MILWAUKEE BUCKS OWNERS Marc Lasry and Wes Edens read probabilities for a living. The two New York high-finance gurus operate funds that control more than $60 billion and routinely construct hundred-million-dollar deals based on those instincts. As they stepped inside Giannis Antetokounmpo's red-brick mansion on Dec. 5, they prepared to deliver a $228 million sales pitch. If their presentation was persuasive, they could dramatically tilt the likelihood that their franchise would retain one of the most dominant superstars of his generation for the indefinite future.
Assembling the offer was easy, but enduring the uncertainty over the past several weeks was not. The Bucks spent the offseason orchestrating a series of bold moves that reshaped their team. They had reason to believe they had solidified their case for their two-time MVP to commit to the franchise long term. After an amazing night in mid-November in which they swung one blockbuster trade and thought they were near another, Lasry made a late-night drive from his home in Connecticut to the city, working the phones like he was finalizing a grand merger.
At the time, the Bucks' optimism that they would get Antetokounmpo to commit to a five-year, supermax extension was high. They had delivered on a high-pressure promise they made before Antetokounmpo took a recharging holiday to Greece and believed that when he returned for the upcoming training camp, the true celebration would follow.
But by that important sit-down, Antetokounmpo had been back for a week and there was no definitive word on his plans. He had watched the Bucks' retooling effort with great interest from afar, sources said, but he hadn't in earnest dug into the granular details of each option available to him until he returned to the U.S. While the rest of the NBA waited in anticipation -- and Milwaukee in sheer anxiety -- Antetokounmpo was just beginning the process of educating himself on the financial and career implications of his options: a supermax now, a shorter extension with a player option or going into the season without committing and hitting free agency in 2021.
Now, Lasry and Edens finally had an opportunity to make their best case. They emphasized the Bucks' material and emotional investment into building a champion in Milwaukee, sources said. They reminded Antetokounmpo that they are every bit as competitive and committed to winning as their superstar, pointing to the aggressive pursuit of Jrue Holiday, and the luxury tax payments the franchise was prepared to incur if Antetokounmpo accepted the extension offer.
What they didn't overemphasize that day was the narrative of Antetokounmpo as a loyal steward of the Bucks franchise. That much was baked into the seven-year relationship, and didn't need repeating. Everyone in the room believed that Antetokounmpo wanted to remain a Buck -- the Bucks just needed to demonstrate that they wanted success as badly as he did.
Antetokounmpo's decision would not only be a crucial moment for the franchise. The Bucks had never truly recovered from then-MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar asking for a trade away from the small market 46 years ago. But a positive result would be a satisfying rebuke to the number of rival teams that had been not-so-quietly positioning themselves to pounce if Antetokounmpo passed and headed for free agency in 2021
Nobody left the meeting sure what exactly would happen. There would be jittery days that followed, which was only natural considering the pressure-packed weeks that preceded the meeting: a blockbuster trade, a botched deal for a player Antetokounmpo wanted, an awkward fallout that included an investigation, speculation and self-examination. It was hardly an artful dance that got them to Tuesday, when Antetokounmpo made the commitment heard around the basketball world, but it was a wild ride.
TWO DAYS AFTER the Bucks decamped from Disney World and flew back to Wisconsin following a bitter, second-round, playoff loss to the Miami Heat in September, Lasry asked Antetokounmpo to have lunch.
It was an informal get-together that included general manager Jon Horst and Alex Saratsis, Antetokounmpo's longtime agent. Both sides knew some important issues needed to be addressed going into a crucial offseason, sources said. Following multiple years of playoff flameouts as a top seed, aligning the team's goals with Antetokounmpo's was imperative. The Bucks needed to do everything to ensure his commitment to Milwaukee, and they needed to do it quickly.
Though Antetokounmpo emerged as a bona fide superstar over the past few years, he had rarely taken liberties to play the senior-front-office-adviser role often claimed by a franchise cornerstone. The brass in Milwaukee has typically consulted him when they're poised to make personnel decisions, but those close to the Bucks' operation say Antetokounmpo has never advocated for any teammate's departure or tried to play mastermind with elaborate transaction demands.
Yet, as the disappointment of the upset followed the team from Orlando back to Milwaukee, Antetokounmpo made a conscious decision, say those with knowledge of his thinking, to assume a more vocal role in the team's effort to upgrade the roster for 2020-21.
The bitter end to last season had prompted him to broaden his view of how and why contenders evolve into champions. Antetokounmpo came to understand that as inclined as he is to put the weight of the franchise on his shoulders, organizational strategies devised by owners, executives and coaches can make that process easier or harder for a superstar.
Over that three-hour lunch, Lasry had some of the more significant conversations about team-building he'd shared with Antetokounmpo. They talked about current Bucks players. They talked about current Bucks coaches. They talked about free agents who were entering the market. They talked about players on other teams -- ones that Antetokounmpo thought would be right to acquire. And they discussed the other things, such as how Antetokounmpo had begun feeling the early stages of recruiting from other players in the league. At one point, sources said, Antetokounmpo even showed the Bucks' management text messages from stars on rival teams who appeared to be beginning their pitch.
Among the many things Antetokounmpo grappled with as he began a pivotal offseason was not just being recruited, but the possibility of playing recruiter himself.
That lunch laid the foundation for the Bucks' offseason plan -- how they'd approach every deal with the goal of securing Antetokounmpo's commitment -- and a loose timeline even emerged. Antetokounmpo told Lasry and Horst he would soon depart for Greece for at least two months, and while no one knew when the next season might start, there was an expectation of changes by the time he'd returned.
ONE OF THE players Antetokounmpo emphasized, sources said, was a restricted-free-agent-to-be from the Sacramento Kings, Bogdan Bogdanovic. Antetokounmpo had respected Bogdanovic's game dating back to 2014 when the Serbian guard nailed four 3-pointers and scored 21 points to beat Antetokounmpo and Greece in the World Cup quarterfinals in Madrid. Last year, Antetokounmpo again witnessed Bogdanovic's ruthlessness in a friendly match in Athens, when he stole the show from the national hero returning for a rare game in his home country by scoring 28 and hitting five 3-pointers. Bogdanovic displayed the kind of fearlessness Antetokounmpo wanted to play alongside.
In addition to Bogdanovic, he cited Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal as a desirable target for the Bucks. Without impugning specific teammates, Antetokounmpo was implicitly suggesting what just about everyone in the organization -- and the NBA -- knew: The Bucks needed to upgrade their backcourt.
That meant the difficult business of moving on from a favorite of Antetokounmpo's.
Eric Bledsoe emerged as a foundational member of the Bucks' young core, both on and off the court. Though he'd been reticent and shy as a younger player, Bledsoe had blossomed into one of those guys referred to in the league as a "great teammate." For his 30th birthday last December, those teammates threw him a surprise party at Punch Bowl Social near the practice facility. Players and staff dressed for the occasion and crowded the dance floor. The vibe and connectivity of the night -- precipitated by a collective affinity for Bledsoe -- was a cultural hallmark for the team as they ran to the top of the standings. Antetokounmpo, there with his partner Mariah Riddlesprigger, was particularly festive and engaging.
But Bledsoe struggled in the Bucks' playoff runs in 2018, 2019 and 2020, with his ultimate undoing in Milwaukee occurring in the Orlando bubble. Again, he faded during big moments in the Bucks' conference semifinal series loss to Miami, when he logged a woeful true shooting percentage of 42.7.
For the front office, an upgrade at the point guard position would be the top item on the offseason agenda -- apart from a commitment from their MVP. Antetokounmpo monitored the Bucks' plans in free agency and the trade market through his agent and constant communication with the front office.
The Bucks inquired about Indiana Pacers guard Victor Oladipo, who made a trip to Greece in early November and spent time with Antetokounmpo. Sources say the two teams never came close to a deal structure that could've worked for either side. When Dennis Schroder was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, Antetokounmpo wanted reassurance from afar that even if the Bucks didn't land the Oklahoma City Thunder guard, they had at least made a valiant effort.
Milwaukee identified one player on the market as a natural fit, a ball handler with poise, range and size who also happened to be on Antetokoumpo's list: Holiday.
Dislodging him from New Orleans became their priority.
THE BUCKS MIGHT have been more motivated than any team to acquire Holiday, but they weren't the best equipped. The Pelicans made it known to suitors that they wanted a top 10 pick in this year's draft, sources said, and a number of teams went hunting to try to get one. The Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics were particularly aggressive but couldn't find a deal. The Atlanta Hawks, owners of the No. 6 pick, were interested in swapping it for Holiday but eventually abandoned the plan, sources said, when they weren't sure he would be willing to stay there after his contract expired in 2021.
Any deal on Milwaukee's end likely needed to include Bledsoe and future draft picks, along with expendable contracts. Whether that would be enough to reel in the best two-way guard on the market was uncertain, and at the outset the Bucks felt they were long shots. But as the other teams failed to deliver what Pelicans GM David Griffin wanted, he leaned into the same strategy he'd used a year earlier when trading Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers. Maybe he couldn't get the perfect player in return but he could make up for that with a volume of draft capital.
The Bucks, like the Lakers before them, expressed a willingness to part with a trove of draft goods to get what they felt was a transformational player -- not just to improve the roster but also to send the message to Antetokounmpo they were serious about immediate upgrades.
Once this was established, the Bucks were in the game.
As the process around Holiday dragged out and the Nov. 18 draft inched closer, the Bucks upped their initial offer of Bledsoe and a couple of first-round draft picks and a future pick swap, eventually reluctantly agreeing to include veteran guard George Hill.
The Bucks endured a long weekend while New Orleans mulled over the offers and, effectively, the direction of their team. Griffin eventually came back with another ask: one more first-round pick and one more pick swap to make for three total first rounders and two swaps. Essentially, New Orleans wanted to control the Bucks' draft for five years, starting in 2020.
This last offer staggered Milwaukee. As the decision-makers discussed it internally, sources said, they knew it was an overpay. They also knew there was the matter of eventually extending Holiday, which is expected to cost in the range of $30 million per season, sources said. But they recognized that not only would it be a tremendous upgrade to their roster but a strong message to the man in Greece, who was waiting to see substantial improvement.
The Bucks responded on that Monday: They'd do the three picks and two swaps. Griffin agreed. The Bucks had landed Holiday and that same day, they believed they had reeled in another Antetokounmpo pick.
Milwaukee had collected intelligence that led them to believe Bogdanovic had interest in coming to play with Antetokounmpo. There had been some contact between Bogdanovic and Antetokounmpo directly, sources said, and the two had expressed an admiration for each other. The mechanics of the deal worked out with the Kings enabled the Bucks to create an offer of four years and around $64 million to execute the sign-and-trade. Three days before free agency, the same night they'd lined up the Holiday trade, some parties thought the deal was in place, and news of it got out.
The issue was such an agreement would violate the league's tampering rules, which were both routinely flouted and the target of a league-wide crackdown this year. Teams and agents had been warned in a series of memos that promised stiff penalties for any team that defied the edict.
The NBA later launched an investigation into the Bucks, Kings and Bogdanovic. The results are pending. Bogdanovic's representation made it clear there was no agreement and that he would be listening to other offers when free agency opened two days later.
Over the next 48 hours, Horst pivoted and broke his free agent money into four different players: D.J. Augustin, Bobby Portis, Bryn Forbes and Torrey Craig, who was seen as the best value of the group because of his reputation as a stout defender. The Bucks were also able to re-sign Pat Connaughton for three years and $16 million, a move that may not have been possible had they acquired Bogdanovic.
On balance, the Bucks had landed their top guy and had gone down swinging on another. There was some question as to whether the miss on Bogdanovic would alter Antetokounmpo's outlook on the team's future. This week those questions were buried.
ANTETOKOUNMPO'S AGREEMENT TO a contract extension with the Bucks is a gift as much as it is a commitment. He is giving the Bucks time, the NBA's most valuable currency, and a lengthy runway.
This act is a double blessing, not only for the medium-term future but for the present. It lifts an anvil of stress that was sure to hang over the Bucks for the upcoming season, a scenario that has played out for a handful of small-market teams with the futures of megastars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis disrupting those franchises. All three ultimately departed.
Why Antetokoumpo chose to remain in a small, cold-weather market with a team that's underperformed its No. 1 seed each of the past two seasons isn't odd to those who've worked most closely with him. Antetokounmpo grew up in the organization. The team embraced his family and he loved having his brother Thanasis with him last season in Milwaukee, their lockers right next to each other.
Today, the franchise's persona reflects his sensibilities, the result of deliberate decisions made by ownership and management. Antetokounmpo has appreciated that commitment, and has responded in kind.
But even though he's signed, there isn't a sense of relaxation -- the real work is only beginning for the Bucks. Just as they navigated this offseason with his wishes front of mind, they must continue carefully building around his strengths and preferences.
If the Bucks fall short again next summer, the front office will need to renovate the structure around him again. The whispers that say he lacks the combination of game and guile to win a title will grow louder. Though Antetokounmpo is devoted to the franchise and market, a player's sentiment can change overnight, with a trade demand always a lingering possibility, even from a player on a supermax deal. Neither Russell Westbrook nor John Wall are still with the team who signed them to supermax contracts -- the two were traded for each other two weeks ago -- and James Harden has asked out of Houston, where he signed a supermax extension in 2017.
Securing Antetokounmpo is not the end game; it's the launching point. For a superstar of Antetokoumpo's temperament, the only thing worse than abandoning a goal is falling short of it. And for a franchise like the Bucks, the only thing worse than losing a superstar is squandering his prime.
The pressure of retaining Antetokounmpo hasn't been relieved -- it's just been elevated.