His was already the most anticipated free agency in the NBA but last week’s suspension of league play because of the coronavirus pandemic has added some new wrinkles to the coming saga of Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“I would say it is not helpful to them,” one league executive told Heavy.com this week. “You’d still have to consider them the favorite to keep him. But anything that comes out of the ordinary like this, you don’t want to see that. They’re in a great position but this is not helpful.”
Milwaukee has made re-signing Antetokounmpo its laser focus since he signed his first post-rookie contract in 2016, a deal that would keep him under contract until the 2021 offseason. The team has built a new downtown arena and practice facility, hired coach Mike Budenholzer, paid out a max contract to Khris Middleton and pulled together the best team in the Eastern Conference, all of which should make a strong case for him to stay with the team long-term.
As general manager Jon Horst said in a Bucks town hall late last summer, “First of all, the answer for now is that we can’t talk and negotiate anything. So Giannis, basically, a year from now will be eligible for a supermax extension. At that time, of course, he will be offered a supermax extension.”
But other teams have been diligent about protecting 2021 cap space in hopes of luring Antetokounmpo away from Milwaukee. Miami and Toronto are among them, as are the Knicks and Spurs.
Most significant, though, could be the Lakers, who would be able to take on Antetokounmpo with LeBron James and Anthony Davis if James took a slight pay cut in his next contract. Antetokounmpo’s brother, Kostas Antetokounmpo is currently a two-way player for the Lakers and, at this year’s All-Star break, Antetokounmpo was asked about playing with his brothers (his older brother Thanasis is a teammate with the Bucks).
“I think that’d be amazing,” Giannis said. “Obviously we’d spend more time together. I’m 100 percent sure my mom would love that. But if we could end up on a team in Milwaukee, L.A. whatever, that’d be awesome.”
Playoffs Could Firm Up Antetokounmpo’s Desire to Stay
The first new obstacle the Bucks are facing is the possible loss of the postseason. As it stands, the Bucks have 17 games remaining on their schedule and the league is not expected to restart until June—if at all. Milwaukee has the best record in the NBA at 53-12, 2.5 games better than the Lakers. That means that the Bucks are set up to have homecourt advantage in the playoffs throughout.
Conventional wisdom around the NBA has held that Antetokounmpo’s willingness to sign with the Bucks would be linked to how the team performs this postseason. The Bucks were the No. 1 seed last season but failed to reach the NBA Finals and have not had much success, even at home, in the playoffs in Antetokounmpo’s tenure.
In playoff appearances over four seasons with Antetokounmpo, the Bucks have gone 9-7 at home. That includes 0-3 against Toronto in the Eastern Conference finals last season. While it’s a positive that the Bucks have the best record in the league, having homecourt has not been enough to carry them in previous postseasons.
This year was an opportunity for the Bucks to throw off the weight of past playoff failures. If the league does not go through with the postseason, that opportunity will have been lost and Antetokounmpo would only be able to wonder how well his team might have played in the playoffs.
There’s also the danger of a loss of momentum. Though Antetokounmpo was dealing with injury at the time of the season suspension, the Bucks were still well-established as the best team in the NBA. Will they be able to pick up where they left off after a hiatus?
Coronavirus Suspension Could Cut Salary Cap
The other new obstacle for the Bucks is the uncertainty of what Antetokounmpo can earn on a new contract. As an MVP winner, he is eligible for the league’s supermax, which allows his deal to start at 35 percent of the salary cap rather than 30 percent. He could sign that contract as an extension after this season.
As former Nets executive and ESPN analyst Bobby Marks pointed out, the league’s payroll was projected to be $125 million for 2020-21 but with the NBA expected to take on huge losses, especially if the season is canceled (there will be losses still even if it is played), that number is very much in flux. A likely outcome is that the NBA and union agree to hold the cap steady at the current number, $109 million.
At $125 million, Antetokounmpo’s extension with the Bucks figured to be worth $253 million over five seasons. If he signed elsewhere with a $125 million cap, he could only take four years and would be paid $161 million.
At $109 million, Antetokounmpo could take a supermax worth about $221 million over five years. If he left to sign elsewhere, he could get $141 million.
Will that matter much? Hard to say. Certainly, the less difference there is between the amount he can get by re-signing with the Bucks and the amount he can get signing elsewhere is beneficial to teams outside Milwaukee. With a normal projected cap, that difference would be $92 million. But with flat $109 million cap, it would be $80 million. Still significant, but less when you factor in that one is a four-year deal and the other is for five years.
All in all, the coronavirus suspension might not hurt the Bucks. But it is not helping them, either. And for the Heat, Raptors, Spurs, Knicks and Lakers, that helps keep some hope alive.