Giannis Antetokounmpo never was going to follow in Kevin Durant’s footsteps, no matter the hope of the Warriors and their fans to will the dream into existence.
Every tenuous link, every drip and drop of information -- extensively covered and examined by this outlet and this writer -- was a collective exercise in confirmation bias, trying to fit Antetokounmpo’s into a blueprint that did not apply.
The two-time MVP loved playing with another two-time MVP, Steph Curry, in NBA All-Star Games, so he must have the same affinity from afar that led to Durant signing with the Warriors in 2016.
Curry whispered sweet nothings to Antetokounmpo -- the former claiming the discussion centered on video games -- during the Milwaukee Bucks’ lone visit to Chase Center in 2020, so he must have been turning Antetokounmpo’s ear the same way the Warriors turned Durant’s in the lead-up to him leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Antetokounmpo hasn't won an NBA championship as the Bucks' focal point, so he must have his eyes on joining a team with an established culture with which he could secure his legacy as Durant hoped.
We saw it once before, so it must have been happening again.
The circumstances surrounding Durant’s first foray into unrestricted free agency -- or, before him, LeBron James’ -- were always much different than what would’ve been Antetokounmpo’s before he announced Tuesday he was signing a five-year supermax extension to remain in Milwaukee. So was the man in question.
Those factors made the Warriors’ planned and hoped-for pursuit of Antetokounmpo a pipe dream, steeped in nostalgia for the franchise’s recent title-winning peak rather than reality.
Golden State was, in owner Joe Lacob’s infamous estimation months beforehand, “light years ahead” of the NBA at the time the Warriors signed Durant. But their advantage was powered by a perfect storm of things out of their control.
The salary cap spiked the same summer Durant became a free agent, and Durant became a free agent within days of the 73-9 Warriors blowing a three-games-to-one NBA Finals lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers, making clear Golden State’s need for one of the few people on the planet who could go blow for blow with LeBron James. Curry signed a below market-value contract extension -- under a previous ownership group -- before overcoming persistent ankle issues and emerging as the league’s most dominant point guard, allowing just enough space to sign Durant.
The Warriors weren’t going to have a similar confluence of good fortune next summer, and that was the case before the coronavirus pandemic and before Klay Thompson tore his Achilles last month. Golden State would’ve been well over the salary cap, with Curry, Thompson and Green all in their 30s and signed to massive contracts. Clearing the space necessary to sign Antetokounmpo would’ve required far more significant sacrifices than the Warriors made in moving on from Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut and others to sign Durant.
Andrew Wiggins, a former No. 1 pick signed to big money, probably wouldn’t entice many teams in a salary dump, and neither would the Warriors’ expensive veterans -- aside from Curry -- without taking matching money back or potentially attaching future foundational pieces. Just last month, for instance, the Houston Rockets needed to add a future first-round pick to entice the Washington Wizards to trade John Wall for Russell Westbrook. Do you really think the Warriors would be able to move one of their high-priced veterans into another team's cap space for next to nothing, all so Golden State could clear room to acquire a back-to-back MVP?
Antetokounmpo also signaled his preference to remain in Milwaukee to just about everyone who would listen. Durant said All The Right Things, too, but Antetokounmpo said them a lot more recently than the former Warrior did before he left the Thunder.
There was January, when on the same visit to Chase Center that Antetokoumpo spoke with Curry, the Bucks star laughed off a question about Warriors fans wearing jerseys with his name on the back.
There was September, when Antetokounmpo told Yahoo’s Chris Haynes that he wouldn’t demand a trade after the Bucks after Milwaukee’s early playoff exit at the hands of the Miami Heat.
There was November, when Antetokounmpo told an outlet in Sweden while vacationing in the country that “if [the Bucks] make the right decision, I’ll be there for many years.” Not even two weeks later, Milwaukee traded for Jrue Holiday.
There was just last week, when Antetokounmpo said, in his first comments to reporters during the preseason, that he didn’t view the Bucks’ season as “championship or bust” and that he loved Milwaukee and the organization.
The tea leaves were there for anyone trying to read them, rather than filter them through the experiences of Durant, James, or Anthony Davis, or even James Harden, a superstar now souring on an organization that catered to his every whim.
Each of those players is their own person, with unique experiences in organizations that failed to win championships. Antetokounmpo grew up -- first, as the child of Nigerian immigrants in Greece and, later, as a teenage draftee immigrating to the United States who spoke “terrible” English, in his estimation -- under far different circumstances than his superstar peers.
Antetokounmpo was not destined to be a Warrior. His road to Golden State never was anywhere near as clear as Durant’s, with very real obstacles being shrugged off in favor of openings so small you had to squint and catch them in the right light. A nickname like “The Greek Freak” is befitting of a player following an unprecedented path, the likes of which we haven’t seen. Antetokounmpo lived up to it Tuesday, much to the chagrin of those in the Bay Area who wanted him to take the road well-traveled.