As the NBA season approaches, a massive Greek domino has less than three weeks to fall. Two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks is reportedly back in the United States after an offseason trip to his native Greece with his family. He returns to Wisconsin with quite the decision in front of him. The Bucks have ready for him a contract offer in the form of the five year Supermax contract worth an astounding $227 million, an amount of money that will change the lives of generations of his family yet to be born.
This deal, which he must accept or reject by December 21st, would see him spending much of his prime in Milwaukee, a city with an NBA organization dedicated to striving to please him. This was evident in their acquiring the likes of Jrue Holiday and others after a playoff failure in the NBA’s Orlando Bubble. They’re willing to cater to his basketball whim, upending a roster that fell short of the championship goals they rightfully had, all while giving him a quarter of a billion dollars (before taxes).
So...what is the hold up?
Antetokounmpo will have options...and that’s bad for the Bucks. The likes of the Toronto Raptors, Miami Heat, and others have positioned themselves nicely as the summer of 2021 - and potentially Giannis’ unrestricted free agency - approaches. These are viable possibilities for a player with the elite talent of the Greek Freak - bigger markets, more comfortable surroundings, better players to play alongside. The potential for championship contention alongside a larger stage to display your talents has to be tantalizing, even for a humble star like Antetokounmpo.
With every day that passes paranoia for Bucks fans grows. That tension should be felt in NBA small markets across the country...including Memphis. Uncertainty abounds. As it will continue to, until Giannis’ signature is on that contract.
The Grizzlies need to root for that exact result to occur.
Win one for the little guy
The Grizzlies have time. The likes of Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., who are two players the Memphis front office clearly sees as possible cornerstones of the Giannis ilk, especially the reigning Rookie of the Year Morant, have roughly six to eight years before they are in Antetokounmpo’s shoes. Thanks to restricted free agency and the benefits that come with nailing draft picks contractually, Memphis is at the start of their star journey and not the end. Plenty of offseason cycles remain to establish a winning standard and culture through Morant and Jackson Jr. and make it so they do not want to leave the Bluff City.
The best part is, almost every single move that Zach Kleiman and company has done has been to build around these two stars. From trades to smart contract structures, they are maximizing the potential of their two young cornerstones. The front office is prioritizing strengthening what they already do well with complimentary pieces. Memphis has future cap flexibility and multiple draft assets to add more star talent either through the draft or via trade (free agency isn’t the strong suit of the Grizzlies), and they surely will do that as Jaren and Ja enter their title contending window in the years ahead.
But Milwaukee has tried to do the same thing...and yet precedent tells us Giannis may still walk. Great coaching. Roster upheaval. Investment of resources despite market size and share financially. It might not be enough - history tells us this. The fact is that megastars like Giannis usually don’t stick around in places like Milwaukee. In 2010, after Cleveland was willing to give LeBron James the world, he chose to take his talents to South Beach. In 2016, Kevin Durant was faced with a stay in Oklahoma City or go to Golden State decision, and he chose to go to the team that won 73 games (but not the title). In both cases, as Tom Ziller pointed out in his newsletter Monday, James and Durant won two championships at their new, more “desirable” locations.
So they were...”right” to leave. Personally, professionally, the grass was indeed greener. And that chill that went down your spine just now is the realization that as the end of this decade approaches, the Grizzlies may find themselves in a similar spot.
While some stars stay beyond their rookie/restricted free agency max deals (Damian Lillard stands out with Portland), the true cream of the crop in terms of legendary talent in recent years have moved on. Morant seems to have the mental makeup of Lillard, loving the connectedness and spirit of their respective cities, but there’s no denying that as the Durants and Jameses of the world age out these major markets on both coasts will have their eyes on the talent of Ja. In terms of Jaren, while he may not have the star power of Morant he has two-way capabilities that will be extremely valuable at his size if he continues to progress.
It’s not so far-fetched to imagine a scenario where a blogger or writer five years from now sits down at his or her computer and writes an article hypothesizing on how the Lakers, or Nets, or Clippers, or Warriors, could lure Ja and/or Jaren away from Memphis. Some do it half-jokingly on social media already. And if the organization is unable to build a contender while Morant and Jackson Jr. are Grizzlies, those two will have to make a similarly tough decision to make.
Stay in the East
While it may not make sense for Memphis to pursue improvement in unrestricted free agency, there are others who could strike in the race for Giannis that may force the hands of the Grizzlies. Toronto and Miami make total sense as front runners - they’ll both possess the cap space to sign him outright. Toronto has a championship pedigree and a strong international community that surely appeals to Antetokounmpo. Miami has a diverse culture as well, and being on South Beach playing for championships in the winter and spring as opposed to dealing with cold Milwaukee weather must be attractive. His departure for such cities, especially Miami, would definitely sting for small market fans everywhere. But least as the Grizzlies enter their title contending window Giannis wouldn’t stand directly in their way on the way to the NBA Finals.
But...before you get too excited...
My first round of 2021 (not 2020!) NBA cap space projections:— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) October 11, 2020
1 NYK $71.6M
2 SAS $66.0M
3 CHA $60.7M
4 TOR $60.4M (w/o FVV)
5 OKC $45.5M
6 MIA $42.3M
7 ATL $35.4M
8 DET $32.9M
9 PHX $28.0M
10 NOP $27.9M
11 CLE $26.2M
12 MEM $25.9M
13 DAL $24.9M
14 CHI $21.2M
15 LAL $18.7M
These numbers came before free agency, so a large chunk of the money for teams like Charlotte and Atlanta is gone. Same with New Orleans after their Brandon Ingram extension, and of course Memphis’ number is now closer to $12 million after the signing of their free agents. But look closer at teams listed that didn’t spend big this offseason, or made deals with 2021 in mind.
San Antonio will still have money to burn. And perhaps even more terrifyingly...the Dallas Mavericks will have avenues to free up Giannis-level money. Imagine having to deal with a Gregg Popovich-coached Giannis. Or - worse - a Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis, Antetokounmpo trio in the division.
Such a move from the Greek Freak (especially to Dallas, who admittedly hasn’t had great free agency success in the past but didn’t have Luka then) would almost certainly force the Grizzlies hand so they do not run in to the tense situation mentioned above. Perhaps they swing for the fence and try to trade for Bradley Beal after the Washington Wizards experiment with a returning John Wall falls short. This would result in risking a Beal departure in free agency himself while giving up the assets that will be necessary to get that shot at the skilled scorer. It would potentially - and probably - move up the timeline for Memphis so they don’t tumble out of competitiveness, and the good graces of Jackson Jr. and Morant.
Urgency before preparedness often results in missteps. If the Grizzlies try to run before they can walk, shooting their shot too soon when Ja and Jaren aren’t ready, all the work that went in to building this bright future could be for naught.
This is unlikely. Dallas would have to dump some money, and they lack resources to do that post-Zinger trade to the extent necessary to clear all the cap space for the massive Giannis deal via sign and trade with Milwaukee. San Antonio is entering a likely rebuild and while Antetokounmpo with Pop would be terrifying that landing spot isn’t in the realm of Toronto/Miami/Dallas it doesn’t seem to fit. But the sheer thought of it happening is enough to break out in a cold sweat.
How the next few days and weeks play out between the Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo will drastically shape the scope of the NBA landscape for years to come. If Giannis signs, the Heat, Raptors, Mavericks and others pursue alternatives. If he doesn’t? While Milwaukee could still re-sign him as an unrestricted free agent, a Greek Freak exiting in to the Association’s wild does not bode well for the Bucks. And the summer becomes a race against time for those in the hunt...and a moment lacking clarity for the Memphis Grizzlies and others like them.
Giannis has earned the right to choose what is best for himself and his family. If he wants to take the massive Milwaukee deal, go for it. Should he want to test the waters of free agency and be recruited, so be it. It’s on the teams chasing him - starting with the Bucks - to convince him their organization is where he should spend his prime years. But the ripple effect will reach the Grizzlies. If Giannis goes to the Heat, perhaps Memphis has a chance to sign Duncan Robinson, because both Giannis and Bam Adebayo will be getting paid. Should Antetokounmpo head to Toronto, maybe OG Anunoby becomes an option because of money limitations for the Raptors.
Those would be positive results for Memphis in restricted free agency, an area where they’ve had better success. But it could be a win in the battle while an eventual loss in the war for the true necessity as teams pursue championship glory - superstar talent. The Grizzlies appear to believe they have at least one, if not two, such players. They’ve done a masterful job building around both Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. to this point. Before the Grizzlies traverse the path ahead of them, others like the Bucks, Thunder, and Cavaliers tried to keep their elite talent happy. And in two - and in this hypothetical three - cases, all those talents took their abilities elsewhere anyway.
That’s why Memphis should be rooting for Milwaukee. Because the Grizzlies hope to be the Bucks some day...and their success, or failure, in keeping their home grown talent may be a brief glimpse in to the future.