For the Bucks, the encounter with the NBA’s bubble-environment restart could not have gone much worse. They went 3-5 in what were mostly meaningless seeding games to close out the season, got past the injury-ravaged Magic in the first round of the playoffs and put up a dud of a conference semifinal performance against the Heat, dropping the first three games, losing star Giannis Antetokounmpo to an ankle injury in a Game 4 win and bowing out unceremoniously in Game 5.
The Bucks’ misfortune, though, could mean a significant boon for the rest of the league—and the Lakers, even as they chase a championship in Orlando, are among the teams at the top of that list.
That’s because Antetokounmpo is slated to become a free agent after the 2020-21 season and is expected to be one of the most anticipated players to hit the market in at least a decade, going back to the frenzy of the summer of 2010, when LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were free agents.
There’s still a full season before Antetokounmpo lands on the free-agent pile. But he will give an indication about his willingness to return to Milwaukee, after a third straight season of postseason disappointment (the Bucks were eliminated in the first round in 2018, the conference finals in 2019 and in the semis this year), in the offseason when he is eligible to sign a contract extension.
If he does not, the Bucks can either sweat out the season and hope to re-sign him next year, or they can begin fielding trade offers for Antetokounmpo, and the Warriors could pursue him that way.
Warriors fans watching Giannis and the Bucks make another postseason exit: pic.twitter.com/GcZitTXIDm
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) September 9, 2020
“If they go the trade route, the team that probably can create the best package is Golden State,” one league executive told Heavy.com. “He’d be an ideal fit with the Warriors. But if he is holding out for free agency, you have to think the Lakers are the favorite. The Lakers will jump right on him.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo Supermax Contract in Question
All is not lost for Milwaukee. Antetokounmpo is unlikely to ask for or demand a trade in the offseason, especially because he missed the close of the series with the ankle injury and he would not want to close his Milwaukee career that way. But the Bucks can offer the most money of any team in the running for Antetokounmpo.
The Bucks can, and will, offer him a supermax contract, a special deal carved out for teams hoping to re-sign players who have won the MVP or the Defensive Player of the Year award, or have been named to the All-NBA first team. Last year, ESPN’s Bobby Marks, a former Nets executive, projected that Antetokounmpo’s deal would land around five years, $247 million, potentially making it the richest contract in league history.
That was before the COVID-19 pandemic, though. The league has taken a significant financial hit with the season being played out without fans in the stands and that will affect how much Antetokounmpo can be offered. The value of max contracts is tied to the size of team salary caps, and those come directly from the total income of the league.
The NBA lost out on playing more than one-quarter of its games in front of fans, and all of the postseason is being played without an audience. In fact, the league is paying a significant amount to finish the season at Disney World.
If the value of the supermax contract that the Bucks can offer Antetokounmpo suffers because of the hit to the salary cap, he might be more inclined not to sign it, at least not until the league’s financial picture is clearer.
Lakers Have Antetokounmpo as a 2021 Target
The Lakers are among the teams best set up to make a run at Antetokounmpo in 2021, if he makes it to free agency. Assuming James opts out for the year, L.A. has no one on their books for 2021, though they could wind up with some commitments, including their 2020 first-round pick, a possible extension for forward Kyle Kuzma, and/or a new contract for Anthony Davis in the coming months.
Even with those deals, the Lakers probably would have enough money to sign Antetokounmpo and bring back James as a free agent with Bird Rights (which allow teams over the salary cap to bring back their own players). They may have to trade Kuzma to make that happen.
Imagine a Big Three of James, Davis and Antetokounmpo. Yikes.
The Heat are also said to have a plan for a run at Antetokounmpo. The Warriors would be willing to trade this year’s No. 2 pick and more for Antetokounmpo. Other teams will get involved, but those are shaping up to be the top contenders in the Antetokounmpo sweepstakes.
It will help, too, that the Lakers currently employ two-way player Kostas Antetokounmpo, the younger brother of Giannis. Back in February, remember, Antetokounmpo discussed in an interview how much he would like to play alongside his brothers (his older brother, Thanasis, plays for the Bucks now). “In Milwaukee, in L.A., wherever,” he said.
Of course Giannis would love to team up with his brothers. That's no surprise. But in Milwaukee….or L.A.?!?! pic.twitter.com/07YLE1R2di
— USA TODAY Sports (@usatodaysports) February 17, 2020
That means little in determining exactly where Antetokoumpo will play next, but L.A. does appear to be his top option outside of Milwaukee. He is No. 1 on the Lakers’ free-agent board, too. There will be others available—Gordon Hayward, Victor Oladipo, Bradley Beal, Jrue Holiday—but Antetokounmpo is the top prize.