The NBA officially announced its plan to return from its coronavirus pause Thursday, and the Warriors' season ended as a result with only 22 teams heading to Disney World to complete the season.
With Golden State's season now over, the Warriors can turn their attention to the future. They hope Giannis Antetokounmpo is a part of, no matter how confusing the cap gymnastics are to get him into a Warriors jersey. But the NBA's decision to return to play amid the pandemic could ultimately prove to hurt the Warriors in their chase for the reigning NBA MVP.
When the season went on hiatus, the Milwaukee Bucks had the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference all but secure and Antetokounmpo appeared primed to repeat as NBA MVP. Antetokounmpo has gone on record saying he'd love to stay in Milwaukee for his entire career if the team continues on its trajectory toward the top of the NBA.
"My goal is going to stay the same: It's get better, take it day by day, step by step, and the ultimate goal is to win a championship," Antetokounmpo said last offseason. "As long as that we are all on the same page and we are all focused on that goal, why not play for the Bucks 20 years? Why not play 25 years? Why not, after playing, be a member of the coaching staff or a member of the front office? But we got to have the same goal. We got to have the same principles. ... We got to focus on winning a championship.
"I want to be a part of a winning team. As long as we have the same mindset and same approach to the game, there's no reason for me to move and not be like Steph [Curry], not be like Dirk [Nowitzki] or Kobe [Bryant] or Tim Duncan."
Antetokounmpo can sign an extension this summer worth around $247.3 million, a move many assumed he was primed to do if the Bucks didn't suffer a crushing playoff defeat before the NBA Finals.
Then, the pandemic hit and the league shut down. The New York Post's Marc Berman reported in May that the pandemic and paused season had made Antetokounmpo's NBA future less clear than it was when the Bucks were hurtling towards an Eastern Conference crown.
"Sources indicate the pandemic has changed things so drastically, it's hard to pinpoint Antetokounmpo's future plans," Berman wrote. "Who knows what could happen with next season's rosters -- potentially Antetokounmpo's last season in Brew City."
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A canceled NBA season would have been a hit to the Bucks' chances to re-sign Antetokounmpo and opened the door for further for the Warriors and other teams hoping to lure him away from Milwaukee.
Teams like the Warriors, Miami Heat and New York Knicks can offer Antetokounmpo something the Bucks can't -- a big city to star on a global stage. Those teams can offer Antetokounmpo lifestyle and off-the-court opportunities that Milwaukee can't match. In that regard, the Bucks are at a disadvantage when it comes to convincing Giannis to stay. The playoffs and the chance to win a title swing the pendulum all the way back in the Bucks' favor.
When the season was paused, everything was coming up Bucks. They were the best team in basketball and were cruising toward the 70-win mark. Questions still remained about their ability to win in the playoffs as currently constructed. Antetokounmpo's struggles from 3-point range allow teams to clog the paint and swarm him, forcing Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez and the like to beat them in a seven-game series.
Still, the Bucks were seen as title favorites along with the Los Angeles Lakers. With winning a title and being seen as one of the all-time greats holding paramount importance for Antetokounmpo, the Bucks were in the driver's seat as long as they didn't fall on their face in the playoffs.
A canceled season would have altered that equation irrevocably. It would have robbed the Bucks of a chance to prove they had surrounded Antetokounmpo with the talent needed to win a title and lord over the East for years to come. Missing out on the playoffs would have sent Antetokounmpo toward his walk year still unsure if he could consistently win in Milwaukee.
Antetokounmpo, of course, doesn't have to sign the extension this summer. He'll be a Buck next season regardless. But recent NBA history has shown us how that when a small-market superstar enters their walk year they more likely it is they end up being lured away by a shiny new team with new teammates in a bright, new city.
We've seen Anthony Davis turn down an extension with the New Orleans Pelicans. Paul George did the same to the Indiana Pacers. Obviously, Kevin Durant left the Oklahoma City Thunder when it came time for his second max. LeBron James (even though he eventually returned to Cleveland), Chris Bosh, Gordon Hayward, Kemba Walker, Al Horford, the list goes on.
The list of small-market superstars who choose to sign that second extension is much smaller, think Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard.
Most expect Antetokounmpo to join their ranks and make Cream City his forever NBA home. But the NBA playoffs are a big part of that selling point for the Bucks. They were acing their test so far, proving to have built a roster constructed for success around the MVP.
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Antetokounmpo's agent, Alex Saratsis, gave a telling statement on his client's mindset earlier this season.
"Obviously everybody talks about his impending free agency, and I think everything is open," Saratsis told WTJM-TV. "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.' But for him, staying is absolutely a viable option."
The "how the team does" part of that is the important piece. If the Bucks were to slip up in the playoffs before the NBA Finals and have some of the complementary parts around Antetokounmpo exposed for their flaws it could push him toward the exit. On the flip side, a run to The Finals, win or lose, almost assuredly pushes him to stay.
A canceled season would have robbed the Bucks of their greatest opportunity to sell Antetokounmpo that they should be his present and future NBA home. Missing out on an opportunity to win a title could have seriously harmed their chances of re-signing him. There's no telling what that total impact would have been but the Bucks could have suffered through no fault of their own.
With the NBA returning to Orlando, the Bucks will get their best shot to sell the face of their franchise on not bolting to team up with Steph Curry at Chase Center.
How Warriors' Giannis Antetokounmpo chase could be hurt by NBA return originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area