The longer Giannis Antetokounmpo allows his supermax contract extension offer to sit unsigned, the more optimistic teams will become about the possibility of prying the two-time reigning NBA MVP away from the Milwaukee Bucks in 2021 free agency, and a handful of likely suitors are already planning his exit strategy.
Antetokounmpo has pledged his loyalty to the Bucks, so long as they remain committed to (and capable of) building a championship roster around him. General manager Jon Horst bolstered Milwaukee’s rotation, but not without some embarrassment. Whether or not Antetokounmpo signs his quarter-billion-dollar extension will tell us whether Horst and company did enough this offseason to earn his faith in their longterm viability.
It has to be of some concern that Antetokounmpo has yet to commit in the wake of Milwaukee’s failed pursuit of Bogdan Bogdanovic, especially after Horst invested his first-round draft assets through 2027 in the acquisition of All-Star guard Jrue Holiday. According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, “the Bucks have gone from cautiously optimistic to cautiously confident” that Antetokounmpo will stay, whatever that means.
Antetokounmpo does seem like the sort of superstar who could spend his entire career in one location, but it is all speculation without a signature. While the Bucks are trying to move mountains in order to secure Antetokounmpo’s extension, a number of teams have been operating as if that extension will never come.
Here are five realistic landing spots if Antetokounmpo enters free agency, ranked by entertainment value.
Windhorst also suggested that Anthony Davis might be waiting on word from Antetokounmpo. Davis has yet to re-sign with the Los Angeles Lakers, if only because he is weighing his options on the nature of his max deal. One possibility is signing a two-year deal with a player option for the second season that would allow both Davis and LeBron James to enter free agency in 2021 — and recruit Antetokounmpo to L.A.
That seems wildly optimistic, to borrow Windhorst’s sliding scale, and not just because of the discounted salaries and salary cap mechanics it would require. Fielding three of the five best players in the league on the same team would make the Lakers a heavy championship favorite, but at what cost to their legacies?
James may have transcended criticism for orchestrating superstar pairings with his fourth title on a third team, but Antetokounmpo is still pursuing greatness earnestly. Joining James and Davis on a team that has already won would earn him the same respect Kevin Durant received for joining the Golden State Warriors.
4. New York Knicks
There would be no greater adoration than that of New York Knicks fans for whichever superstar restores respectability in Madison Square Garden. Who knows if that holds any value to Antetokounmpo, who was a five-year-old in Athens, Greece, when last the Knicks made the Finals. The allure of being a godsend in New York has yet to appeal to a generation of players who have witnessed nothing but instability on the Knicks.
But the Knicks are operating under a new regime. Former agent turned president of basketball operations Leon Rose and power broker turned executive vice president William Wesley are no strangers to recruiting, and their patience in free agency this year kicks the can to 2021, when a host of All-Stars will be available.
Not only can the Knicks offer New York as a basketball stage, but Antetokounmpo would have the chance to sculpt the roster as he sees fit. They are the blank-slate option. New York will have enough cap space for Antetokounmpo to pick the available co-star of his choice and possibly even enough to recruit a third star.
3. Toronto Raptors
Toronto Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri has long had eyes for Antetokounmpo. He reportedly helped the Antetokounmpos secure Greek citizenship as Nigerian immigrants before trying to trade up in the 2013 draft for Giannis. Antetokounmnpo has always been Ujiri’s post-Kawhi Leonard plan.
The Raptors fully operated this offseason with the intent of creating max cap space in 2021. According to The Athletic’s Blake Murphy, they did not offer a guaranteed second year to either Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka, instead signing Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher to one-year deals with club options for a second season. OG Anunoby’s rookie extension has also been put on hold to ensure max flexibility next offseason.
Toronto is built to complement a superstar, just not built as soundly as they were for Leonard in 2018-19. Gone are Gasol and Ibaka. In order to clear cap space for Antetokounmpo, Kyle Lowry will have to enter unrestricted free agency, and Norman Powell must decline his player option. Ujiri has a proven track record, and the trust he has built with Antetokounmpo would have to be the foundation of his free-agency pitch.
2. Miami Heat
President of basketball operations Pat Riley is always a threat to lure superstars to his Miami Heat. He paired Shaquille O’Neal with Dwyane Wade in 2004 and recruited both James and Chris Bosh to South Beach six years later. Last year’s signing of Jimmy Butler was supposed to be a stepping stone to the Heat’s next super-team in 2021, and Riley’s roster work helped them reach the Finals ahead of schedule.
The Heat hold 2021 team options on everyone they have signed since Butler, including Goran Dragic, Andre Iguodala, Meyers Leonard and Avery Bradley. They also let Jae Crowder and Derrick Jones Jr. walk in free agency for multi-year deals elsewhere, just to maintain the flexibility to sign Antetokounmpo next summer. They will have to get a lot more creative if they indeed plan to extend All-Star center Bam Adebayo this offseason, as has been reported, but Riley has worked that cap magic before, most recently with Butler.
They will pitch Antetokounmpo — famous for his work ethic — on the culture that spurred an underdog to this year’s Finals and the notion that he would be the missing piece to Riley’s next championship roster.
1. Dallas Mavericks
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban seemingly whiffs in free agency every year, even as he built a perennial 50-win team that brought a championship in 2011. Even when they did secure an agreement from DeAndre Jordan in 2015, the end result of an infamous fiasco was the same. It is a somewhat strange phenomenon for a franchise well known to take care of its stars and provide state-of-the-art facilities for the entire roster.
This year was no different for the Mavs, who were reportedly intent on adding a third star. Their eyes turn to 2021, when Cuban once again anticipates chasing a big fish to join the two he acquired by draft and trade.
His pitch to Antetokounmpo would be an intriguing one. In Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, the Mavs feature two of the best international players alive. By adding Antetokounmpo, the team on which Dirk Nowitzki paved the way for all three European stars would become the hub of global interest in the sport.
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