A two-time MVP leads his team to the best record in the league in back-to-back years, only to lose in the Eastern Conference Finals and then Eastern Conference Semifinals before talk of his free agency consumes the NBA world.
Wait, are we talking about Giannis Antetokounmpo or LeBron James?
While Antetokounmpo hasn’t officially been named the 2019-20 MVP yet, the 25-year-old forward is widely expected to take home his second straight Maurice Podoloff Trophy. If he does, he’ll be the first player in the East to do so since LeBron James.
James’ age when he left the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team that drafted him and he had called home his entire career? You guessed it, 25.
The similarities between the two players at this stage in their careers are scary.
By his sixth season in the league, James had wrested the title of best player in the NBA away from Kobe Bryant, the same title Antetokounmpo has now arguably taken from James. Antetokounmpo’s player efficiency rating the past two years? 31.3. James’ rating during his sixth and seventh seasons? 31.4.
While their playing styles are different, James’ past and Antetokounmpo’s future could forge the same path, but only if the Bucks don’t learn from the Cavaliers’ mistakes.
Mistake No. 1: The Band-Aid Trade
After the Cavaliers won 66 games in the 2008-09 season, the much-anticipated LeBron James-Kobe Bryant NBA Finals seemed destined to happen.
After sweeping through the first two rounds of the playoffs, however, the Cavs lost to Dwight Howard‘s Orlando Magic in six games, prompting the first serious concerns about James’ future.
Cleveland’s big men were either too skinny (Anderson Varejao), too slow (Zydrunas Ilgauskas) or too old (Ben Wallace) to effectively defend Howard, prompting the Cavs to go hunting for a center who could properly match up with the 2004 No. 1 overall pick.
This is where general manager Danny Ferry and the Cavaliers front office messed up.
He was also 37.
Tony Dejak/Associated Press
The Cavs traded for O’Neal based on his name and past production, a move that would end up being the biggest of the offseason. O’Neal’s contract was enormous, taking up $20 million of the then-$57.7 million salary cap, or nearly 35 percent of the cap. Compared to the $109.14 million cap this year, it would be the equivalent of a player making $38.2 million, a mark only Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, James Harden and Kevin Durant reached this season.
While the move kept the fanbase energized and shed some positive PR light after a devastating early playoff exit, it ultimately did nothing to help Cleveland win a title or keep James.
O’Neal played only 53 games during an injury-plagued season, and his scoring average dropped from 17.8 points per game the prior season to 12.0 with the Cavs, a new career low.
The Bucks could make the same mistake now by trading for Chris Paul.
Like O’Neal, Paul was back in the All-Star Game this year after a brief hiatus. His stock is fairly high, and it was easy to forget Paul’s combination of age and contract when watching him push the Houston Rockets to seven games in the first round of the playoffs.
Would Paul be an upgrade over Eric Bledsoe in Milwaukee? Yes, but like O’Neal over Ilgauskas at the time, it’s merely a Band-Aid fix rather than a long-term solution.
Before this season, Paul had played an average of only 59 games over the past three years, and his durability should only be more of a concern now at age 35. His contract is also brutal, as he’s owed $41.4 million next season and has a $44.2 million player option in 2021-22.
If Paul suffers a dip in play or a significant injury, the Bucks would have to pitch Antetokounmpo on coming back to a team with a 36-year-old deteriorating guard with the fourth-highest salary in the NBA. That isn’t exactly an ideal recruiting strategy.
The Bucks shouldn’t have to convince Antetokounmpo to re-sign; they need to make it impossible for him to leave.
Michael Conroy/Associated Press
Milwaukee needs to be targeting younger guards, ideally on deals that stretch past Antetokounmpo’s free agency in 2021. Jrue Holiday would be a perfect fit with his defense and playmaking. Buddy Hield is just starting a four-year extension. CJ McCollum is under contract until 2024.
Even Victor Oladipo would be a dream target to pair with Antetokounmpo, although he’ll become a free agent in 2021 as well.
The Bucks need to avoid any trade proposals for a mid-30s former superstar and focus on younger options to pair with Antetokounmpo.
Mistake No. 2: Abandon What’s Working
The 2008-09 Cavaliers didn’t win 66 games by mistake.
Yes, James single-handedly registered a league-high and career-best 20.3 win shares that season, but Cleveland played stifling defense and finally started putting the right pieces around the then-24-year-old.
Mo Williams and Delonte West brought outside shooting and playmaking to the Cavs’ starting lineup, Varejao was the perfect screen-setter and rebounder, and Ilgauskas provided size at 7’3″ and registered a plus-7.4 on/off rating.
While the Cavs were right to look for a better center for a potential playoff rematch against Howard and the Magic, head coach Mike Brown ended up changing three-fifths of his starting lineup.
The Cavs used second-year forward J.J. Hickson as a starting power forward over Varejao, replaced West with a 34-year-old Anthony Parker and started the 37-year-old O’Neal at center. The final results were predictably worse.
Mark Duncan/Associated Press
Cleveland won five fewer games with its reshuffled starting lineup, with a third-ranked defense dropping down four spots to seventh overall. In the most important offseason in the history of the franchise before James would become an unrestricted free agent, the Cavs were regressing.
A trade deadline deal for Antawn Jamison was even too late, a move that should have been made months earlier.
However, the Bucks have a far better team around Antetokounmpo now than the Cavs ever did around James in his first seven years in Cleveland.
Khris Middleton shouldn’t be going anywhere, and Brook Lopez is still an elite rim protector despite his dip in outside shooting during the regular season. Both should keep their starting jobs.
Bringing back Bledsoe isn’t a deal-breaker, either, although his continual playoff disappointments should have the Bucks searching for an upgrade. League sources told The Athletic’s Shams Charania that Bledsoe “is expected to become a potential trade candidate.”
Wesley Matthews carries a $2.7 million player option, and Milwaukee has a good insurance policy in Donte DiVincenzo in case the 33-year-old leaves in free agency.
While the Cavs were in a hurry to shuffle the pieces around James, the Bucks only need to add to their core.
Mistake No. 3: Fumbling Draft Picks
Draft picks can serve many different purposes for a franchise.
For teams needing to win now, current and future picks work best as trade bait. The Bucks owe a protected 2022 first-rounder to the Cavaliers stemming from a 2018 trade that brought in George Hill, but they can still trade firsts in 2020, 2024 and 2026.
As the Cavs entered James’ final seasons, the mismanagement of draft picks didn’t help build his confidence in the franchise’s future.
Frank Franklin II/Associated Press
After burning previous picks on players like Luke Jackson, Shannon Brown and Hickson, Cleveland traded only one first-rounder for veteran help (Jamison, 2010), including zero future selections. The Cavs’ final first-round pick with James on the roster came in 2009, when they selected a project in Christian Eyenga while passing on players like Patty Mills, Patrick Beverley, DeJuan Blair and Marcus Thornton who looked more capable of contributing to a title-chasing team right away.
The Cavs waived their second-round pick of that draft, Danny Green, after his rookie year.
They didn’t package draft picks for stars, and drafting a player in Eyenga who seemed years away from contributing in any real way was a complete head-scratcher. The Bucks need to do better.
While some of their own selections have busted (Jabari Parker, Rashad Vaughn, Thon Maker), Milwaukee did come away with DiVincenzo at No. 17 overall in 2018. The Bucks currently own the No. 24 overall pick in the 2020 draft via the Indiana Pacers, and they should have it firmly on the table in all trade talks.
Like the pick they owe to the Cavs in 2022, the Bucks would be wise to protect any future first-rounders they trade in case Antetokounmpo does leave, but keeping draft picks instead of cashing them in for help now would be a mistake.
Why Giannis’ Situation is Different than LeBron’s
Despite a devastating early playoff exit, there’s a far better chance for Milwaukee to keep Antetokounmpo than Cleveland had with James.
For starters, Antetokounmpo already shot down the notion that he would request a trade this offseason.
“It’s not happening. That’s not happening,” he told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports. “Some see a wall and go in [another direction]. I plow through it. We just have to get better as a team, individually and get right back at it next season.”
James never offered similar sentiments about the Cavaliers.
The Bucks also have a card to play that didn’t exist for the Cavs at the time, one that could speak louder than any other: money.
As B/R’s Eric Pincus noted earlier this week, the Bucks can offer Antetokounmpo a five-year supermax extension valued between $225-250 million whenever the offseason officially starts. There was no supermax in 2009. It later got added to the league’s collective bargaining agreement in part because of star players leaving their small-market teams like James.
The Cavaliers had to go into free agency with James to offer him a max deal, but all 29 other teams could make a pitch as well. The Bucks are the only team that can offer Antetokounmpo a new contract this offseason, one that might pay him $85 million more than any other team could in 2021.
James also purposely took a three-year deal following his rookie contract, planning to hit free agency the same time as Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Antetokounmpo has always seemed closer to his brothers in the league than fellow superstars like James, perhaps giving him less incentive to try to team up somewhere else.
The Bucks already have a far greater advantage to keep their superstar than the Cavs ever did, but they still need to avoid Cleveland’s mistakes to convince Antetokounmpo to re-sign.