The Lakers won the championship.
The Bucks came a close second for the NBA’s most-significant accomplishment this year.
Milwaukee convinced Giannis Antetokounmpo to sign his super-max extension. That’s the difference between prolonged championship contention and irrelevancy.
We can discuss what it means for Antetokounmpo, what it means for the NBA, what it means for anyone else even tangentially involved. But it is a massive, massive victory for the Bucks.
A back-to-back reigning MVP who’s still just 26, Antetokounmpo could own the NBA for the next half decade. He must improve his game for the playoffs, but his track record suggests he will. Antetokounmpo is on his way to becoming an all-time great.
His extension – which will be worth more than $228 million over five years – doesn’t guarantee he’ll spend his next five seasons in Milwaukee. But it does practically ensure, if he leaves before 2025 (when he holds a player option), the Bucks will get a gargantuan return in a trade.
The extension also shows how much Antetokounmpo values staying in Milwaukee. He won’t necessarily feel the same way in five years, but it’s an encouraging baseline for the Bucks. Though his thinking might evolve, it’s not as if he’ll become a completely new person over the next five years.
But he will get a pretty new team this season.
Milwaukee traded a whopping three first-round picks and two first-round pick swaps to land Jrue Holiday from the Pelicans. Holiday is an excellent player who immediately boosts the Bucks’ championship odds.
But that is an extremely high price to pay. Both future first-rounders and both first-round swaps owed to New Orleans are unprotected. The 2026 swap and 2027 pick are even due after Antetokounmpo’s contract could end.
Holiday also has only one season remaining on his contract before a player option. Milwaukee better have an agreement in place for an extension or terms on re-signing. Otherwise, Holiday will hold incredible leverage in free agency next summer. Capped out but holding Holiday’s Bird Rights, the Bucks could re-sign him but would have no way to replace him.
Even if retaining Holiday, Milwaukee faces long-term concerns. Antetokounmpo’s supporting cast already looked disturbingly old. Holiday, 30, doesn’t exactly solve that problem.
Holiday could help the Bucks win a championship – the ultimate goal – before declining. But if he doesn’t work out, Milwaukee is depleted of assets to shift direction.
The trade also cost the Bucks starting point guard Eric Bledsoe and top reserve George Hill. Though his postseason deficiencies made upgrading to Holiday so important, Bledsoe was still a near-star in the regular season. Hill was a Sixth Man of the Year candidate who held up in the playoffs.
Milwaukee also lost starting shooting guard Wesley Matthews to the Lakers in free agency. Seventh man Marvin Williams, who was essential to unlocking the Bucks’ small-ball lineups in the playoffs, retired. Milwaukee didn’t re-sign Kyle Korver, 39. Though more of a regular-season player, Robin Lopez opted out and still commanded a $7.3 million salary from the Wizards, which says something about his value. The Bucks waived Ersan Ilyasova, another regular-season player but still a positive contributor, due to the hard cap.
Antetokounmpo is the first MVP to return to a team where most of his supporting cast, measured by postseason minutes, has departed. Just 47% of the other Bucks’ playoff minutes return next season:
The only other cases under even 60%: Russell Westbrook with the 2017 Thunder and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with the 1976 Lakers. A No. 6 seed that won just 47 games, Oklahoma City was highly atypical of an MVP-producing team. The 1976 Lakers were the only team with an MVP to miss the playoffs (requiring me to use regular-season, rather than postseason, minutes in their calculation).
The Bucks were nothing like those teams.
A regular-season behemoth, Milwaukee won 60 games two years ago and won at a 63-win pace last season. But the Bucks’ style of play left them vulnerable in the playoffs. Milwaukee lost to the Raptors in the 2019 Eastern Conference finals then got smoked by the Heat in the 2020 second round.
Credit the Bucks for understanding the urgency of their situation despite all their regular-season success.
In addition to Holiday, they were set to add another player who has thrived in big games (in Europe) – Bogdan Bogdanovic. But a sign-and-trade with the Kings got bungled.
That left Milwaukee scrambling to fill its rotation.
The Bucks triggered the hard cap by signing D.J. Augustin with the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (three years, $21 million with the final season barely guaranteed). Good luck determining whether his slippage with the Magic last year was the result of age-related decline or just Augustin’s up-and-down nature. He’s now 33, and his small size leaves him vulnerable in the playoffs.
I believe Bobby Portis (1+1, room exception) has the capability to play well in Mike Budenholzer’s system. But Portis must hone his game in ways he hasn’t come close to doing – especially defensively.
Bryn Forbes (1+1, $4,791,147, which was the rest of the mid-level exception) replaces Korver as the 3-point shooting specialist. Torrey Craig (one year, minimum) is a defensive specialist.
If all goes well, these players will re-enter free agency with the shine of a successful season and seek bigger contracts. And that’s the best-case scenario.
Milwaukee’s lack of depth is evident by the need to roster No. 45 pick Jordan Nwara and No. 60 pick Sam Merrill because they count less toward the hard cap than minimum-salary free agents. For second-round rookies who might occasionally be pressed into action on a championship contender, Nwara and Merrill actually look pretty good. For whatever that’s worth.
The Bucks also re-signed backup guard Pat Connaughton, but that was its own fiasco. Their initial agreement was illegal due to contract-length requirements for Early Bird contracts. So, Milwaukee wound up giving Connaughton even more money. It’s unclear whether that hindered the Bucks this offseason, but it was a disconcerting follow-up to the Bogdanovic episode.
Those sagas raise alarm bells about the Bucks’ general competency. Luckily for them, Antetokounmpo looked past that.
Antetokounmpo also granted the organization a reprieve on spending. With the superstar forward locked in, I’m not confident the Bucks will pay the luxury tax beyond this season. Maybe they will. But it was also painfully evident how much the team would’ve benefitted from doing so last season, and they didn’t.
The upside for Antetokounmpo: His extension removes a tension that could have consumed the team. With clear minds and Jrue Holiday, Milwaukee looks more-capable of winning a championship this season.
But there are an uncomfortable number of potential pitfalls in the years ahead.
To be fair, many were in place before the offseason began. The main goal this offseason was securing Antetokounmpo, and the Bucks did that.
That we’re even discussing their long-term future in with such attention is because of that triumph.