Giannis Antetkounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks’ star whose contract status looms as the league’s biggest off-court, non-virus storyline, did a masterful job Wednesday of divulging nothing about his intentions of signing — or not signing — a new contract to stay in Milwaukee.
The reigning back-to-back Kia NBA Most Valuable Player has through Dec. 21 to agree to a five-year, “supermax” extension (worth an estimated $228 million) that would begin after this 2020-21 season. If he does, the Bucks project to be title contenders for the duration of the deal.
If he declines, Antetokounmpo will become an unrestricted free agent next summer. He still could re-sign with the Bucks at that point, but passing on the extension would throw this season into tumult and signal to the fans, the city, the franchise and the league that the versatile 6-foot-11 wing might head elsewhere to seek the championship ring he craves.
“Right now I’m not focusing on that,” Antetokounmpo said in a Zoom media session after the Bucks’ midday camp workout. “I’m just trying to focus on myself, how I can get better, how I can help my teammates get better, how can we be ready Saturday for our first preseason game [vs. Dallas].”With some new additions, will the Bucks make a deep playoff run this season?
And that’s how it went for about 15 minutes, with Antetokounmpo being asked about his plans in a variety of ways and, each time, the double-MVP offering no insight in return. Let’s just say if former Slam Dunk champ Nate Robinson was as good at bobbing and weaving as the Greek Freak proved Wednesday, he wouldn’t have face-planted in his viral boxing debut.
Repeatedly, Antetokounmpo deferred to his agent Alex Saratsis, who has been in discussions with Bucks ownership and general manager Jon Horst over “lunch, dinner, brunch.” “I do what I love,” Antetokounmpo said. “What I love is playing basketball, what I love is improving, what I love is helping my teammates improve. What I love is winning games.
“Off the court about agents and contracts, I’m not focusing on that. Not that I don’t care about it — it’s a very big decision, probably the biggest decision I’ll ever make.”
It’s a big deal literally and figuratively, because Antetokounmpo is one of a handful of NBA stars whose presence can convey contender status on a team, and whose change of address could shift the league’s balance of power for years to come. He is, after all, just 26 years old, celebrating that birthday on the first day of camp Sunday as teammates let him know — not at all subtly — where they stand on his contract decision.
As gifts, they gave him pens. One after another after another.
“At first I didn’t get it,” he said. “Khris [Middleton] came in and gave me a present. I was like, ‘Whoa, what is this?’ Then I was thinking about and I realized he was wanting me to sign the contract.
“I laughed the first time. I laughed the second time. The third time … and then I got like 20 pens. It got a little bit old. I’ve got 20 pens here in my locker.”Have the Bucks done enough this offseason to convince Giannis to stay in Milwaukee?
Antetokounmpo had a historic statistical season in 2019-20. He averaged 29.5 points, 13.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists, and in addition to his second MVP, earned Defensive Player of the Year recognition. He has led Milwaukee to a combined 116-39 record over the past two regular seasons, tops in the NBA, while elevating the Bucks to first in defensive rankings, too.
But abrupt exits from the playoffs both years — against Toronto in the Eastern Conference finals in 2019, then in the conference semis vs. Miami in the Orlando bubble — have fueled speculation that Antetokounmpo might want more help to win than Milwaukee can provide. His game has flaws, too, which some see as a sign that he needs a fellow MVP-type of sidekick, like LeBron James and Anthony Davis with the Lakers.
Antetokounmpo never has hinted at that; he never has expressed anything but appreciation for his teammates, the organization and the market. But his decision in the next 12 days might speak loudly as far as how he feels about Middleton, Brook Lopez, newly acquired guard Jrue Holiday and an overhauled bench as cohorts in search of The Finals.
Though he didn’t accept a championship-or-bust view on this Bucks season, Antetokounmpo made it clear the loss to the Heat in five games was unacceptable.
“What we showed in the bubble wasn’t ourselves,” he said. “It wasn’t even close to what we can do. Going into the season, our focus is we’ve got to get better. We’ve got to be the toughest, the nastiest. The team that plays together. But we have to take it step-by-step. Nobody wants to win a championship more than me, I can guarantee you that. But there are steps to take.
“I’m not playing not to win the championship,” Antetokounmpo added. “I’m not playing to be second or third or fifth. I’m playing to be the best.”How many games will the Bucks win in 2020-21?
Teammates, coaches and staff aren’t disinterested spectators. Middleton and Lopez, for instance, signed lucrative contracts last year that will keep them in Milwaukee’s control at least through 2023.
“He knows that I deeply want him to return and sign this extension,” said Middleton, a two-time All-Star, last week. “But at the same time, I know he’s got a big decision that he’s got to work through himself and with his family at home, because those are the most important people. Whatever he does, he knows that I’ll support him to the fullest.”
Said coach Mike Budenholzer: “While I completely respect and understand the questions, completely respect and understand how the world may view this, when you’re in a training camp, when you’re in a practice, you’re trying to figure out what pick-and-roll defense we’re running. What offense we’re running.
“You just get lost in the process. You get lost in what you’re doing. You get lost in trying to figure out how to win.”
With Giannis, of course, being the better option than without Giannis.
Because the length and value of the Bucks’ offer is maxed out, Antetokounmpo was asked more than once why he wouldn’t sign the extension now, if he’s planning to do so by the Dec. 21 deadline.Giannis has put together thrilling back-to-back Kia MVP campaigns.
He evaded that tactic too. (Technically, per ESPN’s Bobby Marks, Antetokounmpo could sign a non-supermax contract for fewer years and less money after Dec. 21. But there would be no advantage to that, other than perhaps dialing up pressure on the Bucks front office to keep the team highly competitive.)
“It’s not on my mind,” said the No. 15 draft pick in 2013, a skinny 18-year-old then, far more developed and savvy today. “What’s on my mind is playing basketball and improving every day. That’s where it’s been since Day 1 and it’s never going to change. Year 8 or Year 25, not gonna change.
“I trust my agent, I trust Jon Horst and the ownership. I know this is really, really big in the city of Milwaukee and the NBA world and the media world and all that. But I’ve been a private person. Whenever I decide something or I sign a contract, you guys are probably going to know before I know.
“So I would appreciate, from now on, that we try not to talk as much about that and just focus on basketball. Because the answer is still going to be the same.”
Like it or not, so will the questions, and they’ll keep coming. Until Antetokounmpo signs his next deal, either this month or next summer.
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