How to talk about Giannis Antetokounmpo's future responsibly
We need to acknowledge the Bucks have done everything exactly right, whether Giannis leaves in 2021 or not.
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Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best basketball player in the world.
There is some quibbling over this now and then; I may even quibble over it now and then. Some will say that LeBron James holds the crown until it is forcibly taken off his head. I am a LeBron loyalist (top three all-time), but I think Giannis has passed him in the present.
Some will give the nod to Kawhi Leonard. Kawhi is a top-5 player and had one of the great playoff runs of all-time (which included beating Giannis). But a single playoff run does not a Best in the World make.
James Harden should be in the conversation based on his run of individual success, but Giannis outstrips him in total impact on the game.
When Steph Curry and Kevin Durant are healthy, they are in the conversation, too.
Right now, it certainly feels like it’s Giannis.
Photo by Keith Allison
Giannis is going to be an unrestricted free agent in 2021, just 18 months from now, unless he signs the Milwaukee Bucks’ inevitable supermax contract offer this summer.
The best basketball player in the world becoming an unrestricted free agent is an enormous deal! People are talking about it, including people on sports television. It will become more pervasive as we get into the playoffs and approach the summer, especially if Giannis isn’t talking about it or isn’t definitive in favor of Milwaukee when he does speak.
And honestly, we should be talking about it. Player decisions in free agency and “pre-agency” shape the entire league. The L.A. Lakers are No. 1 in the West thanks to LeBron’s free agent choice and Anthony Davis’s pre-free agency trade request. The L.A. Clippers were preseason title favorites because of free agency. Free agency and the draft — these are the two most important things that decide who wins and who loses. Giannis hitting unrestricted free agency for the first time would be a BFD.
It makes fans mad, of course! This is especially the case because the Bucks are so good, best team in the NBA. No one who roots for Milwaukee wants to talk or hear about how Giannis could abandon the team in 18 months instead of the chance Milwaukee could win a basketball championship for the first time since Kareem and Oscar in a few months. I don’t blame them. But asking ~the media~ to stop talking about Giannis’s future is like asking a hurricane to relax. Go ahead, ask and see where it gets you.
What ~the media~ could do to get all the attention economy benefits from talking about Giannis’s future without shortchanging his present is describe the situation as it stands: Antetokounmpo really has no reason basketball-related reason to leave the Bucks. Any choice to leave would be purely personal and off-the-court.
We see other top players use the “winning” argument to justify their free agent flight, if they try to justify it at all. LeBron went to Miami to win titles. Anthony Davis orchestrated a trade to L.A. (with the threat of free agency in the air) to join a contender after years of mediocrity in New Orleans. Kevin Durant went to Golden State to build a legacy with rings. That argument doesn’t exist for Giannis or those promoting the chance that he could leave. Giannis is winning at the highest level on a team tailor-made for him. That should be acknowledged when talking about teams like the New York Knicks wanting to chase Giannis. Show the Bucks some respect for being the best team in the league. Acknowledge what a great job they’ve done to convince Giannis they can build him a champion.
Some other players leave the winning argument off the table and simply make personal or family-based decision to move to glamour markets. Milwaukee will never win this argument against Los Angeles or Miami. Giannis isn’t like Paul George or Kawhi in that he didn’t grow up in an NBA city — Antetokounmpo can’t really “go home” in free agency. But certainly there are NBA cities who would love to poach Giannis to their more cosmopolitan settings, including L.A., Miami, San Francisco, New York and Toronto. It’s not an insult to Milwaukee that there’s some non-zero chance Giannis will be attracted by the allure of those cities.
But it should be stated plainly now, whenever this topic is broached: if Giannis were to fall in love with the idea of playing in Madison Square Garden or STAPLES Center or Chase Center, it would be that and not anything the Bucks or Milwaukee have done wrong that led to his flight. The Bucks have done everything right — delivered exactly what Giannis has always said was important. You can’t blame them for not being able to deliver 12 months of sunshine or the Splash Brothers or South Beach.
The only way to be fair to the Bucks and Bucks fans when talking about Giannis’s future is to acknowledge that the Bucks have Giannis now and are on track to compete for a title, that the Bucks have really good odds to keep Giannis if we take Giannis at his word that winning championships is most important, and that if Giannis were to leave for another franchise in free agency, it would be for personal reasons and not anything the Bucks failed to do.
This is all quite clear, and keeping these facts front of mind when discussing one of the most consequential free agency runways in the past decade should be easy. Practice responsible rumormongering!
Here Comes Zion
me: I’m really glad the Pelicans have been methodical and unemotional when determining the plan for Zion Williamson to make his season debut on January 22 given the importance of his long-term health to the future of the franchise and perhaps the league.
also me: Come on, Pelicans — you play against Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies on TNT on January 21 as a part of the MLK Day national T.V. slate! You can’t bump up the debut one day?!
Good Morning It’s Sekou
Your regular Sekou Doumbouya Watch: 24 points on 10-13 shooting in a surprising win over the Celtics in the blue and red Motor City alternates.
Magic 119, Lakers 118 — The mighty Lakers have fallen. Markelle Fultz closed it down late (!), and LeBron missed a tying three with five seconds left. (He shot 3-9 with two turnovers in the fourth.) LeBron did have 19 assists in a game in which Anthony Davis didn’t play, though!
Five-game slate with a TNT doubleheader. All times Eastern. Games are on League Pass unless otherwise noted.
Suns at Knicks, 7:30
Celtics at Bucks, 8, TNT — yo le necessito
Jazz at Pelicans, 8
Nuggets at Warriors, 10:30, TNT — I wonder why NBA ratings are down?
Magic at Clippers, 10:30
Ramona Shelburne got the big Paul George Explains Himself story. As it turns out, Kawhi Leonard is the villain in all of this. Kawhi used Raptors dieheard DRAKE’s L.A. home as a free agent base camp to plot his and PG’s dual bid to join the Clippers. How cruel is that, to use a buddy’s house to stab his favorite team and hometown in the back? This is like if Kevin Durant used Wayne Coyne’s condo to meet with the Warriors in 2016.
Great piece on the WNBA labor deal by Lindsay Gibbs. Highly recommend subscribing to her newsletter Power Plays.
Sean Hurd at The Undefeated on the WNBA deal being a victory for women of color in leadership.
Mike Prada on what makes Jaren Jackson Jr. special.
Major BIG3 reform! The minimum age went from 27 to 22, they have declared that they no longer play basketball (the sport they’ve invented is called FIREBALL3), they will use a red ball and they have branded coaching challenges.
Joel Embiid with a powerful personal essay on The Players’ Tribune.
Haley O’Shaughnessy on Jordan Clarkson fitting beautifully in Utah. Haley also has 10 questions for the league at the midway point of the season.
Vincent Goodwill on why the NBA needs Zion right now.
Michael Pina on who is more important to the Jazz between Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. (It’s definitely Gobert.)
Jonathan Tjarks on a lineup decision each team needs to make down the stretch.
Seerat Sohi on the state of the NBA, which is not as good as it could be.
Kyrie Irving just came back and I bet the front office already wants him to stop talking.
Thanks for reading. Be excellent to each other.