Just when you thought you’d had enough of “Does ______ really want to play in Toronto?” discussions, HoopsHype’s Alex Kennedy comes out with a controversial report regarding Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo. Kennedy claims to have spoken to multiple well-connected sources who believe that Antetokounmpo’s time with the Bucks is limited. This report means a lot of things, and I’ll unpack some of it, but there is one thing that it means above all else: the countdown to the free agent class of 2021 has officially begun.
If it seems unusual to be so interested in a player’s free agency three seasons in advance; that’s because it is. This is not a usual situation.
Take a closer look at Giannis Antetokounmpo, also known as “The Greek Freak”. What do you see? A gifted 23 year-old? A physical specimen? Just another in a long line of superstars getting hit with the “He’s definitely leaving to chase a ring” rumours?
That last part might be true, but Giannis is looking like far more than your typical superstar. In fact, he’s beginning to look like a meteor; one that is on-course to wipe out the NBA. When he (presumably) hits free agency in 2021, LeBron James will be 36; Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant will be 33; James Harden and Russell Westbrook will be 32, but Giannis will be 26. He’ll be entering the prime of his career.
There is a very clear path for Antetokounmpo to become the undisputed best basketball player in the world.
He was already circling around that conversation last season; averaging 26.9/10/4.8 (points/rebounds/assists) on a good 59.8 TS%. Through five seasons, he has increased his scoring output by 4-6 points every season. That’s not all. His rebounding and passing have seen incredible growth since his rookie season, and to top it all off, he has become a borderline All-NBA defender. All by the age of 23. The fact that there are facets of the game that he can still realistically improve upon is terrifying, and a testament to his mastery of the game’s nuances. Put him at the top of the list of “players that will devastate the league if they ever develop a jumpshot”, because man. It’s hard to comprehend just how great he could be.
Antetokounmpo’s presence as a superstar goes beyond the scoresheet. He’s already this year’s NBA 2K19 cover athlete. Last season’s leaping dunk over Tim Hardaway Jr. is already immortalized as one of the greatest dunks of all time. His decision to leave the Bucks, or not, will be felt across the NBA.
So where do the Toronto Raptors come in?
Giannis and Toronto
If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance that you already know about the intimate connection between Antetokounmpo and Toronto’s president; Masai Ujiri.
Masai personally helped Giannis’ family secure Greek citizenship, as mentioned in this Toronto Star article from Doug Smith. That’s the kind of relationship that transcends sport, and when combined with Masai’s unimpeachable reputation as a basketball executive; it’s hard not to get excited at the idea of Giannis in a Raptors jersey.
Still though, the Toronto Raptors can’t get ahead of themselves. When dealing with a superstar of this magnitude, a personal connection is only enough to get your foot in the door. Besides, Antetokounmpo has lived in Milwaukee for five years now. It is pretty likely that he has formed some deep bonds with the people there as well. Beyond his unique connection to Ujiri, there is virtually nothing that would indicate a connection between Giannis and the Raptors.
That clearly won’t stop Masai from trying, though.
Some might think that three years in advance is too soon to be preparing a pitch for a star player’s free agency. Masai Ujiri and the Toronto Raptors clearly do not subscribe to that line of thinking.
Organizing a (never-before-done at a Raptors game) Greek Heritage night, where 700 of Toronto’s Greek residents sing to Giannis after the game, is a very transparent way of showing him the kind of support he would receive if he played in Toronto. It’s an honourable act for the Greek community in the city regardless, but there were definitely some underlying intentions at work in that event.
For a long time, Giannis Antetokounmpo has been something of a golden goose for Masai Ujiri. Back when he was still the GM of the Denver Nuggets, it is reported that Ujiri “tried desperately to trade into the 2013 NBA draft to get a chance to take Antetokounmpo, who eventually went 15th overall to Milwaukee”. The following year, now the GM of the Toronto Raptors, Ujiri went off the board and took Bruno Caboclo at 20th overall.
In drafting Bruno, Masai was trying to find a Giannis Antetokounmpo. He’d failed to nab Giannis the year before, so he went out in 2014 and grabbed the kid who resembled him most. And keep in mind; Giannis was still seen as very raw at this time. He’d averaged less than seven points per game as a rookie, on pretty horrible efficiency. But his physical freakiness was enough for Masai to believe that he was the future of the NBA, and this led to Masai taking a huge swing on a physical specimen who’d just averaged less than five points per game in the Novo Basquete Brasil (NBB).
Well, we all know how that worked out. Giannis is beginning to look like one of the greatest basketball players of all time, and Bruno is still struggling to make it in the NBA. They represent the best and the worst outcome when drafting a player of their background.
Still, it all says a lot about Masai’s vision of the future for the NBA, and what kind of assets he values in a player. Drafting Pascal Siakam represented a somewhat, although not totally similar risk, that drafting Giannis or Bruno did.
I think it is pretty clear at this point that Giannis fits the mold of Masai’s dream NBA player. Unbelievably long, incredibly athletic, and exceptionally smart, with a world-class work ethic to top it all off. A true freak of nature. It is very evident as to why Masai has wanted him for so long.
Kawhi Leonard’s Role
At this point in the article you’ve been reading about Giannis Antetokounmpo for so long that you might have forgotten one fact: Kawhi Leonard is a Toronto Raptor. And while I’m not a fan of ascribing significance to everything he does (did you hear he smiled today?), his fate in Toronto will have an undeniable impact on the Raptors’ chances of acquiring Giannis.
In a February interview, Giannis made some shockingly honest statements about his future with the Milwaukee Bucks. The gist of it is this: He’d like to win a championship in Milwaukee, but he can’t do it by himself, and the Bucks’ organization needs to make the right moves to surround him with a championship team.
Firstly, I love that statement. While superstar departures are usually shrouded in negativity and misinformation, Giannis is being totally upfront about what his desires are. And his main desire is to win. That’s the kind of player I want on my team. Secondly, as a fan of a team who has just acquired Kawhi Leonard, it’s hard not to imagine how those two would line up together.
If Kawhi commits longterm to Toronto, Masai is going to have a formidable free agency pitch for Giannis.
Beyond the promise of a similarly talented superstar to play with, it seems that the Raptors are going to be bleeding cap space in 2021. Every player on the team, save Norman Powell, is off the books by 2020. Is that a coincidence? Maybe. But I think it’s pretty clear that Masai has committed on shorter term, higher money deals for players like Lowry and Ibaka for a reason. Whether that reason is to rebuild, or to land a big fish in free agency, is yet to be determined.
Too Early to Count on it
The idea of Giannis in a Raptor’s uniform is something that is way too early to be getting excited about. A lot can change in the next three years, and quite frankly, there’s no guarantee that Giannis ever makes it to free agency. It wouldn’t surprise me if he didn’t. You’d have to think that the Bucks would trade him if they felt that he won’t re-sign with them. Even if he does make it to free agency, and even if Kawhi stays and all the other stars align, there’s no guarantee that there won’t be a better offer elsewhere.
But the Giannis saga is definitely still something worth keeping an eye on, at least in the back of your mind.
Masai Ujiri has done a lot of work to at least keep a lane open to acquire Giannis at some point. And I don’t think it’s necessarily because he expects to have the upper hand in signing him. I think he just knows that wherever Giannis Antetokounmpo lands, stars and championships are likely to follow. The Toronto Raptors are just getting ready to shoot their shot.