Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks were supposed to win it all this year. After an epic collapse in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Toronto Raptors in 2019, pundits and fans felt like the Bucks would come back stronger than ever this season and make it all the way to the Finals, where they would be the favorites to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy. For a large part of the season, it seemed like the Bucks were going to do just that. They were the best team in the regular season and Giannis was playing like the MVP we know him to be…then the Coronavirus happened.
After a four-month break, the Bucks entered the Orlando bubble looking to make their highly-anticipated title run. Things didn’t exactly go as planned, the team immediately looked rusty during the seeding games. The Bucks were losing to bad teams and it was clear that chemistry issues were plaguing the roster. Come playoff time, these issues never sorted themselves out and in the second round, the Bucks were eliminated by the Miami Heat in just five games. While the team won’t be able to contend for a title this season, they have much bigger things to worry about. Of course, we’re talking about Giannis’ impending free agency which is poised to begin in the 2021 offseason.
Simply put, Giannis is one of the best players in the league. When you’re a guy of Antetokounmpo’s caliber, you expect to contend for a title every single year. When you continuously fall short of the NBA Championship, your motivations to stay where you are typically begin to dissipate, especially when you’re on a small market team. LeBron James leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in 2010 is easily the best example of this phenomenon.
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With this in mind, Giannis and the Bucks have some massive decisions to make. In the past, the Bucks have stated that they would offer Giannis the Supermax contract, which would pay him over $250 million over the course of five seasons. Meanwhile, Giannis has stated that he loves Milwaukee and that he isn’t looking to be traded, although he wouldn’t confirm whether or not he would absolutely sign long term with the Bucks. This lack of long term commitment has put various other teams on notice, especially some of the larger markets such as Golden State, Toronto, and even Miami, who are all rumored to be gunning for Giannis come 2021. While it would certainly be exciting to see Giannis in one of these jerseys, one could make the argument that it would be horrible for the NBA as a whole.
Historically, small-market teams have struggled to not just pull in big-market free agents, but also in keeping their superstars. LeBron with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Carmelo Anthony with the Denver Nuggets, Kevin Durant with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and Anthony Davis with the New Orleans Pelicans are all examples of this. Whenever the smaller market teams have superstars, there is more parity throughout the league, as there are a plethora of teams who could go out and win a title. However, when you have all the best players concentrated into just a handful of markets, you get a league that remains stagnant and uncompetitive. If Giannis were to leave the Bucks for a team like the Miami Heat, he would be joining a squad with Jimmy Butler and some of the best young scorers in the league. This hypothetical move would immediately throw off the balance of the Eastern Conference, while forcing the Bucks into a rebuild. The same scenario would play out should he go to the Raptors, where he would be playing with a phenomenal young core. As for those Warriors rumors, if Golden State somehow made their financial situation work and brought Giannis on board, they would be able to go on yet another five-year NBA Finals run which would, once again, make the league extremely predictable.
A Giannis exodus from Milwaukee would also put that franchise into a state of financial decay. When it comes to fan engagement and ticket sales, Giannis was and still is the main attraction. After a season filled with loss revenue due to the virus, a small market team like Milwaukee can’t afford to see its marquee player go, as it will lead to a drop in merch sales, ticket sales, and overall interest. The Bucks have never been a team that gets National TV spots, however, Giannis was able to change that for them. If he leaves, the Bucks would be swiftly yanked off of National broadcasts and would fade into obscurity. Pair this up with the poor on-court results that would follow, and you have a disaster in the making. The very same thing happened with the Cleveland Cavaliers when LeBron left twice, and the league was worse off for it.
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Sure, some teams are going to be worse than others. That’s part of the fun. It’s why we tune in every single day. Fans want to see the best separate themselves from the pack and show why they are so great. Despite this, the league can become quite boring when it’s the same big-market teams winning year in and year out. If the Bucks were to surround Giannis with talent that was good enough to force him to stay, the NBA would have multiple title contenders, instead of just a couple from each conference. The Eastern Conference was fun this season because the Raptors, Heat, Celtics, and Bucks all had a chance at glory. Next season, the Nets and 76ers could even be in the mix. This kind of even keel benefits the NBA greatly.
If Giannis does, indeed, decide to move on from Milwaukee, he would effectively be throwing that balance away, while also making it increasingly more difficult for small market teams to convince superstars they can compete. It’s a ripple effect that would prove to be disastrous for the competitive integrity of the NBA.