility. Five years, $228 million is nothing to sneeze at. All that money won’t buy him the killer instinct he’ll need to take that next step.
How did he land this much money, you ask? Not long ago, the NBA allowed franchises to re-sign players for what is commonly referred to as the supermax contract extension. The league came up with this option to save smaller cities who might find their superstar players longing for the draw of a larger market. Note: As of 2018, Milwaukee ranked 27th in size out of the 30 NBA media markets. In order to qualify for this extension, players must have achieved certain accolades, i.e., a minimum seven years with the team that drafted them and have made an all-NBA team or won a Defensive Player of the Year or MVP award. Giannis checks all those boxes.
The check the Bucks just cut shouldn’t preclude other NBA stars from joining Giannis in his quest for a title but he’ll have to prove capable of putting this team on his back, both physically and psychologically. Can he take those next steps? Is he equipped? He has four years (he can opt out after four) to get this team to at least an NBA Finals in an Eastern Conference that has young, upstart teams in Boston and Miami and a store-bought team in Brooklyn. Atlanta, Philadelphia and Toronto will prove no pushovers either. His job won’t be easy and I cannot emphasize this enough. Giannis will not be able to do this on his own. This team as currently comprised is not talented enough to win a title, even if Giannis puts together his third straight MVP season. Their clock is now ticking, along with the pressure that will mount on young Giannis’ broad shoulders.
Ultimately, Giannis will be praised for staying put, as he should be. His image would have taken a sharp turn for the worse had he decided to leave for larger market pastures but that’s because of our own clouded judgement. I’ve worked for one company for six years, another for nine, one for four and my current one for seven. How many of you can say that you’ve ever worked for the same company for eight years without raising a gripe or feeling the weight of the world? I didn’t think so.
Regardless of how we justly or unjustly judge him for his career choices, I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings but I don’t see this team winning a title within the next four years, which will leave a thirty-year old Giannis with another decision to make. I’ve never been as offended as most by players pursuing NBA titles. Isn’t that what they’re supposed to do by any means necessary? To me, it seems like a considerably better option than going through the motions for a franchise that might not be putting forth as much effort.
Like it or not, we remember NBA greats by how many titles they won. Until Giannis can help play GM and draw talent to play with him, he will fall short of the expectations we’ve put on him. He’ll give the town plenty of oohs and ahhs over the next few seasons. I’m just not sure if those will accompany an O’Brien Trophy.
Or perhaps I’m wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time. In this case, I just don’t think that I am.