For the better part of the past decade, Toronto Raptors fans have longed to see Giannis Antetokounmpo don the red and white colours of the North. What began as a pipe dream with photoshopped images circulating Twitter, and fans stirring up stories of how the Greek Freak might appreciate Toronto’s cultural diversity on Reddit, may finally be inching towards fruition.
The Milwaukee Bucks, who held the best regular season record in the NBA for the second consecutive season, have once again been eliminated prematurely from The Playoffs – something that’s become a norm for their franchise. The disappointment of constantly being pushed back to the bottom of the mountain hangs heavy over their star player’s head.
When asked about his thoughts on the Bucks’ time in the bubble, Giannis responded, “Hopefully, we can learn from this and get better as a team… come back and hopefully build a culture in Milwaukee for many years that we can come out here and compete every single year for a championship.”
While his words would lead one to believe that he plans to play in Milwaukee forever, other superstars have echoed similar tones before ultimately realizing their reality, and leaving their small market team for a better chance at competing for a championship.
One lingering question this postseason will be what the Bucks’ fate could have been if Giannis were healthy. Antetokounmpo aggravated his ankle injury in Game 4 against the Miami Heat, and was held out for the entirety of Game 5. Though it’s unlikely that his presence would have enabled the Bucks to become the first team in NBA history to complete a comeback from a 3-0 series deficit, they may have been able to force the series to a less embarrassing 6 games.
The MVP had his struggles in the Second Round with all five Heat defenders keyed in on his every move, causing him to post averages of just 21.8 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game on 50.8% shooting from the field, and 21.4% from behind the arc. While not abominable stats for any player, Antetokounmpo knows that he has to play better if he wants to give his team a chance of winning.
And that unto itself is part of the problem: the Bucks have a strong supporting cast, featuring the likes of a two-time All-Star in Khris Middleton, and two All-Defensive Second-Teamers in Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez. Unfortunately, their list of positives would seem to end at the defensive side of the court. The Bucks starters outside of Giannis shot 36.4% from three-point range this season, which is a mere 0.7% above the league average. With a player like Giannis who is able to get into the paint and collapse opponents’ defenses so easily to find teammates for open looks, his supporting cast should be shooting much better. At the end of the day though, there’s only so much offense that you can get out of Eric Bledsoe and Wesley Matthews.
Enter the Malcolm Brogdon predicament. The 2017 NBA Rookie of the Year was the Bucks’ clear third best player in the 2018-2019 season, shooting a blistering 42.6% from three-point range, and serving as one of the team’s top perimeter defenders, in addition to contributing 15.6 points and 3.2 assists per game. With great size for a combo guard, and a strong postseason performance, he was due to command a large contract in the free agent market last summer. It would be up to the Bucks ownership if they wanted to match any contract offer Brogdon received to keep the budding star in Milwaukee and contend for a championship, or let him walk.
Wes Edens and Marc Lasry – the hedge fund tycoons turned basketball team owners – made the latter choice. Brogdon signed a four-year, $85-million deal with the Indiana Pacers, and went on to have the best season of his career. He co-led the Pacers to a 45-28 season, and even secured a few All-Star votes.
On the other side of the fence, the Bucks settled on signing a couple of seasoned veterans in Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver, who they hoped would be able to replace a majority of Brogdon’s production for a fraction of the price. In the regular season, they did that to perfection, but nobody wants to be known as a regular season team. Raptors fans would be happy to vouch for that.
Whether having Brogdon on this year’s squad would have moved the needle enough to alter the Bucks’ fate remains unknown, however refusing to match Indiana’s offer certainly made one thing clear. Edens and Lasry signaled to Giannis loud and clear that they were not going to empty their pockets and pay the luxury tax for a better chance to win a championship.
Now, their team is on the clock. Giannis Antetokounmpo is on the verge of reaching the peak of his powers, and unfortunately, loyalty doesn’t win championships like it did in the 90’s. It’s time for Giannis to demand more from the people around him, or make his intentions clear for next summer, unless he wants to go down as one of the biggest “what if” stories that the NBA has ever had.
Last year, Milwaukee blew a 2-0 series lead to Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors, and they allowed their roster to worsen in the offseason. This year, they dug themselves into an unrecoverable hole against the Miami Heat. Now, they could find themselves on the brink of an abyss. Bucks General Manager Jon Horst is sitting on a ticking time bomb, and he’ll need to make some big moves this fall in what may be the most pivotal offseason in franchise history.
Giannis has already declared to the media since last night’s loss that he does not intend to request a trade before he hits unrestricted free agency next summer. That gives the Bucks options as to what they can do from here, minus one. They can’t afford to run it back with the same group.
One rumour circulating the NBA stratosphere is that the Bucks may look to make a trade for the 35-year-old Chris Paul, according to New York Times’ Marc Stein. After the Oklahoma City Thunder mutually split ways with their highly coveted head coach, Billy Donovan, they have gestured to teams that they are heading into rebuild mode. The first item on the agenda for them will be to recoup as much value as they can for their only All-Star player.
Pairing Paul with Antetokounmpo would take pressure off Giannis in the halfcourt offense. Paul is one of the best facilitators to ever play the game, so he could dominate the ball handling duties, allowing Giannis to get more easy baskets as a cutter, driving off the catch, or even as the screener in the pick-and-roll. It’s unclear what assets Milwaukee would have to part with to match Paul’s incoming salary, while also providing the Thunder with an interesting enough package of young prospects and picks to intrigue them in a discussion, however a duo of CP3 and Giannis would definitely contend in the Eastern Conference.
Contending may still not be enough to keep the Greek Freak in Wisconsin, however. Next year might just be championship or bust for Milwaukee, which is one aspect that might stray the Bucks away from dealing for the 35-year-old point guard who sits on a monstrous contract through the 2021-2022 season.
Last October, reports surfaced from a Harvard University case study that if the Bucks underperform, Giannis’ decision to stay in Milwaukee becomes “a lot more difficult”. Underperformed they have, and should they fall short of an NBA Title once again in the 2020-2021 campaign, it’s going to be a free-for-all bidding war over one of the best players to ever play this game.
Last week, Yahoo’s Senior NBA Writer, Vincent Goodwill, reported that it’s an “open secret” within the bubble that the Raptors and Heat will be frontrunners to sign Giannis if he decides to leave Milwaukee, with the Dallas Mavericks supposedly trailing as a close third option.
Basketball-wise, a move to Dallas would make the most sense for the Giannis. A big three of Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis, and the Greek Freak would tear up the league for the next decade, and Mark Cuban would be more than willing to pay the luxury tax to keep his dynasty intact.
However, while Giannis cares about winning as much as anybody, he also places importance on family. Family is what would lead him to Toronto.
Raptors president, Masai Ujiri, has a long history with the Antetokounmpo’s. When Ujiri was just beginning his career as an NBA front office prodigy, he helped the Antetokounmpo family immigrate from Nigeria to Greece so that they could be with Giannis as he began his journey towards an illustrious basketball career.
Years later when Giannis was ready to make his leap to the NBA, Ujiri saw something in his lanky 6’11 family friend that few other scouts or general managers did: the rare potential to become an NBA superstar. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Ujiri tried desperately to trade into the 2013 NBA draft to make Antetokounmpo a Raptor, but was unable to get a deal done at a reasonable price.
Eight summers afterward, Masai might have another chance to lure his Giannis to the Danforth. Surely, one of the strongest parts of Masai’s pitch will be the miracles that they’ll be able to work for basketball in Africa together. Both Ujiri and Antetokounmpo are originally from Nigeria, and both are passionate about growing the game of basketball back home, not only because of the untapped potential that the players there possess, but for the sake of building stronger and safer communities on the foundation of sports.
Earlier in the year, when Masai Ujiri’s documentary, Giants of Africa, was airing on ESPN, Giannis was one of the first to let the world know via Twitter.
Giants of Africa 🙏🏽 on ESPN right now!! Check it out
— Giannis Ugo Antetokounmpo (@Giannis_An34) June 25, 2020
Masai was also one of the first people to debunk Giannis’ Greek Freak nickname, telling reporters in 2019, “Giannis not Greek, he is Nigerian.”
Giannis seems to have embraced his African roots since then, building an all-African frontcourt in this year’s All-Star game as one of the team captains, first selecting the Cameroonian Joel Embiid, and later on taking Pascal Siakam. Masai may be looking to imitate Giannis’ desire to play with an all-African frontcourt with the Toronto Raptors, by trying to surround Antetokounmpo with the likes of Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Serge Ibaka.
It’s not just a one-way obsession that Masai has with Antetokounmpo too. Giannis hasn’t been afraid to speak candidly in public about his strong relationship with Ujiri, as is shown from this clip from an interview during the 2019 postseason:
Ultimately, we’re still one more Milwaukee Bucks postseason collapse away from Giannis shifting his attention to playing elsewhere. Whether it’s the appeal of reuniting with Masai, playing with his “African brothers”, as he calls them, in Toronto, contending for a championship in one of the NBA’s most elite organizations, or feeling like he’s back in Greece by living on the Danforth in Toronto, the Raptors are right in the mix to land Antetokounmpo if he decides to part ways with Milwaukee.
After last night’s crushing Bucks loss, Raptors fans’ dreams have become realistic hopes. One more disappointing basketball season in Wisconsin, and those hopes may just turn into reality.