The Milwaukee Bucks are about to make the most widely-debated conventional decision in all of basketball. With Giannis Antetokounmpo a year away from free agency and Milwaukee’s long-term prospects in doubt, the questions came in immediately after the Bucks were eliminated from the postseason. Would they proactively trade Giannis to avoid losing him for nothing? The answer, so far, has been a resounding “no.” Antetokounmpo said himself he would not ask for a trade. Reports from Milwaukee’s side claimed that the Bucks wouldn’t even consider one. The stakes could not possibly be higher. The Bucks are about to bet their entire future on a one-season recruiting mission.
And should that mission fail, the hindsight police will come out and say the Bucks were crazy not to hedge that bet preemptively. It is the sort of post hoc analysis that always follows major free agency departures. The fact that a player left, in the popular imagination, means that the player never considered staying at all. That there was never any good reason to keep a player who obviously didn’t want to be there.
Well, there is one good reason, and it’s a simple one. Giannis is really, really good. Having an MVP-caliber player is the single-most important driver of winning in basketball. The return when trading them almost never yields a similar talent, and it therefore almost never yields the sort of winning that an MVP can create. Instead, those deals tend to produce a high-level starter or two, some draft picks, and years of mediocrity. The goal is to win a championship, and put simply, one year of Giannis is more valuable in that pursuit than anything history says that they could trade him for.
The threshold to championship contention, in most years, is a top-10 player. Twenty-eight of the past 30 NBA champions had a player on one of the first two All-NBA Teams. The other two had third-teamers, but one of those was Hakeem Olajuwon, a former MVP. Among those 28 teams, 21 had a First-Team All-NBA player. So let’s do some basic math. If we treat those numbers as a historical constant, having a top-10 player in a given season would give you a 9.3 percent chance at a championship, and a top-five player would push you up to 14 percent.
The Bucks were actually above this pace for most of the season. FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR projections gave them around a 20 percent chance to win the title for the bulk of season, while SportsLine’s Stephen Oh had their odds above 35 percent entering the postseason. Obviously, such numbers are no guarantee, but it speaks to the inherent randomness of a sport with 30 teams. Only one gets to hoist the trophy. Jumping from one-out-of-30 odds to one-out-of-three is about as close as a normal team can get to championship contention, especially when the alternative, historically speaking, is almost zero percent.
In the post-merger NBA, only a single franchise has won a championship within a decade of trading away a player who made an All-NBA team. That would be the Los Angeles Lakers, who gave away Shaquille O’Neal but still had a spare superstar in Kobe Bryant. Meanwhile, literally every champion of the 1980s had at least one All-NBA player acquired through trade: The Lakers (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and 76ers (Moses Malone) grabbed established ones for bargain-basement prices, while the Boston Celtics stole Robert Parish from the Golden State Warriors before he reached stardom. This trend continued into the 1990s with the Bulls acquiring Dennis Rodman only a year removed from a third-team selection. Those same Lakers that won without Shaq? They only did so after acquiring Pau Gasol in a similarly lopsided trade.
The returns on those deals were preposterously low. The Bucks got two All-Star appearances out of Brian Winters and practically nothing else from the Kareem deal. They haven’t returned to the Finals since. The Rockets got a 33-year-old Caldwell Jones and the draft pick that became Rodney McCray. No All-Star appearances there. The returns on superstar trades now have grown significantly, but there’s context inherent to that growth that hardly guarantees a meaningful return for Milwaukee.
The Los Angeles Clippers were willing to give up a bounty for Paul George because his acquisition guaranteed the signing of Kawhi Leonard. There is no such Giannis package deal on the table. The only superstar free agent this offseason is Anthony Davis. Even if he wanted to leave the contending Lakers, that duo makes little sense together, and the coronavirus pandemic would make it extremely difficult for any team to create the cap space to add both. Speaking of Davis, it’s worth noting that while his former team, the New Orleans Pelicans, is in strong shape for the future after trading him, the biggest reason for that is a fluke. They would have Zion Williamson with or without Davis.
Yet Davis, in a sense, presents one of the best arguments against trading an impending superstar because of how he landed in New Orleans in the first place. When the then-Hornets dealt Chris Paul to the Clippers, they intended to at least remain somewhat competitive. Had the main piece of that deal, Eric Gordon, remained healthy, they might have done so. But he got hurt, and without Paul, the Hornets flopped. Their lottery odds rose high enough after such a miserable season that they were able to secure Davis in the NBA Draft.
In that sense, letting a free agent walk doesn’t have to mean losing him for nothing. Adding a bunch of mediocre assets in the wake of losing a star only creates a mediocre team. Embracing a rebuild without said star is the quickest path to getting another one because losing that star creates a secret asset: It boosts the value of a team’s own draft picks. The Cleveland Cavaliers are a perfect example of this. After losing LeBron James, they tanked for four years. That yielded some direct results, such as the picks that became Tristan Thompson and Andrew Wiggins, who was later dealt for Kevin Love, but it also opened the door for them to function more like a rebuilding team on the trade market. Their willingness to take on Baron Davis’ contract, which a contending team would not have done, is what ultimately got them the pick that became Kyrie Irving. Eventually, LeBron returned, and the rest is history.
Let’s imagine a world in which the Bucks did decide to trade Giannis. Pretend that the best offer out there is something like Draymond Green, the No. 2 overall pick and Minnesota’s lightly protected 2021 first-rounder, which, at least based on what is immediately apparent, is a package that likely could not be topped without ruining a destination to such a degree that Antetokounmpo would not want to stay there. Do the Bucks with Green and a likely non-star from a bad draft class sound like the sort of team that could ever have a 35 percent chance to win the championship? Or a 20 percent chance? A 14 percent chance?
Of course not. It looks like a mishmashed semi-contender that would win 45 games for a few years before the veterans aged out. The youngsters that replaced them, whether decent or not, would age into a capped out roster with little prospects for improvement. If any of them happen to be worthwhile, they’d probably start to look for a way out, too. Forget about the optics of “losing Giannis for nothing.” That future is nothing.
And even if the alternative of actually getting nothing for an MVP departing in free agency is potentially as grim, the token assets the Bucks could get for a half-hearted rebuild would, in all likelihood, never get them close to the chance they’d have at winning the 2021 championship with Giannis. One year of his services means one year of championship contention. That’s better than five, 10 or 15 years of anything else.
If you lose and he leaves? Great, now you have an easier path into a rebuild. If you win and he leaves? Banners fly forever. Just ask the Raptors. And if he stays following a championship you bet on by keeping him in the first place? That’s your path to five more years with the MVP on your team. Whether you have that player for one year, five or 15 more, he is so uniquely valuable that going down with the ship is the better option than jumping overboard.