Heat’s Game 1 win gets Giannis Antetokounmpo rumor mill churning


It’s been a favorite parlor game around the NBA for a year now (at least): Will Giannis Antetokounmpo leave the Milwaukee Bucks? If so, where does he land?

The volume of that chatter grew louder the last 24 hours after Jimmy Butler dominated the fourth quarter and the Heat knocked off the Bucks in Game 1. That suddenly has everyone picking apart everything Antetokounmpo said and people around the league throwing around scenarios (as Sam Amick does at The Athletic with a front office exec).

Milwaukee is going to offer Antetokounmpo a max contract this summer, but if the Bucks are out in the second round he likely will not sign it. And then every crazy theory comes into play.

The conventional wisdom around the league has been that Antetokounmpo would re-sign in Milwaukee, any planning was more of a “just in case” scenario.

There were three key reasons for Giannis Antetokounmpo to stay — and the Heat could be blowing up one a key of them. Let’s break down the three reasons:

1) $222 million guaranteed.

We don’t know what the league salary cap will be in the 2021-22 season when Antetokounmpo’s new contract kicks in (the above $222 figure is based on the cap staying flat). We do know this: Milwaukee can offer more guaranteed money than any other team.

The Bucks can offer a fifth year; no other team can offer more than four years. It’s something the owners put in the last CBA as a “Kevin Durant” rule to help small- and middle-market teams keep stars, but it hasn’t worked out that way. It’s just sped up the clock on the decision making process.

For elite stars like Antetokounmpo, the guaranteed fifth year doesn’t matter much. The final year of that contract will be Antetokounmpo’s age 31 season — he will still be at his peak and can expect to get paid max money from someone else for that season. While he loses the guarantee on that fifth year, he’s not losing that much money (slightly larger raises that the Bucks can offer). As we have seen with a lot of stars (most recently Anthony Davis), it’s not enough money to make him stay if Antetokounmpo wants to out.

2) Milwaukee is his home.

This does not change and it is a huge draw. Milwaukee is the only real home Antetokounmpo has ever had in the United States, this is not going to be a LeBron James back to Cleveland/Kawhi Leonard to the Clippers situation. He likes Milwaukee, his girlfriend Mariah Riddlesprigger is there, as is his son, Liam.

More to the heart of the matter, Milwaukee is the first place Antetokounmpo and his family ever felt safe together.  He grew up poor and an outsider in Athens, and while he is from there in many ways Milwaukee is home. It’s a draw, a reason for him to stay.

3) Milwaukee is a contender.

This is the one Miami might blow up.

The Bucks have unquestionably been the best defensive team and the best team overall in the regular season the last two years. Last season, that did not translate to beating the Raptors in the playoffs, which led to questions about whether the team learned its lessons from them.

Game 1 suggested not. Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez stepped up when the defense built a wall and focused on Antetokounmpo but it was not enough. Late in the game it was Butler, not Giannis Antetokounmpo taking over. Milwaukee’s base defense allowing threes is going against the best three-point shooting team in the bubble and that’s an issue. Then there’s the matter of adjustments and a Plan B for the Bucks — why wasn’t Antetokounmpo on Butler late in the game? Why didn’t Antetokounmpo ask to be?

If Milwaukee goes on to lose this series, and Giannis Antetokounmpo surveys the East and sees a Boston tea on the rise, a Brooklyn team about to get a lot better, and Miami still there with Butler locked in, does he see himself on a contender?

If not, will he want to go to one? Will the Bucks be forced to trade him or risk him walking for nothing? (Much like OKC with Kevin Durant, it’s hard to picture Milwaukee making a trade unless Antetokounmpo tells them he will not re-sign, as big of a risk as losing him would be, it’s too hard for a market like Milwaukee to get a star like this. They have to try and win him over until the last minute.)

That idea has fans from Golden State to New York dreaming and planning. If Antetokounmpo is available, 29 other teams want to get in on the action.

That loss to the Heat was one game, and maybe on Wednesday night the Bucks and Antetokounmpo answer all those questions and quiet the rumor mill down. At least for a few days.

But people around the league are watching the Bucks and thinking things could get very interesting this summer.