It was approximately one year ago that Anthony Davis was playing for the New Orleans Pelicans and requested a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers to play with LeBron James under the bright lights of Hollywood. Davis was 17 months away from hitting unrestricted free agency, but he felt as though couldn’t afford to waste a season and a half of his prime playing for a team that perpetually struggled to make The Playoffs. Fast forward five months from then, and his wish was Pelicans’ General Manager, David Griffin’s command. Davis was granted a purple and gold jersey with his name on it, and the Pelicans received an unprecedented haul of picks and assets in return.
While Giannis Antetokounmpo is far from the disgruntled and frustrated superstar that Davis was a year ago at this time, his contractual position is identical. 17 months away from free agency, and eight months away from being faced with the decision of accepting or declining a supermax contract extension – which if he accepts, will make him the signee of the richest contract in NBA history. If the Bucks had been a losing team over past couple of seasons, Giannis trade rumours might have been swirling prior to this year’s trade deadline just as they were with AD a year ago.
Regardless, Antetokounmpo’s commitment level to the Bucks has been unclear. Like most superstars prior to their eventual departure from their team, Giannis has refrained from ever suggesting that he’ll be a Buck for life. Still, that’s not to say that he won’t ultimately opt to stay in Wisconsin. Milwaukee has the best record in the NBA at the moment, and if they go on to win a championship either this season or next, that would make his decision to leave drastically more difficult.
If in the alternative scenario, the Bucks come up empty in The Playoffs over the next couple seasons, the Greek (but also, Nigerian) Freak could look to test his value on the free agency market, which would shift the trajectory of multiple teams and shake the landscape of the NBA. It wouldn’t be the first time in the modern era that a superstar left his small-market franchise for the endorsement and investment opportunities in a bigger city – i.e., LeBron James moving from Cleveland to Miami, and subsequently from Cleveland to Los Angeles, Kevin Durant moving from Oklahoma City to San Francisco, and of course, Anthony Davis moving from New Orleans to Los Angeles as well.
Noncommittal to Milwaukee
Per Bleacher Report, Giannis’ agent, Alex Saratsis had the following to say regarding Giannis’ impending free agency just days ago:
“Obviously everybody talks about his impending free agency, and I think everything is open. I think he’s someone who could easily say, ‘I’d like to be in Milwaukee my entire career.’ I think he’s also someone who, depending on how the team does, could say, ‘I need a change.’”
To date, Giannis has yet to publicize a comment that would lead us to believe he’s leaning in either direction, which is what gives fans of opposing teams hope that Giannis could some day wear their team’s colours.
Masai’s attempt to trade for Giannis
Enter Masai Ujiri.
The coveted and highly respected Nigerian President of Basketball Operations for the Toronto Raptors has long been linked to Giannis Antetokounmpo, and their ties go back even further than Giannis’ entrance to the NBA.
It was draft night of 2013. Masai Ujiri was just over a month into his new job as the General Manager of the Toronto Raptors at the time. His African heir to the basketball world remained on the draft board approximately ten picks into the night, and Ujiri was desperately trying to work a deal to get into the draft and snatch up Antetokounmpo.
The Raptors had already traded their pick in that year’s draft to Houston in the Kyle Lowry trade, and Houston subsequently traded that pick to Oklahoma City in the James Harden deal. Ultimately, that pick converted into the 12th overall selection in the 2013 draft. The following is an excerpt from one of ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski’s podcasts in 2017:
“Masai had a deal in Toronto, I remember Masai was working with Oklahoma City on a possible trade. I think Oklahoma was at ten that year and they took Steven Adams. Ten or eleven or twelve, somewhere in there. And once Adams made it to the Thunder, there was no trade. But I think if Adams had gotten taken ahead of them, Oklahoma City may have traded out of there, and Toronto would’ve gotten [Giannis].”
If only Philadelphia had chosen Steven Adams over Michael Carter Williams, or even if Cleveland had taken the New Zealand native over Anthony Bennett, Giannis would have been drafted to the Raptors.
Masai’s transcendent relationship with Giannis
It’s no coincidence that Masai happened to be targeting the undervalued, overlooked phenom with African roots. As our own Evan Pelletier explains in his piece here from over a year ago, Ujiri helped Giannis’ family obtain Greek citizenship when they moved from Nigeria to Greece, which is ultimately what kickstarted Antetokounmpo’s illustrious basketball career. Their families have been in touch with each other since Giannis was a mere toddler.
Toronto’s Greek community
Sequentially, on January 2nd, 2018, Ujiri opted to host a Greek heritage night in Toronto as the Raptors hosted the Bucks. Unequivocally, this was Masai’s earliest attempt at showing Giannis how amazing and diverse of a city Toronto is. The event brought out the most eager basketball fans from the Danforth community, and provided them an exclusive invitation to hang around the stands after the game to greet their Greek hero. Antetokounmpo was left mesmerized by Toronto’s diversity and dedication to basketball, as is evident from the clip below.
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) January 2, 2018
Giannis even took the time to humbly address the Raptors crowd which celebrated his Bucks’ playoff elimination just eight months prior to then. Little did he know, that each of the next two years would yield the same result in The Playoffs, no matter how much better he or his team got. Year three: coming right up.
Obviously, the Raptors have been on Antetokounmpo’s mind. The Bucks can’t beat the Raptors, in the same way that the Raptors couldn’t beat LeBron James, but unluckily for Giannis, the Raptors won’t ever be leaving the Eastern Conference. You know how the proverb goes; “If you can’t beat them, join them.”
That, he just might.
Obviously, between January 2nd, 2018, and now, the Raptors organization was sidetracked by another superstar who came to town, by the name of Kawhi Leonard. He arrived, he put a banner in the rafters of Scotiabank Arena and dehydrated 2 million Canadians as they packed downtown Toronto for a championship parade, and then he left us with books devoid of DeMar DeRozan’s monstrous contract. Veni, Vidi, Vici. Raptors fans were happy, Kawhi was happy, and now it’s time for Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster to go poach another player of legendary status.
Ujiri’s dedication to winning
The Toronto Star’s Dave Feschuk got Raptors fans back on their toes immediately after Leonard’s departure by commenting on TSN’s Overdrive podcast that he believes Ujiri will turn his attention toward the 2021 free agency class, because “[Ujiri’s] not a guy who’s going to be happy with a team at his disposal that’s got a ceiling of a round or two – he’s done that; he’s been on that journey before; he’s not interested in that anymore.” This aligns pretty well with Ujiri’s pre-trade deadline interview in which he stated, “We’re going to die trying” to win another championship. Luring Giannis Antetokounmpo is exactly the type of thing that would entail “trying” to win another championship, as Feschuk goes on to suggest.
Marc Spears’ eerie October report
Quickly after the 2019-2020 NBA season tipped off, rumours of Giannis coming to Toronto began to exist outside the heads of optimistic Raptors fans. On October 25th, 2019, ESPN’s Marc Spears, stated, “I would put Toronto on a short list for Giannis to consider. You can’t leave money on the table, but when your his age, with his opportunities to make money off the court and get endorsements elsewhere, he could leave money on the table,” in reference to the fact that by coming to Toronto, Giannis would have to turn down his supermax extension from the Bucks, and sign a regular max contract with the North.
The quote is almost mystical coming from one of the NBA’s most credible insiders, especially given that it dropped just a couple of months after Giannis said, “For me personally, I would love for Kawhi to stay in the East and stay in Toronto, because I would love to go through the series [with them] again.” Is it that he wanted Kawhi to stay in Toronto so that Kawhi could beat him again… or is there an ulterior motive? Possibly… to play alongside Kawhi just a couple of years down the line. We’ll take the quote at face value, but it’s certainly unusual for a superstar who’s relatively unaffected by another star player’s move to comment on the situation, and even voice his preference.
Knicks going after Masai as a way of chasing Giannis
The Raptors’ ties with Giannis, and in particular, Ujiri’s ties with Giannis, became a national news story again in December of 2019 when the New York Knicks fired David Fizdale, and rumours began swirling that this was the beginning of the Knicks’ administrative teardown. The proposed prospect to lead them back to the promised land was Toronto’s very own, Masai Ujiri.
It’s obvious that any team would endeavour of hiring one of the best roster and cultural architects in the entire world of sports, but it was widely conspiracized that an enigmatic goal of trying to land Ujiri was in hopes that he could eventually lure Antetokounmpo to play for the Knicks too.
Just a couple of weeks ago, the next pieces of the Knicks’ reconstruction began to fall into place. New York fired veteran executive Steve Mills, and mere minutes later, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Masai Ujiri would become Knicks owner, James Dolan’s target to fill that void. NBA Twitter’s conspiracies were later confirmed by The Athletic’s Shams Charania, who said, “It’s believed that the Knicks feel that landing Ujiri will strengthen their chances at signing Giannis Antetokounmpo in free agency.”
Ultimately, Dolan was impatient, and did not want to wait for Masai’s contract to shore up after the 2020-2021 season, nor did he want to provide draft compensation to the Raptors for a chance to snatch up the 2011 NBA Executive of the Year right now. Instead he decided mimic the Lakers front office frame, and hire Leon Rose.
Regardless of where the Knicks went with their front office decisions, the whole saga is reassuring for Raptors fans to know that executives around the league are well-aware of Giannis’ relationship with Ujiri, and see it as a serious factor in Giannis’ decision when it comes to 2021 free agency.
Obviously, their relationship goes beyond basketball, and it’s entirety has been far from Masai doing some lowkey tampering.
Giannis publicly acknowledges his relationship with Masai
Giannis has shown Masai some love in the public eye at times as well. Prior to last year’s Eastern Conference Finals against Toronto, Giannis made it clear that he still cares about Masai, but that understandably, his focus at the moment was on beating the Raptors.
Toronto’s appeal to international players
Additionally, just a couple of months before Ujiri passionately clarified in a press conference that “Giannis is not Greek, Giannis is Nigerian”, Marc Spears did an extensive piece about how Antetokounmpo had expressed his desire to go back to his Nigerian roots, saying “I want to see where my family comes from, where my mom was raised, see my family, see where my dad was raised. That is very important. I hope my kids can do the same thing for me.” Antetokounmpo had his first child last week.
Toronto isn’t Nigeria, but it is arguably the most diverse city in the entire NBA, and the players around the league know it too.
Just weeks after the Charlotte Hornets traded for French forward Nicolas Batum back in 2015, ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported that “Batum would like to play in Toronto, a city that appeals to his international roots.” Guys like Batum and Antetokounmpo are less likely to care about the bright lights of Los Angeles, or New York when it comes to making their free agency decisions. They’re more likely to be open to moving to a destination like Toronto, and may even prefer it. Giannis already knows full-well of the Greek community in Toronto, but what he may not understand is that this city has everything he’s looking for, including a championship basketball team.
Just a couple of weeks ago, as Giannis and LeBron drafted their teams for the 2020 NBA All-Star game, Antetokounmpo upholded his love for Africa when he drafted his two “African brothers” second and fourth overall in the draft, being Joel Embiid, and Pascal Siakam. He also didn’t hesitate to draft Kyle Lowry as a reserve when he had the opportunity to do so, saying “He cost me a trip to The Finals last year, but he’s still a great guy” before making said selection.
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) February 7, 2020
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) February 7, 2020
When criticized over his first two selections, because admittedly, there were probably better options available on the board, Giannis explained that throughout his whole life, he had been an underdog, and that he wanted to pick guys similar to him. ‘Underdog’ has been a label attached to the Raptors since their inauguration. Want proof? Look at Masai Ujiri, who had to battle all odds and take inconceivable risks to find a job in the NBA. Look at Terence Davis Jr. – Mr. Make ‘Em Believe, or Fred VanVleet Sr. – Mr. Bet On Yourself. Look at Kyle Lowry, a 6-time NBA All-Star, and reigning Champion who is still disregarded by many when naming off the best point guards in the league. Look at Pascal Siakam, who was a 27th overall pick just a few years ago, and has worked his way to become an All-Star starter. The list goes on.
All-Star Game impressions
On the other hand, Antetokounmpo’s decision to draft Lowry was one which he would not regret. In the All-Star Game this past Sunday night with the newly introduced game format, fans watched one of the most exciting, star-studded fourth quarters of basketball ever. Arguably, the only reason why the team was in that game was because of Kyle Lowry, who was getting it done on both ends of the court. The Toronto Raptors were quick to play around on Twitter after Lowry completed a couple of lob passes to Giannis, and later, to Khris Middleton.
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) February 17, 2020
When the fourth quarter came around, Giannis opened up on the defensive end with multiple blocks, flying around the court and showing his team just how badly he wanted to win. Lowry was next to hop on that train which Giannis led, showing Antetokounmpo that he’s capable of riding shotgun. He sacrificed his body, and took charges against LeBron James and James Harden, making him the all-time All-Star Game leader in charges taken.
That same bulldog is going to be on the other side of the court from Giannis next week when the Bucks visit Toronto to play the Raptors in the teams’ first look at each other since last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. Expect fans to come out in full-force, and for Giannis to be reminded of just how amazing Toronto, its fans, and the Raptors are. If you have tickets to Tuesday’s game, and you don’t plan to get your tampering on, do Canada a favour, and sell your seat to someone who will lose their voice trying to recruit Giannis to Toronto.