Moore: A Lost NBA Season Would Hurt Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks the Most

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AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images. Pictured: Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) of the Milwaukee Bucks.

It has been more than 40 days since the NBA abruptly suspended its season. As of now, plans remain in limbo as the league assesses when it can return. And both teams and players are left to wonder how this will impact  a potential postseason, or if there will be one at all.

The team I am most worried about in basketball terms during this COVID-19 pandemic hiatus is the Milwaukee Bucks.

There are very few opinions I double down on. I’m willing to be swayed by evidence. I will maintain forever the Bucks were the better team in the Eastern Conference Finals last season and Fred VanVleet’s post-son’s-birth inferno shooting was what swung the series. He was the graphite tips in the RBMK reactor of the Bucks. (I’ve been watching “Chernobyl a lot.)

After they should have won last year, I expected them to dip a bit entering this season. My reasoning: It’s hard to have an eruptive season and then come back and play another 82 games at such a high level. This is the second time I made this mistake. The first time was the Golden State Warriors in 2016.

Whoops.

Before the stoppage the Bucks were 52-13, had the league’s best Net Rating, the sixth-best offense and the No. 1 Defensive Rating while playing at the league’s fastest pace. The last team to be the best defense at the fastest pace was the 2015 Warriors.

This seems like a random combination, but think about it: the faster you play, the more the floor is imbalanced, and after a sprint, the harder it is for defenses to get back. It’s why fast-paced games tend to also feature high offensive efficiencies, because guys are going back and forth putting up open shots.

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Robin Lopez #42 of the Milwaukee Bucks shoots the ball against the Denver Nuggets.

Here’s another way of looking at it. Imagine viewing the basketball floor from five rows above halfcourt. Now tilt the opponent’s goal down while the goal the Bucks are defending goes up, like a see-saw. The Bucks play fast, constantly attacking in transition downhill, running off misses, and cramming the ball down the opponent’s throat. Then their defense is always back, making the court the opponents are facing uphill. But that also means the Bucks have to get uphill before the ball does.

That balance is incredible and serious proof of their contender status. There are still several important questions to answer about the Bucks because they lost last year. But if the Bucks were the Lakers, Warriors, or Bulls, if they played in those cities, they would be talked about as a worthy contender and not “can they really win?”

Even after the loss to the Lakers, which so many critics and skeptics took as definitive proof because recency bias is the devil, the Bucks were still primed to make a real run at the title.

That is now in doubt.

Assuming awards are given out this season, Giannis Antetokounmpo will become a two-time MVP at age 25. In NBA history, only 13 players have won more than one MVP. Antetokounmpo will be tied with LeBron James as the second-youngest player to win multiple MVP awards; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won his second at 24 years old.

His contract expires after the 2020-21 season (assuming it’s played). This summer the Bucks are able to offer Antetokounmpo a super-max extension, for what is projected to be the second-largest contract in NBA history. (That probably won’t be the case given that NBA revenue estimates are about to fall off a very large cliff and go “poof” like a cartoon coyote.)

Think about the ramifications for the Bucks if the league does not hold the 2020 playoffs. Let’s assume for a moment that Antetokounmpo will sign the max extension if the Bucks win a title and he knows he can win in Milwaukee. That’s not an ironclad assumption, but it makes sense. The feeling of winning a championship permeates to such a degree that we can at least assume it makes it easier to accept hundreds of millions of dollars and an extra year you can’t get elsewhere.

But Antetokounmpo has to make that decision without the evidence of the 2020 playoffs if they aren’t played. And if they are played, what if the Bucks lose their rhythm?

What if the weird, disjointed process of coming back and trying to ramp up quickly for the intensity of the playoffs alters the results? What if the league, in an attempt to shorten the playoffs, changes the format, which opens the door for Duncan Robinson to hit an NBA record of 3s in back-to-back games or something?

If the Lakers don’t get to compete for a title, they’ll come back next year, and while LeBron is being actively pursued by father time, he continues to stiff-arm it. And the Lakers are at risk of losing their chance at another in a long line of titles. If the Clippers lose this season, they’ll have another chance, and while the contracts of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are shorter, there’s still the upside of having pulled off last year’s coup.

The Bucks, meanwhile, have won one championship, back in 1971. This despite their history of not tanking and consistently pushing for contention. They couldn’t get the players.

They have the player now. They drafted him, they developed him, they fired their coach to get an upgrade, they landed him a running mate, Khris Middleton, who became an All-Star, and they landed valuable veterans like Brook Lopez.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured (from left): Brook Lopez #11, Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 and Khris Middleton #22 of the Milwaukee Bucks.

Their decision to not re-sign Malcolm Brogdon last summer is worth criticism; they did not do everything to keep Antetokounmpo. But they have surely done enough, building a contender around him and giving him the most money available at every turn.

The problem exists the same for Antetokounmpo. Do you give up on the Bucks, turn down the extension, and ask for a trade without knowing if you could win? Antetokounmpo is a little different from most stars. He is fiercely competitive in a way that very few players, even at this level, are. Giving up on the Bucks without giving them a chance seems against his pattern.

So maybe he turns down the extension and plays out the rest of his contract to give the Bucks one more run at it.

The Bucks have managed to avoid catastrophic injuries two years in a row. Can they survive a third? Can they get the team to perform the way it did this year for a third season in a row? What about Wes Matthews and Kyle Korver, both a year older? Or Pat Connaughton, who is a free agent this summer?

This may have been it for them. If Antetokounmpo re-signs? Then sure, the window is extended through the life of that contract, or at least until the final 18 months of that contract, given that’s now when guys start asking out (which is ridiculous, by the way).

Milwaukee has had two transcendent NBA players in its history: Abdul-Jabbar and Antetokounmpo. It’s very possible the Bucks walk away from this season without adding to that one championship and having seen both those franchise=altering talents playing for a California team.

It’s no secret that the Warriors covet Antetokounmpo the way every team in the league does. They leveled one small market team with a great chance of a title already. Will they do it again?

There are undoubtedly way bigger concerns for everyone, even with the Bucks, than these thoughts. But if we look at the ways sports history will play out whenever the NBA resumes, the Bucks undoubtedly have the most to lose of anyone.

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