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Giannis Antetokounmpo's forever threat
Giannis makes clear he'll weigh the Bucks' future around him when deciding on an extension. Even if he signs, the pressure won't end there.
Good morning. Let’s basketball.
Eye in Eye; Edvard Munch; 1894
As I mentioned in Monday’s subscriber-only newsletter, Giannis Antetokounmpo made some significant waves in an interview with the New York Times’ Tania Ganguli published over the weekend. In it, Giannis continues to say that he wants to remain with the Milwaukee Bucks for his entire career. But he also issues a direct threat that he will leave when his current contract ends if he does not feel that the Bucks are positioning themselves to be a top title contender with him. He is explicitly stating what’s intuitively known: that he will not be satisfied with the single NBA championship ring he has won in Milwaukee. He wants more, even if it takes leaving the Bucks to get them.
On the surface, this puts immense pressure on the 2023-24 Bucks, who brought back Khris Middleton (who turns 33 in a couple weeks and has struggled with physical health since the title) and Brook Lopez (now 35). This was a maintenance offseason for the Bucks. The priority was retaining Middleton and Lopez, whether because the vision is that the lasting core of the Bucks with Giannis in the middle is enough to win a championship, or because there was no path to replacing those two key players if they were lost.
The biggest, most auspicious change for the Bucks was firing Mike Budenholzer and hiring first-time head coach Adrian Griffin to replace him. Counterintuitively, there is a rich recent history of first-year head coaches leading their teams to a title: Steve Kerr with the Warriors, Ty Lue with the Cavaliers, Nick Nurse with the Raptors, Frank Vogel (who had prior head coaching experience) with the Lakers. But there are also examples of coaching changes by contenders going awry (the Joe Mazzulla experience in Boston is freshest in the collective mind).
Giannis was consulted in the Griffin hiring, which is nice for Griffin. It doesn’t mean anything if this doesn’t go well. Giannis clearly has fondness for Jrue Holiday, for Middleton, for Lopez. It means nothing if this season goes sideways. And while the Bucks have had valid excuses in falling short before and after the championship in 2021, it doesn’t seem based on the arc of NBA superstar practice in recent years that even valid excuses will prevent disruption.
If you believe Giannis to be different than other NBA superstars who have threatened their teams (explicitly or implicitly) to contend or watch them walk, then you should feel no fear that he will reject an extension next summer. The complication is that Giannis is telling you to fear that possibility. He’s telling the Milwaukee Bucks to fear that possibility.
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And here’s the rub created by all these superstars who sign contracts and then ask out — your Kevin Durants, your Damian Lillards, your option-pickup-trade-demand combo artists Kyrie Irving and James Harden: a contract extension will not ease the pressure on the Bucks. This is proven with current reality. If Damian Lillard, six months ago approaching grassroots sainthood in Portland, can ask out with years left on a lucrative contract and zero MVPs to his name, then surely Giannis can get disillusioned after inking a new deal and change his mind.
The pressure is on the Bucks to perform at an exceptionally high level this season. Even if they do, and it leads Giannis to sign an extension, the pressure will be on the Bucks to perform at an exceptionally high level the subsequent season lest Antetokounmpo decide the franchise’s best days are behind it. The pressure will be on the Bucks the following season, and the following season, and the following season, and forever, until Giannis actually leaves or requests out, or until his value dissipates.
This is the cost of having one of the greatest players in the world on your team. Beyond the $40 million a year and the roster spot for his brother, this is the price of an NBA superstar in the modern age: constant pressure with no end in sight.
And if you can’t handle, if you don’t want it? Twenty-nine other teams would grovel at your feet to take the burden. So it goes.
Team USA won again to move to 2-0. They have officially qualified for the second group stage, but they’d still like to beat up on 0-2 Jordan on Wednesday (4:40 AM Eastern). Austin Reaves is a contender for the All Tournament team.
The winner of Greece vs. New Zealand on Wednesday (8:40 AM Eastern) will move on to the second group stage along with Team USA. That group will also include Lithuania and Montenegro, who are in a tight battle as I write this. Team USA will need to beat both to guarantee a spot in the knockouts, though they could advance going 1-1 in Round 2. We’ll talk more about that path forward on Thursday.
Earlier this morning, the Dominican Republic took care of Angola to finish the first group stage undefeated. Karl-Anthony Towns played very limited minutes with foul trouble. That’s obviously the D.R.’s biggest downside risk going forward. Italy is likely to join the D.R. in the second group stage (Italy is currently leading the winless Philippines at halftime). Serbia and Puerto Rico (who face South Sudan and China respectively on Wednesday) seem poised to join them. Serbia vs. the Dominican Republic later this week should be a very big match.
On the other side of the bracket: Germany, Australia, Spain, Canada and Latvia have all clinched a spot in the second group stage, leaving three more spots available. Slovenia can clinch Wednesday with a win over Cape Verde (7:30 AM Eastern). Georgia advances with a Slovenia win plus a win of their own over Venezuela (4 AM Eastern). If Slovenia somehow loses, all hell breaks loose? The last spot will go to the winner of Brazil vs. Cote d’Ivoire on Wednesday (5:45 AM Eastern).
How the schedule works from here: Thursday and Saturday are losers’ group play games, and Friday and Sunday are the second group stage. So teams that been eliminated like France (who finally won a game Tuesday morning, beating Lebanon by six whole points with Rudy Gobert resting), Finland, Mexico, Japan and China will play some games to start sorting teams from finisher rank No. 17-32. This matters for Olympic qualification in some regions, wild card Olympic qualifying tournament participating and future World Cup qualification. The one team it doesn’t really matter for at this point is France, who is the Olympic host nation.
So Wednesday, Friday and Sunday are the important dates remaining this week, with all surviving 16 teams playing on both Friday and Sunday. Team USA will have big games both days, against their toughest competition in the tournament yet. Then there are no games Monday, quarterfinals games split between Tuesday and Wednesday, semifinals on the following Friday and the medal games on Sunday, September 10.
Canada vs. Latvia about to tip off as of the publication of this newsletter (tip at 9:30 AM Eastern). It’s an important game for seeding and survival going forward.
This is a helluva piece on Hip Hop at 50 from Jason England at Defector. In related news, I just finished Dan Ozzi’s SELLOUT, a deep dive into the paths to major labels for a set of bands in the independent punk, emo and hardcore scenes in 1990s and 2000s. Interesting intersections in what money does to culture.
The Angolan team’s Spanish coach is mad about Karl-Anthony Towns playing for the Dominican Republic? Am I hearing that correctly? I bet there are Angolan-born coaches who can do this guy’s job. So why is he taking those opportunities away?
Speaking of international eligibility intrigue, Marc Stein has some good stuff about The Bahamas and more.
A 16-year-old South Sudanese prospect named Khaman Maluach got 16 minutes of World Cup burn in his nation’s win on Tuesday. Third youngest player in FIBA World Cup history. He’s on track for the 2025 NBA Draft. This is a very short reel from NBA Africa but I like the fluidity I see.
This saltiness from World Champion sprinter Noah Lyles about the NBA referring to its champs as “World Champions” is only made more funny by how much offense various NBA players — including a large number of non-champions! — took to the take. It’s like one big ol’ pile of “U MAD?” on every side.
Alright, back on Thursday with a second group stage lookahead and maybe some more takes? Be excellent to each other.