Giannis Antetokounmpo played only 11 minutes in Milwaukee’s Game 4 win against Miami on Sunday after reinjuring his already sprained ankle. He was forced to watch from the sideline, as he has all too often in this series, as the Bucks pulled off a 118-115 overtime victory to avoid being swept.
It’s unclear whether he will be able to play in Game 5, or how effective he will be if he does. But the issues in Milwaukee go far beyond his injury status. Miami was having its way with the Bucks even before Giannis went down. This season was supposed to be “championship or bust” for Milwaukee, and it’s looking like it will be a bust, barring a miraculous turn of events in the next few weeks.
Everyone in the Bucks organization—the franchise player, the supporting cast, the coaching staff, the front office, and the ownership group—is at least somewhat responsible. But it ultimately comes back to Giannis. He was just named Defensive Player of the Year and will likely win his second consecutive MVP. He’s the one who will have his name dragged in the mud. It doesn’t matter what he does next season. It’s going to be very difficult for him to win any more regular-season awards until he proves that he can win in the playoffs. It’s not fair. But that’s the downside of all the money and fame.
Giannis can’t just keep his head down and be a good soldier anymore. He has to demand accountability from everyone around him. In the first Star Wars movie, Han Solo calls Obi-Wan Kenobi a fool as they begin his plan to infiltrate the Death Star. Obi-Wan responds with the perfect comeback: “Who is more foolish? The fool or the fool who follows him?” That’s the situation in Milwaukee in a nutshell.
After losing Game 1, Giannis was asked whether he wanted to guard Jimmy Butler, who had exploded for 40 points on 13-for-20 shooting, instead of a 3-and-D player like Jae Crowder. He dismissed the question out of hand: “Why would you ask me that? I’ll do whatever coach wants me to do.”
It’s easy to see why he trusts Mike Budenholzer. The Bucks went from fighting to make the playoffs under Jason Kidd to becoming one of the best teams in the NBA under Budenholzer. But now the problems with his philosophy have been exposed on the biggest stage.
Superstars have the power to hire and fire coaches. But few come into the league with that mindset. They have to establish themselves on the court first and learn the NBA game from the inside out. That experience then gives them the tools to evaluate the people in charge. LeBron James was coached by Mike Brown in his first five trips to the playoffs. Kevin Durant was coached by Scott Brooks. They watched their teams come up short year after year while their coaches didn’t make the right adjustments.
The 2012 NBA Finals between the Heat and the Thunder was the first that I covered as a reporter. The key moment in that series came when Erik Spoelstra downsized his starting lineup, moving Chris Bosh to the 5 and Shane Battier to the 4. Brooks never responded. He watched Kendrick Perkins get turned into a traffic cone in four straight losses without ever benching him. Brooks even complained in press conferences about how his team kept getting off to slow starts. I asked him whether he had thought about playing smaller, and he said that it was more important for the Thunder to change their “disposition” than their starting lineup.
That was when the scales fell from my eyes. It didn’t matter how much talent the Thunder had. I knew that Brooks would never lead them to a championship. I’m not sure how you can watch what Budenholzer has done with the Bucks in the past two playoffs and not come to the same conclusion. Even Steve Kerr, with more talent on his roster in Golden State, coaches with far more urgency in the playoffs than Bud.
Giannis has become more frustrated during the series. When asked about playing only 35 minutes on Friday, a shockingly low number in a pivotal Game 3 loss, he said: “I feel great. Yeah, I could play more.”
It’s not just Giannis. In the first three games of the series, the Bucks had a net rating of plus-0.3 with Khris Middleton on the floor and minus-27.1 without him. Maybe the most telling indictment of the way Budenholzer has managed his team is that he didn’t extend Middleton’s playing time until Game 4, when the other Bucks All-Star played for all but six seconds in the second half and overtime. It was the right move, but it was also the right move two games ago, just like it was the right move in last season’s playoffs against Toronto, when Budenholzer let a chance to win a title slip away by not keeping his best players in the game longer.
Players don’t necessarily want to be coaches any more than they want to be GMs. They have enough on their plates as is. But the incompetence of the people above them often leaves them with no choice. Giannis has one final lesson to learn. He doesn’t have to listen to Budenholzer if he thinks he’s making a bad decision with his rotations. He can refuse to come out of the game.
An NBA coach has only as much authority as his superstar gives him. LeBron once told David Blatt to draw up a new play at the end of a playoff game then aired him out in the media afterward. He had put in too much work to let his fate be controlled by someone he didn’t think was competent. It was probably not fair to Blatt. But the coach hadn’t earned LeBron’s trust, which was by far the most important part of his job. Blatt didn’t last much longer in Cleveland before being fired. His record with the team didn’t matter. LeBron had been on plenty of teams that flamed out in the playoffs despite great regular-season records. And he had seen what great coaching looked like in Miami.
Giannis can have Budenholzer replaced if he wants to. A loss in Game 5 on Tuesday would start the most important offseason of his career. Milwaukee will offer him a five-year supermax extension. He has the power to ask for anything he wants.
The question that he should be asking himself is whether he should have used his power last offseason. Budenholzer, like the vast majority of NBA coaches, is ultimately just a middle manager. He’s not putting together the roster. It wasn’t his decision not to pay Malcolm Brogdon.
Brogdon has been the shadow looming over the Bucks all season. Milwaukee didn’t match the contract that Indiana gave him (four years, $85 million) in restricted free agency. The only reason to not bring him back was financial. Two-way wings with his combination of size and versatility are the most valuable players in the league. Brogdon might not have been able to save the Bucks from falling into a 3-1 hole against the Heat. But he sure would have helped. The Bucks desperately need players who can create their own shot, initiate the offense, space the floor, and defend.
It wouldn’t have required much work to keep Brogdon around. Giannis could have simply leaked to the media that he was a big fan of Brogdon’s game and that he wanted to see whether the Milwaukee owners were committed to winning. They would have had no choice but to pay him.
The Bucks assumed they could replace 85 percent of his production for 15 percent of his price (minimum deals for Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver). Not only has that missing 15 percent of production been killing them in the playoffs, but also Brogdon’s salary slot ($21.3 million) was insurance if the Bucks ever needed to make a trade. It will be hard for them to upgrade this offseason without gutting the roster because they don’t have many salaries to move. Take a potential trade for Chris Paul ($41.4 million), for example. They would have to package Eric Bledsoe ($16.9 million), Brook Lopez ($12.7 million), and George Hill ($9.6 million) to match salary in a trade for Paul. Milwaukee just doesn’t have a lot of excess money on its books. The Bucks have sacrificed flexibility on the altar of efficiency.
Giannis recently saw that his team wasn’t willing to pay the luxury tax to give him the best possible chance of winning an NBA title. That decision isn’t all bad for him, though. It has given him more leverage than he would have otherwise. You lose the moral high ground when you’re a billionaire owner who receives hundreds of millions of dollars in public money for a stadium and refuses to reinvest even a fraction into the team. The Bucks’ owners are hedge fund operators (Marc Lasry and Wes Edens) who bought the team for $550 million in 2014, when Giannis was a rookie. Forbes now values the franchise at $1.6 billion. They know how much value Giannis has created for them in the past decade. That gives him power.
Roster management is an area where younger stars don’t always realize how much influence they have. Damian Lillard once demanded a meeting with Portland owner Paul Allen to complain about the team’s trade of Will Barton a few years earlier. Lillard was 24 and in his third season in the NBA when that trade happened. He was 27 and in his sixth season when he met with Allen. Blazers GM Neil Olshey wasn’t even in the meeting. He didn’t need to be. The message was sent. It’s hard to imagine Olshey making a major trade at this point without running it by Lillard first.
The Bucks have two ways to show Giannis they are serious about being contenders. They can take on money in trades and use future first-round picks to bring in win-now talent. To be sure, both long-term financial flexibility and building through the draft are important. But for Giannis, there’s just no reason to give the organization the benefit of the doubt. Milwaukee has already proved it will pocket any flexibility it creates. It traded its first-round pick in last season’s draft to dump Tony Snell’s contract and still let Brogdon walk a few weeks later. These are the Bucks’ first-round picks since drafting Giannis: Jabari Parker, Rashad Vaughn, Thon Maker, D.J. Wilson, and Donte DiVincenzo. The latter two are the only ones still on their roster, and Wilson is buried so deep on the bench that he might as well be gone. Why should Giannis believe their next five first-round picks would do anything more for him?
There are a lot of things you can do with that many picks. The Lakers packaged a bunch to get Anthony Davis. So did the Clippers to get Paul George, and the Rockets to get Russell Westbrook. None of those teams necessarily wanted to mortgage their future. But LeBron, Kawhi, and James Harden never gave them a choice. The Bucks don’t seem to care about keeping Giannis happy in the same way.
He has already seen what they will do without a gentle (or not so gentle) nudge. The Bucks signed Matthews, Korver, and Robin Lopez in the midst of an arms race among the top teams in the NBA last offseason. Let’s hope for everyone’s sake that they can do better this time around.
That assumes that Giannis even wants to be in Milwaukee anymore. There’s no way to know from the outside. He has always said that he wants to stay. But plenty of stars in his position have said similar things before asking out. The only thing we know for sure is that he could play for any team in the NBA once he becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer. It doesn’t matter who is on their books. All 30 teams would clear the necessary space to sign him if he told them he was coming.
Giannis is far from a perfect player. He’s still only 25, several years away from his prime. He’s not a good enough shooter, and he has been outdueled by Butler and Leonard in two straight postseasons. There’s a lot for him to work on. But is Milwaukee really the place where that will happen? Is he going to be pushed and challenged if he stays? Why is he spending so much time shooting 3s when he can’t make free throws or midrange jumpers? A 3-pointer is more efficient than a long 2, but a player who can’t consistently make a 10-to-15-foot jumper probably won’t make them from 25-30 feet, either. There are coaches around the league who would tell him that. But would they be valued at a place where efficiency is everything?
No one can win a title without a good organization around them. That’s why both Butler and Kawhi were extremely calculating when they hit unrestricted free agency for the first time in their careers last summer. The former picked the Heat even though they didn’t have the cap room to sign him outright, while the latter essentially gave the Clippers a ransom note before he signed with them. They had been around long enough to know what was important. Butler learned what not to look for after playing for three dysfunctional organizations in Chicago, Minnesota, and Philadelphia, while Kawhi learned from the best practices in Toronto and San Antonio before he went home to Los Angeles.
In an appearance on The Ringer’s JJ Reddick Podcast With Tommy Alter earlier this season, Butler told his former teammate that he knew pretty quickly that it wouldn’t work in Philadelphia. The same thing probably would have happened if he had been in Milwaukee.
Title windows are limited in the NBA. Butler is a 30-year-old perimeter player without a consistent 3-point shot who relies on his athleticism. He might get only one or two shots to make a run at a title with a team built around him. So he picked an organization with a long track record of success and stability at every level. He doesn’t have to be the coach and GM in Miami because he can trust Spoelstra and Pat Riley to make the right decisions.
That’s the question for Giannis now. If he stays in Milwaukee, he’ll have to do all the work. Will GM Jon Horst be able to sell another star on coming to town? Or would Giannis have to do that, too? Does he feel ready to shoulder that much responsibility on and off the court? Or does he want to learn from someone who has done it before?
That’s what happened with LeBron and Durant. Both were drafted into small-market organizations with no track record of success. Their second stops in the NBA were to bigger-market teams that showed them the ropes. LeBron took the lessons he learned in Miami back to Cleveland. Durant is now hoping to bring what he did in Golden State to Brooklyn. His experience with Steve Nash on the Warriors is one of the main reasons the two-time MVP is now his coach.
Both LeBron and Durant had to do what was best for themselves, even if it meant taking a hit in the court of public opinion. They became stock villains because they didn’t have careers exactly like Michael Jordan even though they were playing in a different era, with competition far better than anything Jordan faced. Jordan didn’t win a title until he played for a Hall of Fame coach (Phil Jackson) on a roster put together by a Hall of Fame GM (Jerry Krause). Jordan didn’t have to choose between loyalty and success. Not everyone is so lucky.
Giannis has lived a fairly charmed existence in his first seven seasons in the NBA. No one thought he would be a superstar when he was a rookie. He was a no. 15 pick who slowly grew into an MVP-caliber player in a small market with an almost nonexistent amount of media coverage. The level of scrutiny is about to ratchet up. In a 2005 interview with Stephen A. Smith, Allen Iverson gave some prescient commentary about a young LeBron James, saying that people are just waiting for the right time to start hating him. That moment has come for Giannis.
Giannis has three roads ahead of him. He can keep being a loyal soldier and lose. He can stay and demand changes in the Bucks organization. Or he can try to win somewhere else. It’s a no-win situation when it comes to his reputation. That’s the price of stardom. It’s a lesson that all of his peers had to learn the hard way.
Giannis’s Twitter bio reads “Family - Loyalty - Legacy.” But an NBA franchise, no matter how much it might say otherwise, is not actually a family. It’s a business. It has to earn the loyalty of its players. And that loyalty can be lost, too. It’s time for Giannis to take his career into his own hands.