The Whiteboard: What happens if Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn’t sign the supermax?

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Giannis Antetokounmpo could easily put Milwaukee Bucks fans out of their current misery by agreeing to sign the supermax contract extension his team is offering. It’d keep him in Milwaukee through the 2025-26 season, pay him $228 million over five years starting in 2021 and slam the door shut on all the free-agency buzz.

Based on the two-time reigning MVP’s comments on Wednesday, it’s starting to feel like Bucks fans are going to have that dark cloud hanging overhead all season long instead.

“Right now, I am not focused on that,” he told reporters. “I am just trying to focus on myself.”

Condolences to the Milwaukee fanbase, but “I am just trying to focus on myself” sounds like what you tell someone right before breaking up with them. The talk about “just focusing on basketball” and “letting my agent and the front office figure that out” doesn’t help either; we’ve seen how that familiar blueprint unfolded with Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis and Paul George.

The Greek Freak choosing not to sign the supermax doesn’t necessarily mean he’s leaving Milwaukee for sure. The Bucks could win the 2021 NBA Finals, and he’d be hard-pressed to leave a championship contender that finally broke through and won a title.

We also don’t even know that he won’t sign the supermax yet! While his lack of emphatic affirmation about his future in Milwaukee is troublesome, it could very well be the case that even Giannis doesn’t know what he wants to do yet. Maybe he’s going to see how training camp and the preseason goes with his new-look roster before committing to this franchise for a whopping six years.

But if Giannis and the Bucks felt annoyed about all the pressure, outside chatter and speculation over his future before this critical juncture, just wait until he declines to sign the supermax before that Dec. 21 deadline. All the talk from Antetokounmpo and head coach Mike Budenholzer about this “not being a championship-or-bust season” will go out the window real quick.

Because at that point, Milwaukee has exactly one 72-game season and one postseason to prove to Giannis that he can win titles there. The Bucks were the favorites to win it all last year until the pandemic, a four-month hiatus and Playoff Mike Budenholzer all conspired to turn them into pretenders. Adding Jrue Holiday, Bobby Portis, Bryn Forbes and D.J. Augustin helps their starting unit and their depth, but it won’t cover up their biggest flaw if Bud continues to limit Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and the rest of his starters to 35 minutes in tight playoff games.

So what should the Bucks do if Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn’t sign the supermax?

I don’t know which NBA talking heads, news aggregators and Los Angeles Lakers fans who don’t understand the salary cap need to hear this, but: *man shouting into the void emoji* The Milwaukee Bucks are NOT trading Giannis Antetokounmpo this season.

There are several reasons for this.

First of all, smart teams don’t panic-trade top-five players just because they’re approaching unrestricted free agency. Having just turned 26, Giannis represents the ultra-rare breed of superstar who’s won multiple MVPs and a Defensive Player of the Year award at his age. Even for a king’s ransom, you don’t just trade away a player like that unless the 2020-21 campaign is an unimaginable dumpster fire and there’s no other choice.

That scenario would require an onslaught of plagues on par with Biblical Egypt — injuries, positive COVID-19 tests, uncomfortable players-only meetings and an underperforming team fraught with tension every step of the way. It’s not impossible, but there’s also far too much talent here for it to be likely. Say what you will about Mike Budenholzer in the playoffs, but his teams rack up regular-season wins, and that’s all they can do to keep Giannis happy leading up to the March 25 trade deadline.

Second, we need to dispel this notion that the Bucks would risk losing him for nothing if they didn’t trade him before the 2021 NBA Trade Deadline. Other superstars have left in free agency under similar conditions, but most of those teams didn’t lose them for nothing; they often managed to work out sign-and-trades to at least get some manner of compensation for a departing superstar. It’s not as good as keeping a two-time MVP, obviously, but it’s at least something.

Third, while Giannis choosing not to sign that supermax would indicate he’s not totally sold on his future in Milwaukee, it wouldn’t mean the Bucks suddenly have zero shot at keeping him. Despite what happened with Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors, winning a title is a pretty damn good way to keep superstars happy. The Lakers feel like even heavier title favorites after their strong offseason and Milwaukee’s second-round playoff collapse, but ruling this team out of the title hunt would be shortsighted.

Fourth, it might not even take a title to get Giannis to re-up, even if he bypasses the supermax. Would a Finals berth be a tantalizing enough taste of NBA glory to convince him Milwaukee can eventually get him over the hump? There’d be other attractive suitors in free agency, of course, but even if the Bucks fell short in the championship round, they’d automatically be atop the list of teams he knows he could contend with in 2021-22 and beyond. And if Bud is the reason why the fell short, a simple coaching change might be enough to convince Giannis he’s still in the right place.

Make no mistake about it: Giannis Antetokounmpo deciding to bypass the supermax contract doesn’t open the door for other suitors as much as it busts it down altogether. It’d force the Bucks, their front office and their fanbase to learn to live with anxiety for a whole season, which would only compound the pressure that already comes with any team possessing championship expectations.

But all is not completely lost just yet if he doesn’t sign the supermax. It’d just put more pressure on the Bucks to finally get the job done … and make the dull roar of “TRADE GIANNIS!” objectively even more annoying no matter where your agenda lies.

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