The Milwaukee Bucks looked like a team on the rise 12 months ago, winning 41 games and competing (sort of) with the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Results since then are certainly more mixed than some of us may have liked, but one result has become crystal-clear:
Giannis Antetokounmpo is on his way to becoming an NBA star.
Three years ago, stardom was a far-fetched "best case scenario" for the super-raw, super-long forward from Greece. I took a trip to the Brew Hoop archives and pulled out some choice reactions to the Bucks selecting Giannis at #15, out of basically nowhere:
- "that must be for someone else, the bucks don't take upside guys do they?" - puremisery
- "He has a fifteen foot wingspan" - oldresorter
- "Can he be our point guard?" - Mars8254
- "I'm excited about Giannis Adetokounbo playing for the Bucks. This kid is for real." - apostolos.pos
- "We all know the reality of the draft: the only way to find future stars at #15 is by gambling, and that's almost all we can say about this pick for now." - Frank Madden
- "NBA teams don't put the ball in the hands of a 6'9 player just because they can dribble around without getting the ball ripped from them; they give the ball to 6'9 players to create when the player does something special on the floor." - Steve von Horn
- "I completely didn't expect this and had never even heard of the guy. Taking a big chance on a high-ceiling guy, not a bad idea." - AcesHigh
Looking back at some of the commentary now, it's remarkable to think about just how unlikely this whole situation is. Throughout his short career, Giannis has drawn comparisons to so many different players: Nic Batum, Andrei Kirilenko, and Anthony Randolph, and even some HOF-level guys like Julius Erving, Scottie Pippen, and Magic Johnson. But we're quickly finding out that Giannis is in a class of his own...which brings us to the point of this article: If Giannis is going to be the Bucks' first star player since...Ray Allen (I guess?)...they need to commit to him, and they need to commit to him now, and there's no better way to commit than with the full 5-year rookie max extension on July 1st.
The other side of the argument is a fair side to take. Giannis is still very much an unfinished player, despite his considerable tools on both sides of the court. He's also only produced at a high level for a very short amount of time, which raises the question: has there ever been a player in line to make so much money with such a small body of work?
Let's work on that question in two parts: Giannis' body of work as an NBA player, and comparable rookie extensions in recent NBA history.
Giannis' NBA Career: By the Numbers
Giannis' raw per-game totals from his third season are impressive enough on their own: 16.9 points on 50.6% shooting, 7.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists, along with 1.2 steals and 1.4 blocks. The list of players since 1979-1980 that, within their first five seasons, have matched those scoring, shooting, rebounding, and assist numbers is short: only 12 names across 17 individual seasons qualify. Names on that list include Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan. In fact, those five legends account for 8 of the 17 seasons listed in that table. Giannis is not only on that list, but at 21 years old is tied with Magic as the second-youngest player to have a season on that list.
Or you can go off of his totals, and take away all the qualifiers, and you end up with this list of 17 individual seasons where the player met the same totals as Giannis just did. That list is different from the previous one, as it includes guys like Chris Webber, Julius Erving, Kevin Garnett, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but it shows the sheer impact Giannis had on the floor. And yes, at 21 years old, Giannis is tied with KG as the youngest player to have reached those season totals.
But beyond basic per-game averages and cherry-picked search criteria, what is most impressive about Giannis' NBA growth is the rate of improvement. Coming into the league as a teenager with so little basketball experience (soccer had been his and his brothers' sport of choice only a few years before), Giannis was the classic example of a prospect who was "two years away from being two years away." Under that assumption, Giannis should just now be getting close to contributing to an NBA team. Instead, he's taken a leadership role on a young team and is doing just about everything: Giannis was second to Khris Middleton in scoring, second to Greg Monroe in rebounding, second to Michael Carter-Williams in assists, and second to John Henson in blocks, all while playing the second-most minutes on the team.
This, in Year 3 of Giannis, would have seemed like an absolute best-case scenario way back in June of 2013. Here are all the different ways Giannis has improved his impact on the court (all stats are per-36 minutes, to normalize between his rookie season and his third season):
- Doubled his shots made per game (6.5 in 2015-16, up from 3.3 in 2013-14)
- Increased his field goal percentage by 9.2 points (50.6% in 2015-16, up from 41.4% in 2013-14)
- Increased his free throw attempts by a factor of 37% (5.2 in 2015-16, up from 3.8 in 2013-14)
- Increased his overall rebounding by 22% (7.8 in 2015-16, up from 6.4 in 2013-14)
- Increased his assist output by 57% (4.4 in 2015-16, up from 2.8 in 2013-14)
- Improved his assist percentage by 7.9 points (20.0% in 2015-16, up from 12.1% in 2013-14)
- Decreased his turnover percentage by 4.6 points (14.8% in 2015-16, down from 19.4% in 2013-14)
- Improved his PER by 8.0 points, a factor of +74% (18.8 in 2015-16, up from 10.8 in 2013-14)
- Increased his overall by nearly half (22.3% in 2015-16, up from 15.0% in 2013-14)
I feel the need to repeat myself, because it bears repeating: the rate at which Giannis is becoming a top-flight NBA player is nearly unfathomable. Players in the past have in some areas improved by similar rates, if not more substantial ones, but Giannis is doing EVERYTHING. He is a 6'11" forward who can play the point on offense, defend bigs on defense, and do just about everything in between.
Off the top of my head, these are some players I can think of that fit that description: LeBron James and Magic Johnson, except Giannis is taller than both. Scottie Pippen didn't usually run point, but did a lot of other similar stuff, could initiate sets when needed and was a better defender. Draymond Green is a very different player but has a similarly diverse overall impact on the game. Young Minnesota-era Kevin Garnett played bigger, but had a similar impact. Save for Draymond Green (who's on his own track), those are some of the all-time greats we're talking about, and Giannis is, dare I say, putting himself on their level.
The Other Side of the Coin
Here's the part where we temper ourselves a little bit. Giannis' statistical improvement has been great, but his production has only started bordering on "elite," and the sample size (post-all-star break) remains relatively small. How much further will that improvement take him, and how well does it translate to on-court success? Beyond the numbers, if we think about the role he's taking on (primary creator on offense, lead scorer, transition centerpiece, versatile defender, and rim protector), can we think of anyone else who's done all those different things at the same time?
Those are questions worth asking, even for the most fervent Giannis fans, who I propose we start calling "AntetokounmBros," regardless of the fact that Giannis and Thanasis are already using the name. These questions will likely come to a head in July, since they'll be a part of the case the Bucks have to make either for or against offering Giannis the maximum extension. Also to be considered: if the Bucks rest on their laurels, Giannis will have teams lining up to offer him a max deal next summer; while the Bucks can offer the aforementioned five year deal, 7.5% raises and $144 million total, other teams can offer four years, 4.5% raises and up to around $107 million.
David Jin Park of Uproxx had an article about the rookie extension topic back in 2013, which of course starts off by citing the deal the Bucks made with Glenn Robinson back in the day, a now-absurd sounding 10-year, $68 million rookie contract. SBNation's Kevin Zimmerman did a great job breaking down the exact process for this sort of contract extension in 2014. These resources helped flesh out what the NBA landscape looks like for recent rookie extensions under the current CBA.
So which players in recent history have received a rookie max extension? And more importantly, how has it worked out? Let's start in 2011 and go by draft class:
Class of 2008
Derrick Rose - 5 years / $94.3 million
Russell Westbrook - 5 years / $78.6 million
Kevin Love - 4 years / $60.8 million
Derrick Rose is an excellent example of what can go right -- and wrong -- with a max extension. Fittingly, the 2011 CBA included the "Derrick Rose Rule," which allows players finishing their rookie deals to sign five-year deals for up to 30% (rather than 25%) of the cap if they meet one of three rather lofty criteria: starting two all-star games, earning two All-NBA berths or claiming the league MVP trophy. Moreover, the 2011 CBA also dictates that teams can sign only one "designated player" to receive a five-year extension of a rookie contract, with the caveat that up to one additional player who already has that contract can be acquired via trade. At the time, there was literally no reason tonot sign Rose to a max deal: he had already won the MVP, and only injuries and the Bulls' organizational troubles are to blame for his quasi-decline.
Russell Westbrook is a bad, bad man, but a good, good player, regardless of what Mark Cuban thinks. Like Rose, Russ has dealt with a few injuries of his own, but unlike Rose, Westbrook's career hasn't been derailed by them. He's a 5-time All Star and 4-time All-NBA Team player, and has easily lived up to the deal, especially with the cap now set to explode. Moreover, because Kevin Durant's five-year max was signed prior to the 2011 CBA, the Thunder were able to sign both players to five-year max deals, with Durant's qualifying for the 30% exception (ironically making him the first beneficiary of the Rose rule).
Kevin Love's contract negotiations with the Timberwolves back in 2011-2012 are a classic example of how to overthink a situation -- and in the process alienate a young star. At the time, Love was a great young player on a bad team, a versatile contributor who could do a lot on offense and cleaned the glass like few others (20.2 ppg and 15.2 rpg in 10/11). But when the Wolves decided they didn't want to make Love their designated 5-year player -- David Kahn and company had Ricky Rubio and (gulp) Derrick Williams waiting in the wings! -- Kevin and his camp decided to return the favor. The two sides eventually settled on a three-year max deal with a fourth year player option, enabling Love to effectively force a trade to Cleveland just two years later. Ultimately it worked out for both sides -- Love landed with a contender and the Wolves hit the reset button with Andrew Wiggins -- but the shorter deal forced Minnesota to make a decision two years earlier than they otherwise would have.
Class of 2009
Blake Griffin - 5 years / $94.5 million
James Harden - 5 years / $78.8 million
Hey look, another max player who's had some injury woes. Griffin basically red-shirted his first year in the league, and has had a number of injuries since then, but he's still a perennial all-star who has produced at an elite level for years. He's has been voted into the All Star Game five times and onto an All-NBA Team four times -- hence he qualified for the higher 30% max -- and it can't be said he hasn't earned the contract.
James Harden's defense sucks and he maybe isn't the easiest guy to play with. Other than that, he's a scoring savant who Oklahoma City could have kept with Westbrook and Kevin Durant, but instead he's carried a Houston team that followed up a trip to the conference finals last spring with arguably the most disappointing season of any team in the league. Still, Harden has been worth his contract and them some, and it's easy to forget that he got his max deal before turning into the perennial all-star we know today. After excelling in a sixth man role in OKC, Harden couldn't get Sam Presti to cough up a max deal -- amazingly, they were reportedly just a few million apart -- so the Thunder instead shipped him to Houston just four days before the deadline for extensions in the fall of 2012. He signed a max before ever suiting up for the Rockets, and he's been paying dividends ever since.
Class of 2010
John Wall - 5 years / $84.8 million
Paul George - 5 years / $91.6 million
DeMarcus Cousins - 4 years / $60.9 million
Colin Cowherd might not like this, but Wall is a top guard in the NBA. The three-time All Star is one of the fastest players in the open court and routinely ends up near the top of the league in assists and steals, along with his scoring prowess. That said, there is some legitimate debate about his ability to carry a team, and how much the Wizards' up-and-down performance can be attributed to him. Personally, I think the organization is a mess and that they're a good example of a team that tops out at "very good." But this isn't a Wizards blog, it's a discussion of Wall's performance relative to his contract, and on that front he's lived up to expectations, especially given the cap explosion due over the next two summers.
Paul George is an incredible athlete, a fact made all the more remarkable considering the horrific leg injury he suffered during a televised Team USA scrimmage in Las Vegas two years ago. Not only did he come back after missing the majority of the following season, but he has carried an otherwise lackluster Pacers squad to the playoffs, and continues to do so. George figures to be a regular fixture in the All Star game for as long as he continues to be healthy, and also has lived up to his expectations relative to his Rose Rule contract.
Boogie Cousins brings us to an interesting part in the conversation, especially since his max deal was the only one on our list that was for four years rather than five (with Love's weird situation as another exception). Individually, he is a star, with talents and production worthy of his reputation as such. But his teams have simply been...not good...for his entire career. He should be able to carry a team...but hasn't, at least not to any sort of success. He struggles to maintain his composure, clashes with teammates and coaches...but also hasn't been put in an environment that values stability and continuity, which can be a stressor in and of itself. Maybe that's why he only signed a 4-year deal; it certainly isn't like Sacramento has had anybody else worth a max contract.
Now, Boogie ≠ Giannis in a lot of ways, but the Bucks are sort of in a similar place that the Kings were: mediocre team that hasn't experienced any real success in years, faced with the opportunity to lock in a young star that (they hope) will lead them out of the muck. There are more than enough reasons why the Kings would be wary of offering 5 years to Cousins, all of them related to minimizing future risk, even if just a bit. I wonder if the Bucks would look at it the same way...
Class of 2011
Kyrie Irving - 5 years / $84.8 million
I am a noted Kyrie Irving hater. I don't have a good reason for it, I just don't like his game, regardless of how good he really is. Maybe because he is super-fragile, or because he was never quite able to carry a LeBron-less Cleveland squad. But my opinions are my own, and the facts are that Kyrie has lived up to his contract: three-time All Star, and a third Team All-NBA nod, despite missing a bunch of games over his four-year career. He's a great ball-handler, a plus-shooter, and is a #1 option masquerading as a #2 next to LeBron James.
Class of 2012
Anthony Davis - 5 years / $120 million
Damian Lillard - 5 years / $120 million
Maxing out The Brow is a no-brainer -- or at least it should have been. One of the most versatile big men in the NBA and easily one of the most productive young players in league history, Davis is a franchise centerpiece, and those players have to get paid accordingly. However...Davis is floating towards the dreaded "injury prone" label, and not without reason: He's missed roughly 20% of his games every year of his four-year career. His injuries aren't the kind that you worry about long-term (he's not Greg Oden or Joel Embiid)...but they keep happening. He should become the player the Pelicans thought they signed, but stay tuned.
I was surprised that Lillard got maxed out, but I shouldn't have been. My conception of Dame was based on a very rudimentary understanding of his game and his personality. He is beloved in Portland, both by the fanbase and franchise, and has the talents to justify it. He has a Harden-esque allergy to defense, and a game similar to Kyrie, but when you find a stud you lock him in quickly.
So does Giannis deserve the max?
If we compare Giannis' body of work to that of the players on this list, the conversation about his extension takes a very different tone. Sure, Giannis might be as good (or better!) than these guys in a few years, or even next season. But it's not just that he's never made an All-Star game, he's never really even come close. His numbers from mid-February to April were spectacular, as was his overall season, but this is the only year in which we've seen that production. A big part of that is Giannis simply being younger than every other guy we've listed, though the point is that he's not quite the proven commodity most of those guys were.
Some find it hard to doubt Giannis, and I'm among them. But the Bucks would be irresponsible to simply throw the largest figure they can at a player without doing their due diligence and considering all their options. After all, the Bucks will still have matching rights on Giannis in July 2017 if they fail to reach an extension this summer, and an extension this fall could cost the Bucks up to around $17 million in cap space next summer: if Giannis doesn't sign an extension starting at roughly $25 million, he'll enter July 2017 with a cap hold of under $8 million. And if injury strikes, or development inexplicably stalls, that contract could become an albatross around the Bucks' neck. It's unlikely, but it's possible.
But you know what is even more irresponsible than being reckless with a max deal? Failing to recognize the opportunity at hand. The immense opportunity to commit to a young star -- younger than any of the guys listed above -- in the way that best demonstrates your belief in him. Taking a young star's hard work and improvement and not just validating it, but announcing to the whole world that "This is our guy."
Giannis Antetokounmpo is our guy. Sure, things might not work out. But if they do...do you really want to be the team that gives him ANY reason to consider leaving at some point? Especially since he's ready to make the commitment on his end?
"Hopefully. That was what everyone's been working for, for them to extend me. Hopefully, I stay here 20 years and I get my Greek Freak Day like Kobe [Bryant]."
Giannis wants to be our Kobe. Marc, Wes, Jamie, John, Jason, Peter, Alex, Mallory, Jim, John, Gus, Marques, Bango, and anybody else, if you're reading this: LET GIANNIS BE OUR KOBE.