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Bucks, Giannis Antetokounmpo in super-max spotlight as season resumes

Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo

ORLANDO, FL - JULY 13: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks speaks to the media during practice as part of the NBA Restart 2020 on July 13, 2020 in Orlando, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images)

NBAE via Getty Images

The Bucks want to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo happy at every turn and minimize the number of turns.

Coronavirus presented a hard left in the plan.

Antetokounmpo will be eligible for a super-max extension this offseason. Milwaukee – best in the East and in the top tier of championship contention with the Clippers and Lakers – appeared to be peaking at the right time to impress him. Already under contract through 2020-21, Antetokounmpo would be locked up at least four additional seasons with a super-max extension.

But everything feels more tenuous now.

Coronavirus forced the NBA to suspend it season for a long time. That layoff invites variability, which hinders a favorite like the Bucks. Milwaukee guards Eric Bledsoe and Pat Connaughton also tested positive for coronavirus.

No matter how this season finishes, Antetokounmpo also has more financial reasons to consider bypassing a super-max extension.

He’s so young and so good – headed toward back-to-back MVPs at age 25 – Antetokounmpo can seemingly command a max salary in every year he wants for the foreseeable future. He has stayed pretty healthy through his career. But even if he suffered a major injury, teams would still line up to offer him the max. He has pushed his value that high.

Which gives him rare leverage – the type flexed by LeBron James and Kevin Durant when they signed 1+1 contracts in recent years. The time might be especially right for Antetokounmpo to follow that model.

Antetokounmpo’s super-max extension projected to be worth $254 million over five years. But that compensation is based on league-wide revenue in 2021-22, which will probably fall short of projections.

Players collectively get about half of Basketball Related Income each season. That supersedes stated salaries in contracts. The whole salary-cap system is designed for stated salaries to add up to about half of Basketball Related Income. But the overriding determinant is league-wide revenue.

Who knows where the 2021-22 salary cap will land? There are so many questions about revenue in the coming years.

If revenue is down, the league has two main options:

1. Set the salary cap artificially high. This would keep players’ stated salaries (cap hits) on track and create a smooth transition whenever revenue normalizes. In the meantime, owners would keep whatever percentage of players’ salaries is necessary to reach that 50-50 league-wide split.

2. Set the salary cap in line with expected revenue. Players would get paid roughly what their contracts state. But that amount would be lower on new deals.

Either possibility – though the second more than the first – could dissuade Antetokounmpo from signing long-term.

Raises in a multi-year contract or extension top out at 8% of the first-year salary. So, it’s important to sign when the first-year salary will be relatively high. If the salary cap skyrockets in future seasons, a player on even a max long-term deal could be stuck with salaries below the new max.

Even if the league keeps the salary cap artificially high, that will likely be a conservative figure. The cap was projected to rise to $115 million in 2020-21 and $125 million in 2021-22. Now, the talk of artificially propping up the salary cap is about maintaining the current level ($109.14 million).

So, starting in 2021 free agency, Antetokounmpo could sign a 1+1 for the max each year until the cap climbs high enough to sign long-term.

Of course, that’d be very risky for the Bucks. They want Antetokounmpo locked in long-term as soon as possible, not deciding year-to-year whether he wants to stay.

All but two MVPs in NBA history won a playoff series in their first five seasons. Kevin Garnett first advanced in the postseason in his ninth season, and it took Antetokounmpo until sixth season. That’s an indictment of Milwaukee more than Antetokounmpo.

After failing to build through a young core with Antetokounmpo, the Bucks made up for lost time with quality veterans. The plan worked. Milwaukee is excellent. But here are the ages of the other four starters in 2021-22, when Antetokounmpo’s next deal would begin:

  • Eric Bledsoe: 32
  • Wesley Matthews: 35
  • Khris Middleton: 30
  • Brook Lopez: 33

Replenishing will be difficult with draft picks consistently in the late 20s and no cap space.

Does Antetokounmpo want to tie his long-term future to this group? It’s great in the moment, it’s bound to decline over Antetokounmpo’s next deal.

If Antetokounmpo doesn’t sign the super-max extension this offseason, it puts the Bucks in a bind. They could still compete for a championship in 2020-21 and offer him the super max in 2021 free agency. But it’d open the door for Antetokounmpo leaving for no return. Milwaukee would have to at least think about trading Antetokounmpo before that point.

Antetokounmpo cycling through 1+1 contracts with the Bucks would leave them in that stressful situation ad continuum.

There’s not much room for a compromise solution, either. Unless the 2021-22 salary cap crashes below $94,382,016, Antetokounmpo can maximize his salary through an extension this offseason only if locking in for four or five additional years. A shorter extension would require too large of an annual pay cut.

It’s also possible Antetokounmpo, like LeBron James in his second stint with the Cavaliers, would feel the burden to his original team is lifted with a championship. A title could empower Antetokounmpo to leave. But at least Milwaukee would get a title in that scenario.

There are so many potential landmines for the Bucks.

All they can reasonably do is try to win as much as possible and hope the salary cap lands at favorable numbers.