NBA Free Agency: Why Giannis not asking for a trade is good for the Toronto Raptors

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Giannis Antetokounmpo wants to stay.

That was the unequivocal message from the Milwaukee Bucks superstar after speaking with Chris Hayes of Yahoo Sports: ”It’s not happening. That’s not happening,” Antetokounmpo said. “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.”

With that, the winds of war died down a bit across the NBA — just before the Giannis news was circulated there were reports that the L.A. Clippers would try to put together a package to nab Giannis. Of course, pretty much every upper-echelon contending team has been linked with the league MVP — including the Toronto Raptors. (And how nice it is after being a fan since the Vincenzo Esposito days to get to write that and for it to be true.)

Now, no matter how emphatically Giannis says he wants to stay put — at least until his free agency in 2021 — it isn’t going to keep other GMs from trying to pry him away from Milwaukee. Nor does it mean Bucks ownership won’t decide that discretion is the better part of valor and try to cash in on arguably the best player in the NBA anyway.

Still, it seems the pressure on Milwaukee GM Jon Horst has ebbed a little, and should allow him to focus more on finding the missing pieces to the puzzle rather than battling the barbarians at the gate intent on breaking through and robbing Mill of Waukee of it’s most valuable treasure.

So, why is this good news for Toronto? Aren’t they one of those upper-echelon contending teams in the hunt? (Yep, still feels nice to type that.)

Surprise! I’ve got a few reasons:

1) The Raptors don’t have the best assets to make a trade for Giannis now

While Toronto’s cupboards are hardly bare, they aren’t as well-positioned as some other teams to leap on a panicked Bucks’ front-office.

OG Anunoby would undoubtedly be the key ask by Milwaukee. Ujiri would want to avoid making a deal that includes his best wing defender and burgeoning offensive player, but he would probably have to. This is where Pascal Siakam’s tough showing in the Bubble hurts in another way. With Siakam’s salary about to spike it seems unlikely the Bucks would want to lock their cap sheet in to a player who seemingly has all of Giannis’ weaknesses, without the same overwhelming strengths.

Norman Powell can opt out of his deal after next year, so he’s a dangerous roll of the dice for the Bucks, while — depending when Milwaukee felt the pressure to get something done — none of Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol would be controllable assets or of much use for salary matching. (Because you know in any Giannis deal the Bucks are going to want to find a way to dump additional salaries.)

Terence Davis has shown promise, but isn’t a needle mover yet and the Raps are too good as an organization for their picks — even ones kicked down the road — to seemingly have lottery potential.

Compare that to teams like Miami who would probably make everyone but Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo available (and might be talked into the latter given the question of fit with another so-so shooting big like Giannis). They also have oodles of mid-tier salaried players of various degrees of usage.

Both Oklahoma City and New Orleans could accelerate their respective re-builds by offering some of the horde of picks they both possess and any player on their teams not named Zion or Shai. (And while that may seem far-fetched, the Raptors success with Leonard may have emboldened other executives to take an unlikely swing for the fences. Plus, if Giannis did have big success in either of those cities, he seems more like the type to re-sign.)

Teams like Philly or Dallas have, arguably, more valuable stars to trade in Ben Simmons/Joel Embiid or Kristaps Porzingis, While Golden State has the no. 2 pick, the upcoming Wolves pick, Andrew Wiggins (stop laughing — as a third guy he’s fine, maybe even good), a surprise breakthrough like Eric Paschall, and perhaps the willingness to eat long-term money.

Regardless, while Toronto would be very much in the mix if Giannis demanded a trade, they wouldn’t be the favourite.

2) In trying to keep Giannis, Milwaukee might end up driving him away

I mentioned Oklahoma City earlier in a context that’s the opposite of what most people are discussing. A lot of talking heads are saying the play for the Bucks is to get Chris Paul — the shot-creating and shot-making maestro they seemingly need.

I don’t see what OKC’s incentive is to do that deal, other than cap relief (which given COVID-19 finances might be a lot stronger than I realize). I just don’t think that makes a lot of sense for the Thunder. Meanwhile, to make the math work the Bucks would have to toss in pretty much every salary that isn’t nailed down — e.g. George Hill, Robin Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova, Eric Bledsoe, and D.J. Wilson. Bledsoe is better than his playoff performances show, but at his salary he’s probably closer to a neutral asset, while Wilson has shown flashes, but been buried nonetheless. The Bucks would likely have to add Donte DiVincenzo to the deal and maybe take back semi-dead money like Terrance Ferguson to make it worth while for OKC.

Even still though, that leaves the Bucks with a paper-thin roster. If they try to pivot to someone like, say, Bradley Beal, it’s most of the salaries above, plus DiVincenzo and, how many first round picks?

We could try this with a number of targets, but the point is, the Bucks have few low-cost assets other teams would want, not a ton of bigger contracts that are desirable — depending how you feel about Brook Lopez — and aside from an Indiana first round selection — aren’t sitting on a mountain of excess picks.

If the Bucks do feel the pressure to win now before free agency they could easily end up with a roster that is still not good enough, a worse looking cap-sheet, and no future assets. If that’s the case, does Giannis still feel so loyal?

3) Giannis doesn’t have a lot of tangible NBA relationships except…

In today’s NBA, players being friends has seemingly influenced player movement — from LeBron and Wade in Miami, to Irving and Durant in Brooklyn, to KAT and Russell in Minnesota (sorry Wolves fans, that one feels… less exciting).

Giannis doesn’t seem to have any of those sort of relationships that would give him the incentive to try to push his way to a particular team. The point has been made that because of the fact he came by way of Europe rather than AAU ball, he doesn’t have the deep collection of relationships that is the norm for other stars. For his part, Giannis has said that he doesn’t look to build those relationships for competitive reasons.

Of course, Giannis does have friends. He and Steph Curry seem to like each other just fine, thank you very much, and it’s been reported he has great “affection” for Clippers coach Doc Rivers. But deep, tangible relationships? Not so much.

Except…

Except maybe Masai Ujiri?

Ujiri, of course runs the Basketball Without Borders program that focuses on developing African hoops. Giannis has done some work with the organization. Masai is Nigerian, Giannis has Nigerian roots — both his parents are from the country. Masai helped Giannis and his brother get Greek citizenship and…

Wait, what?

That may be the story. It’s really only been reported once, by the Toronto Star’s Doug Smith, who mentioned Masai helped Giannis’ family emigrate from Nigeria to Greece. Although at the time Giannis’ parents would have made the journey, Masai would have been 22 — and still been playing hoops himself.

Some believe that Smith got mixed up and meant that Masai helped Giannis get his Greek citizenship. That might be more plausible. Because his parent’s were not legal immigrants to Greece, Giannis didn’t have the right identification to play for Greek developmental teams while he was growing up. He only got his citizenship in 2013 right before the FIBA under 20 tournament. Some believe that Masai helped expedite the progress, though there doesn’t seem to be a lot of hard proof walking around on that.

Regardless, Giannis does have a soft-spot for Masai — last year he talked about how he “cared” for Masai, and called him unbelievable.

Now Giannis spending another year totally focused on the Bucks doesn’t preclude him from further developing other relationships, but from what he’s said, and what we know of Antetokounmpo, it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll spend next year making goo-goo eyes at someone else, like Anthony Davis and the Lakers.

Of course, the odds still seem deeply stacked in favour of Giannis staying in Milwaukee. In fact the smart play for the Bucks might be to assume Giannis will re-sign and make a series of lateral moves to improve their medium term prospects while not weakening what is still a very good team now. (Maybe instead of OKC’s Chris Paul, they target Denis Schroder, another play-making guard, for example.) Then, they could perhaps find a home for Eric Bledsoe in order to add more shooting. Bledsoe does have value, despite not being the perfect fit for this Bucks team. He could definitely be someone else’s Marcus Smart.

As a Raps fan though, that original Giannis statement puts Toronto in as good a position as anyone else in the league to woo Antetokounmpo when the time comes. With a trade seemingly off the table, Toronto can leverage their recent success, great culture, and perhaps most importantly, the deepest basketball relationship Giannis has outside of Wisconsin, to have a puncher’s chance of making Giannis an offer he can’t refuse in 2021 free agency.

(And hey, if he does stay with the Bucks? At least Miami doesn’t get him.)