Inspiration driven by desperation.
Wholesale roster changes, triggered by and swirling around the lone generational, cornerstone talent they hold dear as their constant.
An embrace of something Biblical as a basketball strategy — “Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we shall die”– fully aware that if not for the absolute commitment to today, what comes tomorrow might not matter.
What the Milwaukee Bucks are doing to go all-in for the 2020-21 season, and entice Giannis Antetokounmpo to sign a long-term contract extension to stay with the franchise in a gray, unglamorous Midwestern market is remarkably reminiscent of something that played out 17 years ago.
Similar setting, similar circumstances. The Bucks are hoping for a better outcome.
Jon Horst, Milwaukee’s general manager, did a masterful job Monday, both in the moves he orchestrated late in the day and the cover he gave himself earlier. In the morning, Horst fielded media questions ostensibly about Wednesday’s Draft, most focused more on the urgency facing his team as it tries to a) break through to the Finals after two disappointing playoff collapses, and b) convince Antetokounmpo that his ambitions and best interests on and off the court can be served right there in Milwaukee.
Horst responded with what sounded like boilerplate, standard-issue front office verbiage meant to plug the silences where real answers would be:
Every offseason is a big offseason. … If we had won an NBA championship last season, this would be our biggest offseason, to figure out how to do it again. … Our core is intact. We have to figure out what to do on the margins. … We’ve been really going for it since Day 1. Championships aren’t just linear. … We’re trying to add the best talent, the best culture fit, the best roster fit we can for [coach Mike Budenholzer’s] system, for Giannis’ skill set and for the city of Milwaukee. This will be no different than it’s been in the past.
Hours later, things got way different, real fast.
First, Horst and New Orleans’ David Griffin reportedly worked out a trade agreement to send Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday to the Bucks, who in turn sent out guards Eric Bledsoe and George Hill with three first-round Draft picks (in 2020, 2025 and 2027) and the right to swap picks in 2024 and 2026.
Then the Bucks arranged a sign-and-trade for Sacramento wing Bogdan Bogdanovic, giving up Donte DiVincenzo, Ersan Ilyasova and D.J. Wilson while taking back fringe forward Justin James.
Holiday is a valued combo guard with a strong defensive presence, considered an upgrade over Bledsoe (especially so in consistency). Bogdanovic is creative offensively with a sharpshooter’s range and accuracy. Together, they were being viewed Tuesday as Milwaukee’s grab at a title and sales pitch to Antetokounmpo.
The moves — on top of Wesley Matthews’ and Robin Lopez’s decisions not to opt-in for 2020-21 — leave the Bucks with only Antetokounmpo, Khris Middelton, Brook Lopez and Giannis’ bro Thanasis under contract from last season. In fact, the back-to-back Kia MVP winner is the team’s only Draft pick (2013) still on the roster — and quite possibly will remain so for the foreseeable future.
It’s a gutsy approach, one that will rise or fall on Horst’s and Antetokounmpo’s abilities in the near term to sell Milwaukee 2021 to available veteran players angling for a shot at an NBA championship ring. (Given the current bench, the Greek Freak’s days of averaging a comfy 30 minutes per game probably are over.)
It’s also the opposite of safe, except that playing it safe right now would be the least safe thing of all for the Bucks. Running back a pat hand that got swept by Toronto after taking a 2-0 lead in the 2019 East finals, then gentlemanly swept by Miami in the conference semifinals in September would be far riskier.
Another postseason disappointment with few on-court adjustments to keep Antetokounmpo from being game-planned into irrelevance would put the Bucks in jeopardy of imploding from within if their star were to leave. That is the worst-case scenario, not anything related to injuries or underperformance now.
This isn’t simply about going for it today and worrying about tomorrow later. More like going for it today, knowing some other GM, coach and support staff will be charged with fixing tomorrow.
That’s how things played out 17 years ago, when the Minnesota Timberwolves faced essentially the same problem and responded in pretty much the same way.
Back then, Garnett was Antetokounmpo, the extraordinary individual talent in need of an upgrade in teammates and a better sense that winning was possible with a flyover franchise not known for it. He was down to just one season left on his historic six-year, $126 million contract (signed in 1997), with only a string of seven consecutive first-round playoff exits to show for it.
Garnett was loyal. He wanted to stay in Minnesota. But he was frustrated, too, and needed some proof of life from the Wolves’ front office. That’s when VP Kevin McHale and coach Flip Saunders got their Horst on.
In a matter of weeks, a team that had won 51 games in 2002-03 was barely recognizable. In came Latrell Sprewell, Sam Cassell, Michael Olowokandi, Trenton Hassell, Ervin Johnson, Fred Hoiberg and Mark Madsen. The only returnees: Garnett, Wally Szczerbiak, Troy Hudson and Gary Trent.
Like these Bucks, those Wolves even shed their first-round pick — using it to select instant trivia answer Ndudi Ebi — at a point when they already had been stripped of four other No. 1 picks as penalty for the Joe Smith salary-cap circumvention. (Even Smith, so valued they cheated to land him, was gone, bundled with Anthony Peeler to Milwaukee for Cassell and Johnson).
The moves worked, short term and really short term: Garnett signed another nine-figure contract with the Wolves, a five-year, $100 million extension, four weeks before the regular season began.
“I’m excited for the fans. I’m excited for the city. I’m excited!” Garnett said at his signing, on the concourse level at Target Center.
That swiftly constructed team won 58 games with its salty Big Three of KG, Sprewell and Cassell. Garnett was named MVP, Minneapolis enjoyed its finest NBA season since George Mikan roamed the courts and the Wolves got to the West finals against, by the spring of 2004, a ready-to-be-toppled Lakers dynasty of Shaq, Kobe and Phil.
Trouble was, Cassell came up lame with a strained hip, however. Hudson was hurt and Minnesota wound up using Hoiberg and journeyman Darrick Martin at point guard for the conference title. It lost in six games, with Detroit stepping up to stop L.A. in the Finals.
The following season, the pixie dust was gone. Sprewell made his infamous “feed my family” remark in the midst of contentious contract talks, Cassell threw in emotionally with him, the overpaying of role players jammed the Wolves’ maneuverability and a 25-26 record in February was enough to get Saunders fired.
The Wolves went from 44 to 33 to 32 victories with their superstar in his prime, burned through a couple more coaches (Dwane Casey, Randy Wittman) and was on its way to just one playoff appearance in the past 16 seasons.
That extension Garnett signed in the giddiness over new teammates and purported championship potential? That exceptional player who claimed to have “blue and green” running through his veins wound up leaving for Boston with two years left on the deal. Before long, he was giving LeBron James advice not to make the same mistake he had made, sticking around too long, being too loyal.
“Loyalty is something that hurts you at times,” Garnett said from the podium after the Celtics bounced James and the Cavaliers in the 2010 East finals. “Because you can’t get youth back.”
Antetokounmpo might want to remember all that, about what can happen when a team goes all-in, before he goes all-out in locking up his future.
The contract will be sitting there for him next offseason, too, by which time everyone’s desperation will be a little better defined.
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