Why the Bucks signing Giannis Antetokounmpo to a supermax contract far from guarantees a happy future

Let’s start with the good news: Giannis Antetokounmpo’s decision to sign a supermax extension with the Milwaukee Bucks is remarkably good news for a deserving Bucks organization, its front office, its fan base and its foreseeable NBA future.

It is a clear-cut victory. General manager Jon Horst, head coach Mike Budenholzer and the rest of the organization deserve an ovation. So does the two-time reigning MVP, for his loyalty and commitment. It is no easy thing for a small market to get a player of Giannis’ caliber to agree, even if it is for a projected $228 million, to sign on a dotted line that theoretically commits him to that place for many years.


Now the hard work continues. Exciting though it is, the notion that Giannis is certain to play out his contract in middle America for the Bucks, or even the majority of it before a fourth-year player option he negotiated as part of this extension, is far from certain.

That’s a big part of the reason, in retrospect, that the surprise around the league surrounding the Greek Freak’s commitment to Milwaukee missed the point. I missed it, too. The nature of the modern NBA and its player-empowerment movement made this a likely outcome.

Yes, Giannis truly cares about winning, and the Bucks showing the past two years that they are legit Eastern Conference contenders was critical. Yes, you can take Giannis at his word that “this is my home, this is my city,” and believe, as I do, that his loyalty to a place and organization that have been good to him played a role here.

But loyalties change. And the reality of the NBA is that a player’s signature on the contract certainly binds a team to that salary regardless of what follows, but the notion of any guaranteed reciprocity simply does not exist the other way.

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Take the supermax as an example of how quickly the sands can shift for an organization that wins the day the way Milwaukee has this week. The supermax allows a player to take up to 35 percent of a team’s cap space and receive an extra year of guaranteed money, advantages designed to allow a small-market team like the Bucks have the ability to retain a star if they’re well-run and fortunate enough to draft and develop, say, a 15-overall-pick-turned-two-time-MVP player.

In theory, you should be able to keep such players at “home” indefinitely. But the NBA does not work that way, regardless of what a contract claims. 

And that’s true even beyond Paul George, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving and many, many other stars who have forced their way out of teams while still under contract, often to the detriment of those teams. 

It’s also been true with the supermax itself.

With Giannis now in the club, six NBA players have signed a supermax extension: Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, John Wall and now the Bucks’ superstar.

Curry and Lillard remain with those teams. But John Wall is now in Houston, and since signing his own supermax with the Thunder in 2017, Westbrook has gone from there, to the Rockets, to the Wizards.

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And Harden isn’t exactly looking like a sure bet to play out his remaining two years in Houston — three, if you presume he’ll opt in to a final year player option worth $47 million.

That’s a problem. And it explains why Giannis, looking back, had all the reason in the world to sign that deal.

It protects him against serious injury, particularly important during a season in which many around the NBA expect a possible rash of injuries due to a compressed offseason and grinding schedule.

It allows him, in the near-term, to pursue an NBA championship with a well-run team that’s proven itself capable, in a town he loves, without the contract distractions that might have hung over the locker room and organization had he delayed his choice.

But — there’s that word again — it gives him all that while also knowing that if things turn sour in Milwaukee in, say, a year or two, he can almost certainly force his way elsewhere. A.D. did it to the exact team he wanted to play for, and got an NBA championship as his reward. 

Kawhi, too, got a ring after refusing to play out a deal he signed. Paul George forced his way to the Thunder and stayed for all of two years before forcing his way to the Clippers

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And so on.

That won’t change until Adam Silver decides to take on player empowerment, an unlikely outcome given the value for him and the league in having a fairly rosy relationship with the players and its union. 

So great job, Milwaukee, and congrats. Just be careful. Few stars are LeBron James, players who stay and wait until their contracts are up to move on. Most, once disgruntled or having decided a place no longer suits them, do what Harden is doing right now and expect their wishes to be met.

Will that be Giannis?

Time will tell. And the Bucks’ moves, successes or failures and decisions going forward will have a large say in what it says.

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