Antetokounmpo’s decision offers Raptors clarity on path forward

NBA Insider Marc Spears talks why NBA stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and Anthony Davis are choosing re-sign instead of leaving their current teams with Brad Fay.

First of all, even the most crestfallen Toronto Raptors fan should raise a glass to the city of Milwaukee and their basketball team.

Few markets know what it’s like to be overlooked and underrated by the greater NBA than Raptors fans, so they should have at least a grudging appreciation that Milwaukee – a cold and forlorn place during the basketball season – can bask in the sun for once.

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A franchise that is on their second arena since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led them to their only title, back in 1971, got their man when Giannis Antetokounmpo announced that he had signed a five-year ‘super-max’ extension worth $228 million on Tuesday afternoon, a deal that might keep the 26-year-old Bucks star in Wisconsin for the best seasons of his career.

But there are limits to fandom’s empathy. What’s good news for the Bucks is a smashed dinner plate for Raptors fans; the basketball equivalent of a crumpled bumper or a mirror crashing down on tile.

And maybe it’s just a little bit worse because as Marc Spears, the respected insider from ESPN’s The Undefeated, said on Sportsnet, “if he was going to go anywhere, it was going to be Toronto,” citing Antetokounmpo’s relationship with Masai Ujiri and a growing appreciation for his Nigerian heritage after he grew up as an illegal immigrant in Greece.

But does it all have to be so doom and gloom? Sometimes even a broken plate doesn’t have to ruin dinner. There’s always dessert.

Sure, the extension – by extension – dashes any dreams the Raptors (and a handful of other NBA teams) had of luring the two-time defending MVP to their fair city. The Bucks star chose cold winters and cheese over taking his talents anywhere else, even in Toronto where the Raptors president had laid the groundwork for a Nigerian takeover.

But put yourself in Antetokounmpo’s position and it’s hard to imagine why he would have done anything else than what he did.

Not only would pushing back the largest contract in NBA history have meant walking away from roughly $70 million – the difference between what the Bucks could pay him over five years and the four-year deal (with lower annual raises) that any other team could offer – it also would have set him up for a year in hell, with his contract status being obsessed over in mainstream and other media alike for the next 12 months.

“You turn down that money, you put yourself in the crosshairs for the next year – you’d have to be a sadomasochist,” said one league insider.

But this is the NBA, and no contract lasts forever or even as long as it’s written. If Antetokounmpo wants out of Milwaukee at some point before his deal is up, there are various ways to do it. James Harden is burning the bridges in Houston, which is one way.

Another is what Paul George did in Oklahoma City in the summer of 2018, where he signed an extension in a small market with what multiple NBA insiders described as an understanding that if things weren’t working out, the two sides would part amicably. Just one year later, George was traded to to a market of his choosing – his hometown Los Angeles Clippers — and on his timetable.

Maybe Antetokounmpo’s decision to re-sign in Milwaukee has some of the same highly coded language?

It would be a good bit of business for both sides. The Bucks get their franchise cornerstone and another chance or two to contend for a title and Antetokounmpo gets his money, security and a parachute if he needs to eject.

But the question for the Raptors is what do they do next?

Under Ujiri’s guidance, every move the team has made – and several they haven’t – has been aimed at keeping their powder dry for the 2021 free agent class.

Even in signing Fred VanVleet – their primary free agent target this past off-season – they worked the deal so that his 2021-22 salary would be the lowest of his four-year, $85 million contract to help them be in position to sign someone to a max deal. This time last year, they only offered Kyle Lowry a one-year extension for the same reason. They chose not to offer either Serge Ibaka or Marc Gasol deals that would bleed into 2021 cap space and all of the new players were brought in on one-year deals to maintain the ultimate flexibility.

 
Donnovan Bennett on Giannis Antetokounmpo's supermax extension with the Bucks
December 15 2020

The decision will hang over the Raptors all season because it will be very difficult to argue that Toronto is a better team without Ibaka or Gasol. Signing rugged Australian big man Aron Baynes was never going to be a bad move; but finding a little more in the piggy bank to pair him with Ibaka – who was coming off the best season of career – will be a tough one to explain.

But having Antetokounmpo off the table for now can offer some clarity for the Raptors, too.

The next pressing decision for Ujiri and Webster will be what to do with OG Anunoby, who is eligible to sign a rookie extension before Dec. 21.

With Antetokounmpo as a possibility, it made sense to leave Anunoby unsigned. It would mean that next summer Anunoby would only be on the books for $11.6 million, compared with whatever the first year of his extension would be — a number that will likely be well north of $15 million. But now the risk is that leaving Anunoby unsigned (making him a restricted free agent) means he could be a target from other teams with cap space to burn and no Antetokounmpo to spend it on. The Raptors would still have the right to match any competing offer, but if Anunoby has any kind of year at all – and expectations internally and externally are high that he could be poised for a breakout season – it will cost a lot more than it would to sign him now.

With Antetokounmpo spoken for, the vaunted free agent class of 2021 got a lot more ordinary, and signing players to rich deals just because you have cap space is a fast track to mediocrity or worse.

 
With Giannis not in play, should Raptors look at a big trade?
December 15 2020

From that vantage point, the Raptors may be better off extending Anunoby and taking a longer-term view towards finding a way to get back to the Finals with a core of him, VanVleet and Pascal Siakam, then waiting to strike the next time opportunity knocks.

Maybe that could still be Antetokounmpo but under different circumstances.

Landing a fish that big takes the ultimate degree of patience.

The Raptors have proven over Ujiri era to have plenty of that. With Antetokounmpo’s decision made, they’re going to need it.

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