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Warriors, others seeing crack in door to landing Giannis

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Kevin Durant earned his first championship ring when he was 28, after he became a free agent and moved to another NBA franchise.

LeBron James earned his first ring when he was 28, also after leaving his original team.

Giannis Antetokounmpo won’t be 28 until Dec. 6, 2022, in time for the 2023 Finals.

He’s 25 now, still chasing a ring, still with his original team, the Milwaukee Bucks, who are taking massive body blows in the Eastern Conference finals.

Which has more than a few teams studying rosters and future financials in pursuit of creative solutions.

And most of those teams are behind the Warriors, who initiated their Giannis Research Project at least two years ago, within seconds of KD saying he wanted to “keep my options open.”

There is no tangible or whispered evidence that Giannis wants out; we’re not ready to accept as a hint the decision in May by his youngest brother, Alex, to leave Milwaukee after six years and sign with a pro team Spain. Giannis has been consistent in stating his allegiance, saying he loves Milwaukee, loves the franchise and wants to bring a parade to the city that in 2013 welcomed him as a teenager.

“I’m a guy that wants to be with a team for a while -- but as long as we’re winning,” Antetokounmpo told USA Today in February, shortly before the NBA shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “And we’re winning so far, so I don’t think anything is going to change.”

 

Well, now. Little more than six months later -- with roughly seven weeks of basketball -- the Bucks are two losses from being bounced from the playoffs.

After earning the No. 1 overall seed with a 56-17 record, Milwaukee is down two-games-to-none to the Miami Heat, who entered the playoffs as the No. 5 seed in the East. Moreover, the Bucks don’t seem to have answers to the problems posed by the Heat’s blend of talent, scrap and savvy. They could fall into an 0-3 hole Friday night.

This development, along with Antetokounmpo’s visible displays of frustration, is the most surprising basketball storyline in the Disney World postseason bubble.

The general belief among NBA front offices was that the Bucks would make a run robust enough to have its superstar feeling positive about staying for many more seasons. Giannis will be eligible in the offseason for a supermax extension initially projected to be north of a quarter-billion dollars. It likely will be reduced, but the fact remains that no team, at any point, can pay more than Milwaukee.

Should Giannis, the reigning MVP and favorite to repeat, decide not to sign an extension, he also is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2021.

This is the second consecutive season the Bucks rode the regular season to the No. 1 overall seed. They were ousted in six games by Toronto in the 2019 Conference finals. To return to that level this season, they have to overcome long odds to win four of five against the Heat.

Should the miraculous occur, Giannis will have every reason to be relieved and proud and even giddy. Milwaukee would have a reprieve, until the Conference finals.

Should the Bucks lose, Giannis will be displeased. To put it mildly. That would mean four consecutive winning seasons, the last two with the league’s best record, and zero trips to the Finals.

And, at the least, increasing curiosity about other franchises.

Truth told, the Warriors’ salary cap outlook is pretty bleak for the next few seasons. Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are due to earn a combined $98 million next season and another $105 million in 2021-22. The Warriors are not moving The Franchise. They don’t want to move Klay, which is not to say they won’t. Draymond’s value has dipped a bit, and next season will be his testimony on whether he remains a high-impact presence.

Can they make enough moves to make the money work and still compete for championships? That’s a massive undertaking, quite the trick. But nothing is impossible when there are mutual desires, abundant creativity and a willingness to overspend for success.

Given the solid personal/professional relationship between Curry and Antetokounmpo, it is reasonable to assume they’ve imagined playing with each other. Being embraced by the incumbent superstar is essential, and the Warriors check that box.

We’re seeing this postseason that for Giannis to reach his ceiling, he’ll need an elite sidekick, preferably a dynamic guard. Durant had Curry. James had Wade, or Kyrie Irving. The Warriors still have Curry, and he still checks that box.

 
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Ultimately, Giannis’ future will be about his desires, where he wants to play, where he wants to live, who will be his teammates and how badly the franchise wants to crush the rest of the league. Believe me, the Warriors check a lot of those boxes.

Antetokounmpo's youth affords plenty of time to get a ring. But if the Bucks stumble, it’s logical for him to wonder if he can get it in Milwaukee.