Like it or not, all eyes are on Giannis

He's reportedly back in the United States. Will he sign the Bucks' supermax extension or set the league on fire by declining it? Is our focus on this aspect of basketball justified?

Good morning. Let’s basketball.

Portrait of Madame Récamier, Jacques-Louis David

Giannis Antetokounmpo was scheduled to arrive back in Milwaukee from his offseason visit to Greece over the weekend. NBA players are supposed to report to camp no later than Thursday for one-on-one workouts while the league stands up its COVID-19 testing regimen.

Waiting for Antetokounmpo is a 5-year, $227 millon supermax contract extension, a deal that would take effect for the 2021-22 season. Giannis has until December 21 to sign it. Whether he’d do so after Bucks’ brutal dismissal from the second round of the NBA playoffs a few months ago was the biggest question entering the offseason, and is the last big remaining question today.

If Giannis declines to sign the contract this month, not all is lost for Milwaukee. He can sign a supermax contract with the Bucks next summer as an unrestricted free agent. But with that ability comes unrestricted free agency, an opportunity for the first time in Antetokounmpo’s career in which he can sign with whatever teams he chooses. The track record of teams like the Bucks keeping stars like Giannis once they broach unrestricted free agency is not encouraging. This is why there’s so much immense focus on the extension a year out. Lock him in now and he can’t leave on his own volition for six years without forcing a trade.

Fans of and analysts who cover non-glamour franchises often complain about a basketball media culture that spends so much time focused on whether superstars will bail out on their non-glamour franchises for flashier markets. I get that. I grew up rooting for the Sacramento Kings, whose biggest free agent signing over their first 30 years in Northern California was an aging Vlade Divac. I wrote about the Kings for a decade. (Luckily, the Kings didn’t have any stars worth a rumor mill in that time. No offense to John Salmons.) It’s annoying that 80% of the mainstream, televised conversation about Giannis is about where he will play in the future, not about his current play. (Another 10% is useless chatter comparing him unfavorably to other greats.)

But here’s the deal: the focus on Antetokounmpo’s decision is absolutely justified in considering the immense impact it will have across the league. This is a dynasty-defining, rupturous decision in the making. If he stays in Milwaukee, it sets the table for another half-decade with the Bucks as the pre-eminent Eastern Conference contender and it completely changes the narrative about big stars in smaller markets, for better or worse. If Giannis declines the extension, a half-dozen franchises will be spending the span between now and the trade deadline preparing their salary cap sheets to make an offer for Antetokounmpo next summer, even to the potential detriment of their chances this season. They’d do this because securing Giannis would make these teams a pre-eminent contender — maybe an overwhelming title favorite a la the 2017-19 Warriors — for years to come.

If — if — Giannis rejects the extension, this is akin to LeBron circa 2010 and KD in 2016. And you know what happened after 2010 and 2016? LeBron won two titles in Miami and went to the NBA Finals every year he was there. Durant won two titles with Golden State and went to the NBA Finals every year he was there. Giannis is that caliber of player.

As such, it would be malpractice to not focus a lot of attention on the impact and implications of Antetokounmpo’s decision to sign or not.

I’m on the record that I hope he does re-sign with the Bucks, even though it makes next offseason a little less interesting. (And despite the fact that the Toronto Raptors, my beloved Toronto Raptors, are said to be a top option for him.) Having some uncertainty around the best teams in the league is nice, from my perspective. And seeing Milwaukee win a championship would be great. Distributed joy seems especially appropriate right now, and parity makes that possible. Giannis remaining in Milwaukee supports parity.

And if Giannis is going to remain in Milwaukee, it would be good for the souls of fans and analysts everywhere if he made that decision this summer, so that instead of focusing on his impending free agency for the next eight months we can focus on the potential disintegreation of the so-called L.A. Clippers dynasty (Kawhi Leonard and Paul George can become free agents next offseason).

Because, you know, Clippers fans have been hogging all of the joy and it’s time for a change.

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