Giannis Antetokounmpo’s impending free agency has been a hot topic of discussion in the NBA recently. His decision on whether to stay or leave the team that drafted him, the Milwaukee Bucks, will shape the NBA for the next decade. If Giannis leaves the small market Bucks for a larger market such as Los Angeles (Lakers) or San Francisco (Warriors), that team would be contending for a long time. Meanwhile, if Giannis stays and resigns with the Bucks, he will build a legacy there and attempt to bring them a championship. While this decision will shape their future, the Bucks should not be worried about losing Giannis Antetokounmpo during free agency in 2021.
What the Stats Say
Most of the worries of Giannis leaving the Bucks stem from the fact that Milwaukee is the fifth smallest market in the NBA. Several small market stars, such as Kevin Durant and LeBron James, have left the team that drafted them for a team that either had a larger market, better performance, or both. Since 2010, when player movement started to increase suddenly, there have been 64 All-NBA players that have either left or resigned with their team within 2 years. Of these 64 players, 27 came from small market teams. The market of an NBA team is based on their TV market size, found here. The cutoff for large market teams came after Miami, where there was a significant drop-off.
By examining the tendencies of past All-NBA players from small market teams, we can find a historical precedent for Giannis’s decision. The most important factors in the player movement decisions (leaving in free agency, resigning, or being traded) are the market of the player’s current team and the win percentage of the current team. Players are more likely to move from a small market to a big market and from a worse team to a better team. Let’s see how the market and success of a team affects player movement of All-NBA players.
Of the 27 All-NBA players that played for small market teams, 6 left in free agency, 9 were traded away, and 12 resigned with their team. This means that the retention rate was 44%. [Note: Retention rate = (Number that resigned) / (Number that resigned + Number traded away + Number that left in free agency) ] This number means that less than half of the players from small market teams that had a transaction within 2 years of their All-NBA appearance resigned. Players were more likely to immediately leave than immediately resign. While this number may not bode well for the small market Bucks, let’s compare this with the retention rate for large market teams. Of the 37 All-NBA players that played on large market teams, 9 left in free agency, 8 were traded away, and 20 resigned with their team. This comes out to a retention rate of 54% for large market teams. This number is about 10% larger than it is for the small market teams, meaning that small market players will leave more often than large market players.
However, these results overlook the other important component: team success. Since the Bucks have been a top team in the NBA for the past two seasons, they theoretically should have an advantage since it should convince Giannis to stay as he has a chance to win a championship. The retention rate for good teams (above 0.600 win%, which is 50 wins in 82 game NBA season) is 59%, whereas it is 37% for bad teams. This difference is greater than that of the small market and big market teams, meaning that success will be a major advantage to the Bucks’ case of keeping Giannis.
Since Giannis resides in a small market with a team that is successful, it is important to look at specific scenarios that match his. The retention rate for small market teams that are successful is 64%, a huge jump from the 44% for all small market teams. To show how impressive this is, large market teams that are successful only have a 57% retention rate. The success of the Bucks is a HUGE advantage in keeping their All-NBA player in Giannis Antetokounmpo. Since good small market teams actually have a good shot at keeping their players, I believe that the Bucks should not worry about losing Giannis in free agency.
If the Bucks Resign Giannis
Of course, this would be the ideal scenario for the Milwaukee Bucks. They would keep their MVP player and get to contend for at least a few more years. However, I think that the Bucks will have other problems if Giannis resigns.
The first is that once Giannis’s supermax goes into effect, the Bucks will be strapped for money. The supermax contract takes up a huge portion of the salary space for teams, meaning that the Bucks will have limited money to retain their players and improve continually. Additionally, small market teams struggle with acquiring impactful players. This is for two reasons: One is that really good free agents do not want to sign with small market teams and the other is that trading for stars is a difficult task. If the Bucks want to contend for a long time, they cannot be afraid to enter the luxury tax, something that has not held true recently. For example, the Bucks opted to let free agent Malcolm Brogdon walk instead of signing him and entering the luxury tax. Therefore, the best shot for the Bucks to win the title may actually be this year in Orlando. Finally, most of the past NBA champions have been teams from large markets. Only 7 small market teams since the ABA-NBA merger have won the championship, with five of them coming from the San Antonio Spurs (the other two were the 77 Trail Blazers and the 16 Cavs). The Bucks will struggle to constantly contend if they resign Giannis Antetokounmpo. Of course, this is still better than the alternative, which is losing Giannis and falling to NBA mediocrity.
If Giannis Leaves the Bucks
As I have already stated, I believe that this outcome is not likely. But it is definitely a possibility. First, we must assess Giannis’s options if he leaves the Bucks for a larger market. I have come up with four destinations that have been reported to be interesting in Giannis and have at least some type of chance of acquiring him.
Golden State Warriors
The Warriors come up often when talking about Giannis leaving the Bucks. The situation would be that the Warriors would pair their core of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson with Giannis to create yet another superteam and dominate the NBA once again. However, there are some issues with this. Of course, there is the money issue. The Warriors already have big contracts in Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andrew Wiggins. Therefore, the only way for them to acquire Giannis would be via trade. This is highly unlikely since the Bucks will not want to trade an MVP caliber player for oversized contracts and bad draft picks. The only way I could see it working is if the Warriors are willing to part ways with Klay Thompson, which I don’t think they are.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers always seem to come up in situations like these. They were a possibility for Kawhi Leonard both when he was traded and a free agent, and they trading for Anthony Davis, formerly of the New Orleans Pelicans. However, the salary situation is essentially impossible for the Lakers. LeBron James would have to take a pay cut to fit Giannis’s salary within the cap, and that would also mean that they fill out the roster with minimum players. The Lakers are much more likely to stick with their core than try to incorporate Giannis to their team.
I believe that the Heat are the most realistic option for Giannis. They have been successful in luring in past major free agents, such as LeBron James and Jimmy Butler. Coach Erik Spoelstra would be able to come up with a system that fits both Giannis and Jimmy Butler, and the Heat have tons of cap space in 2021. Moreover, they are filled with young players that shoot well, such as Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro. These role players would complement Giannis perfectly and bring the Heat lots of success. As long as the Heat keep their 2021 cap space open, they should be a prime candidate for Giannis Antetokounmpo. Personally, I believe that going to Miami would be the best basketball decision for Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The Raptors have had reported interest in Giannis Antetokounmpo, but no one seems to mention them as a possibility when discussing Giannis’s potential future destinations. It seems that their best shot of landing Giannis would be via trade. The Raptors have several desirable assets they could trade for Giannis, and Masai Ujiri already showed that he was not afraid to strike a franchise altering trade when he dealt for Kawhi Leonard. If Giannis declines to sign his supermax and the Bucks shop him, I believe that the Raptors could be a realistic trade partner.
The Bucks should not worry about Giannis leaving in free agency. Good small market teams have shown that they are able to consistently retain stars, but outliers such as Kevin Durant and LeBron James have led people to believe that all small market stars will leave their teams. As long as the Bucks do not decline significantly, they should have a very good chance at resigning Giannis. They have other advantages as well, since Giannis does not have a hometown team to lure him (like the Clippers did with Kawhi) and has not shown any interest in leaving Milwaukee. The Bucks have built the ideal situation around Giannis by structuring a team that fits him and having a coach with a system that caters to his strengths. Even more, I think that a finals loss would be the most beneficial result for resigning Giannis. A finals loss would signify that the team is a serious contender and gives a feeling of unfinished business so Giannis would want to stay and win a championship before leaving. The Bucks should not worry about losing Giannis Antetokounmpo in free agency because they are a very good team, Giannis has no hometown team, and Giannis has not shown any interest in leaving the city of Milwaukee.