It feels like the NBA newscycle just got done with reckless speculation about Giannis Antetokounmpo’s future. The superstar’s impending free agency was the biggest story in the league around the time his Milwaukee Bucks were on the wrong end of a stunning upset to the Miami Heat inside the bubble back in 2020. The media hypothesizing eventually proved to be all for naught: the Bucks responded by swinging a bold trade for Jrue Holiday, convinced Antetokounmpo to sign an extension, and promptly won the NBA championship in 2021 thanks to an all-time great Game 6 from Giannis. It was a wonderful story for both the player and the team.
Fast forward a few years, and Antetokounmpo’s future is again in the spotlight. The Bucks are coming off another stunning upset to the Heat in the playoffs, and now the core around Giannis is a little older and a little less potent. Milwaukee is still considered a top contender in the East entering the 2023-2024 season, but it’s becoming increasingly more reasonable to doubt them as rookie head coach Adrian Griffin takes over for Mike Budenholzer.
This time, the media isn’t responsible for driving Antetokounmpo trade and free agency rumors as he becomes extension eligible this month. Giannis is doing all of that himself.
“I’m a Milwaukee Buck, but most importantly I’m a winner. … If there is a better situation for me to win the Larry O’Brien I have to take that better situation.”
Giannis on his future with the Bucks. pic.twitter.com/XzucRXtmOv
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) September 13, 2023
You can watch the full 42-minute conversation with Giannis here, via Bleav. Here are a few of his comments, transcribed.
“At the end of the day, if the Milwaukee Bucks organization — which is the same thing I say every single year I’ve been with the Bucks — as long as we are in for a championship, as long as nobody’s comfortable, as long as everybody’s sacrificing the same amount of time and sweat and blood that I’ve sacrificed for this city to win a championship, we are all good. The moment I feel like people are complacent and they’re OK — because at the end of the day, this is the NBA, you are taken care of. By being comfortable, I cannot reach my full potential. As you guys have seen, every year I try to get better. Better every year. Every year, that’s the approach I have for the game and that’s the approach I have for life. I don’t want to be comfortable. I want us to win another championship.
“So as I said, if the Milwaukee Bucks are on the same page for the rest of my career, great. If not, I have to win. I have to win. And I think the city and people will understand it. Because I’m one of the most competitive guys, and I’ve given everything that I can for the city of Milwaukee. I bleed green. I’m actually wearing the Milwaukee Bucks [shirt] on this interview. I’m actually wearing that and the shorts, and I’m actually about to go to bed. So I’m a Milwaukee Buck. But most importantly, I’m a winner. I want to win. And I have to do whatever it takes for me to win. And if there’s a better situation for me to win the Larry O’Brien, I have to take that better situation.”
First of all, the level of transparency from Antetokounmpo in this interview is pretty incredible. The NBA has seen a ton of superstar trade requests or free agency departures over the last 20 years, but never has a player been so open about his own priorities going forward. I loved Giannis’ viral answer to question about the meaning of failure in sports at the end of Milwaukee’s playoff run last year, and this interview is another extension of that same transparency.
This isn’t the first time this summer we’ve heard Antetokounmpo talk about his future. In an interview with the New York Times last month, Giannis said he wouldn’t sign an extension with the Bucks before this season, and put Milwaukee on notice that the team must remain a title contender going forward if they want to retain him.
“Next summer it would make more sense for both parties. Even then, I don’t know,” Antetokounmpo said. “I would not be the best version of myself if I don’t know that everybody’s on the same page, everybody’s going for a championship, everybody’s going to sacrifice time away from their family like I do. And if I don’t feel that, I’m not signing.”
Antetokounmpo is entering the third season of a five-year, $228 million extension as the new season approaches. He has a player option following the 2024-25 season, which would let him become a free agent.
NBA superstars rarely hit free agency any more, mostly because they can make more money by locking in with their current team, and then asking for a trade. That approach feels like it’s holding both parties hostage in the short-term — look at what’s going on with Damian Lillard’s Blazers trade request, and James Harden’s Sixers trade request — it at least allows the team to get back some assets for losing their franchise player. Of course, the team doesn’t have to trade the player to his preferred next team, and that’s where the trade off of signing the extension comes in.
As our old friend Tom Ziller wrote recently in his essential Good Morning It’s Basketball newsletter, the Bucks are never escaping the threat of Giannis leaving. Even if Milwaukee wins the championship this upcoming season, and Antetokounmpo signs another extension, he’s not going to be satisfied with just two titles in his career.
It’s hard to envision the Bucks keeping Giannis happy for the rest of his career. The supporting cast is all-in on the present, with not much lined up for the future. Khris Middleton is 32 years old, and it feels like his body is starting to break down after consistent injuries the last couple seasons. Brook Lopez is 35 years old, and Holiday is 33 years old. While MarJon Beauchamp, TyTy Washington, and Andre Jackson Jr. could eventually develop into solid role players, it’s extremely unlikely any of them are future All-Stars.
Giannis put the Bucks on his back and delivered Milwaukee its first championship in 50 years. As he said in this most recent interview, he doesn’t want to be talking about that one championship forever. As he turns 29 years old in December, Antetokounmpo wants to keep stacking rings. He’s telling the Bucks as clearly as possible that if they can’t help him get there, some other team will.