Two and half weeks ago, Giannis Antetokounmpo tweeted out a Kendrick Lamar lyric.
The timing didn’t seem arbitrary: He sent it just one day after ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski told radio listeners that the clock was ticking for other teams to lure the star forward, whose four-year, $100 million deal begins this season, away from Milwaukee. Gordon Hayward had just ended his time in Utah; small-market teams had cause to be on edge. But not the Bucks, Giannis assured, in the only way his generation knows how: a subtweet.
But Sunday, when the 22-year-old was asked about the loyalty tweet during a Q&A on his tour in Manila, the Philippines, Antetokounmpo’s tone changed.
"A lot of people say they’re going to stay on a team," he said, "and decide to move to a different team. But you guys got to remember: A guy might want to stay on a team, but the team [may not] do the right things and the right moves for the player to become great."
Antetokounmpo went on to defend Kevin Durant’s decision to leave Oklahoma City: "Do not hate only the player. Because sometimes it’s not up to the player." That defense, one many players have made after leaving their first team, feels ominous for the Bucks, even this far out from Giannis’s free agency. The franchise’s three owners are reportedly estranged; over the last season, Milwaukee’s front office lost its general manager, failed to promote his intended replacement, then gave the title to someone so unknown in GM circles that his prefix was legally changed from Mr. to Who the Hell Is immediately after hire.
Wojnarowski’s analysis in early July, already foreboding then, hits even harder now.
"You don’t think Giannis has been watching what went on there for the last several months?" Wojnarowski asked that day. "Of what they allowed to go on with the [Bucks] front office? He’s watching it. And the clock has started. Everybody in the league is trying to figure out how they are going to get him out of there."
When asked about it Sunday, Giannis seemed to backtrack on the absolutism of his tweet. Using Durant, who received as much backlash as any player has for leaving, as an example doesn’t seem like an accident. Unconditional commitment is cherished by fans, but there’s a line to be tiptoed by stars who want to have it all — both the identity of a loyal player and the flexibility to leave for greener grass — as the NBA shifts to a players’ league.
Even the notion that it was LeBron James’s camp who exposed Kyrie Irving’s trade request follows this dichotomy. If true, it’s the type of PR move that serves as damage control for LeBron, should he want out of Cleveland next season. Well, Kyrie left — what was he supposed to do? The negative reaction to The Decision, burned jerseys and Comic Sans and all, was a lesson. It’s better if it doesn’t look like much of a decision at all.
Giannis seems to be practicing that art now, preparing for the words and promises and tweets that will be dug up should he ever (not saying he will, I know it’s four years out, OK?) want to leave Milwaukee. Either that, or he just really liked Kendrick Lamar’s album.