When the news broke that Giannis Antetokounmpo had signed a five-year supermax extension to stay with the Bucks, the celebration started in greater Milwaukee and spread, by association, to many of the NBA’s smallest markets. Only the Bucks will reap the direct benefits of employing the league’s back-to-back MVP, but hope springs from his decision for other franchises operating in the bracing cold of the Midwest, under the constraints that come with more modest revenue, and out of cities that need to win players over rather than rely on their natural glamour. Those teams have stars of their own they’d very much like to keep. In a world where Antetokounmpo makes a five-year commitment rather than waiting to sign with some other team in free agency next summer, that dream seems all the more attainable.
The flow of the NBA’s most talented players tends to go in only one direction: toward the three or four most broadly attractive cities and all they have to offer. What this extension shows, however, is that even that sort of coursing inevitability can be dammed under the right circumstances. While the Bucks would love nothing more than for Giannis to spend his whole career in Milwaukee, a five-year extension at least allows the organization to see its project through. Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton will have more time to modulate a working relationship with Jrue Holiday, who otherwise would have been acclimating to a new city and a new team in the midst of its make-or-break season. The Bucks aren’t exactly rich in young talent, but a commitment from Giannis allows the team to be slightly more patient with a prospect like Donte DiVincenzo as opposed to panic-trading him away for a veteran. This entire franchise is still under pressure, but the source and nature of that pressure has shifted. Rather than orient the team’s operations around convincing Antetokounmpo to stay, the Bucks need only to progress in a way that reassures him of the choice he’s already made.
How did the Bucks do it? Big-market predators have been circling for months, declaring their intentions to pursue Giannis in ways both glaring and subtle. They could pitch him the chance to play with other superstars. They could sell him on beaches and sunshine, or on life in a multicultural hub. What they couldn’t offer was the city he’s called home since he was 18 years old, or the satisfaction of a breakthrough on his own terms. Changing teams to win a title can only give a player a certain kind of fulfillment; there’s a reason, after all, that LeBron James went back to Cleveland, and that Kevin Durant—even after winning back-to-back championships with the Warriors—wandered off to Brooklyn in search of something. When members of the Bucks organization conveyed optimism that Giannis would extend or re-sign with the team throughout this process, it could have been taken for wishful thinking, or perhaps the distorted perspective of someone too close to the danger to see it for what it was. In retrospect, it seems they just understood him.
What a player says to the media can’t always be taken as unqualified truth, but Giannis had already told anyone who was listening that he wanted to be like Dirk, Kobe, and Tim Duncan—legends who spent their entire career with one team. In the sting of a frustrating exit from the 2020 playoffs, he characterized his thought process to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports. “Some see a wall and go in [another direction],” he said. “I plow through it.” A five-year extension is an even stronger statement. Some star players, even from the time they join a team, are looking for a reason to leave. Antetokounmpo has long seemed the opposite—ready (and wanting) to give the Bucks the benefit of the doubt, if only they could nudge him slightly closer to a championship. Milwaukee apparently did enough to meet that threshold by trading for Holiday (at no small cost) and trying on a new cast of role players to sell an adjusted vision of the team’s future.
Since Jon Horst assumed leadership of basketball operations in 2017, the Bucks have emerged as one of the league’s most creative problem solvers. Within months of Horst’s promotion, Milwaukee managed to trade the increasingly obsolete Greg Monroe and a pair of marginal draft picks to land Eric Bledsoe. When the Bucks needed to rethink their center rotation, they signed Brook Lopez at a discount and turned him into a floor-spacing, rim-protecting mainstay. A few more picks brought in George Hill, who proved essential for Milwaukee in the playoffs by offering the kind of shooting Bledsoe couldn’t. At the 2019 trade deadline, the Bucks surprised (and impressed) many in the league by flipping a stack of second-round picks for Nikola Mirotic—a bold idea that worked better in theory than in practice. Even the deal for Holiday was an unexpected development given the limited players and picks the Bucks had available to trade.
(One could have said the same of the almost-sign-and-trade for Bogdan Bogdanovic, but the Bucks don’t exactly get credit for a deal that collapsed in public in real time.)
In all, it’s a complicated body of work, but that level of activity is an assurance to a superstar signing away the next five years of his career. The real enemy is complacency; just because Antetokounmpo re-upped with the team early doesn’t mean Milwaukee can treat its roster as complete or refuse to spend in the name of improving it. Thus far, the Bucks have gone to great lengths to insist they wouldn’t dream of it—and to compensate for punting on Malcolm Brogdon when they could have re-signed him in 2019. In the process, Milwaukee has assembled one of the more expensive rosters in the league. That kind of spending only begets more spending, starting with an expensive new deal for Holiday if he opts to become a free agent next summer. However that restricts the Bucks going forward might matter less than the message it sends.
Of course, all of these are very practical explanations for what might ultimately be a sentimental decision—or maybe the line between the two gets fuzzy when someone like Giannis will be paid $256 million to stay and play in his second home. Either way, the fact that he chose that for himself is an achievement for the Bucks as a franchise, and a meaningful push back against the tidal forces that have doomed so many teams operating outside the NBA’s destination cities. It’s been a very long time since a player of Antetokounmpo’s caliber chose to stick with his small-market team when given the choice. To be fair, players of Antetokounmpo’s caliber rarely come along at all. That Milwaukee was able to draft him with the 15th pick is a franchise-altering aberration. What followed, however, was a genuine bond between a player and a city. It was an organizational effort—despite turnover at every level—to try new things and to invest in the roster before it was too late.
Other organizations will surely look to the Bucks as a model as they plan for (and dread) the coming free agency of their own stars. There’s a lot there worth emulating, and a lot that never could be. Sometimes it works the same way in the front office that it does on the court. You could copy Milwaukee’s playbook. You could try to replicate its roster. Yet any attempt to imitate what worked for the Bucks will eventually collapse beneath a simple truth: There’s no one quite like Giannis.