Can the Lakers Find a Long-Term Path to Giannis Antetokounmpo?

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LOS ANGELES – Although they fell short in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Milwaukee Bucks were one of the brightest stories of the 2018-19 NBA season. Giannis Antetokounmpo established himself as one of the league’s elite stars and the favorite to win MVP.

But the Bucks did not win the title this year, despite leading the league with 60 wins, and expectations were raised so high that anything but a Finals appearance next season would be a setback. The team has several decisions to make this summer, notably with key free agents Khris Middleton (player option), Malcolm Brogdon (restricted), Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic.

To maintain the status quo, the small-market Bucks may need to venture into the luxury tax, and weighing over everything is Antetokounmpo’s contract. His deal doesn’t expire until after the 2020-21 season, but he’s just about where Anthony Davis was last summer with the New Orleans Pelicans.

After a strong playoff run (albeit not as successful as Milwaukee’s this past season), New Orleans let DeMarcus Cousins go to the Golden State Warriors in free agency. Cousins was injured, but the Pelicans took a step backward, and by midseason a disillusioned Davis demanded a trade despite the possibility of signing a supermax contract to stay in New Orleans.

Antetokounmpo, by virtue of back-to-back All-NBA selections (most recently first team), will be eligible to sign a designated veteran extension after next season that could reach roughly $250 million. That’s a staggering figure, one seemingly impossible to turn down.

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But if the All-Star forward loses faith in the Bucks should they struggle to navigate the offseason, he is still going to be able to sign elsewhere for a significant amount of money. Four years and almost $160 million isn’t as massive, but that’s still $160 million.

He could also choose to take a shorter contract for a couple of years at $75 million, hit free agency again in 2023 and then ink a long-term deal north of $200 million. He doesn’t lose here either way, barring injury. As long as he can play at an elite level, he’s going to cash in.

The Bucks are one of the league’s smaller markets. Can they afford to pay the luxury tax to entice Antetokounmpo to extend and then pay him roughly $50 million per season? That’s not a clear “yes.”

It’s why teams like the Los Angeles Lakers-who are struggling to find their way but have a significantly larger market share than the Bucks-are monitoring both Milwaukee and Antetokounmpo closely.

Is it a coincidence the Lakers are hiring Jason Kidd as an assistant coach? After all, he helped develop Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee for over three years as the team’s head coach, and Antetokounmpo was reportedly “devastated” when Kidd was fired in January 2018.

Los Angeles doesn’t have a single dollar of guaranteed salary for the 2021-22 season. LeBron James has a player option at $41 million, but even if he takes it, the Lakers will still have plenty of spending power to offer Antetokounmpo a contract.

And if he follows in Davis’ footsteps with a trade demand from Milwaukee? The Lakers will certainly be ready to make an offer.

Davis is still with the Pelicans, although his situation could be resolved over the next few weeks. If the Lakers can lock him in and possibly land another star, they may look beyond Antetokounmpo-though they’ll certainly keep an eye on his situation regardless.

“I would never leave for L.A.,” Antetokounmpo told Colin Cowherd on The Herd in July, professing his goal to “win in Milwaukee.”

That may be true, but people say a lot of things they’re not beholden to. There’s no perjury charge if a mind is changed. Kyrie Irving-who told season ticket holders in Boston that he intended to re-sign with the Celtics in October-is now another star who may choose a different path, like Kevin Durant and James before him.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Milwaukee has to decide what it wants to do, and keeping Antetokounmpo is the obvious goal. Still, several teams faced with paying a supermax contract chose to deal their All-Stars first, like the Sacramento Kings with Cousins and the Chicago Bulls with Jimmy Butler.

Neither Kawhi Leonard nor Paul George was willing to stay in their respective situations with the San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers, despite the potential of a similar massive payday. If the Bucks aren’t comfortable offering a supermax, or if Antetokounmpo turns it down, they could look to eventually deal him rather than lose him for nothing in free agency.

Coming off one of their best seasons in franchise history, that’s not today’s consideration, but keeping the roster together is a pressing one.

On the West Coast, the Lakers are hoping to benefit from another team’s loss this summer. Leonard or Irving would fit the bill, and if they can also swing a Davis trade, the franchise may suddenly be a contender once again.

That’s a lot to ask for, and if the Lakers do strike out, they may hold on to the No. 4 pick in June’s draft. Los Angeles may continue to groom its young core, even if it can’t give James another chance to return to the Finals. The Lakers may bring in veterans with their cap room with an eye on protecting their cap room for Antetokounmpo in 2021 or cultivating trade pieces in case the Bucks do hit a wall.

The two franchises made a historic, if lopsided, trade in 1975 involving Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Lakers would like nothing more than to repeat history.

Today the focus is on the Davis decision, the draft, free agency and building a powerhouse around James, but if there’s one player on the Lakers’ wish list, it’s Antetokounmpo. Not that Los Angeles is unique in that regard-a bulk of the league would sacrifice most or all of its current roster for the 24-year-old superstar.

For now, the Bucks are in the proverbial driver’s seat, especially if they’re offering the supermax. Before then, they’ll have to decide if they can afford to keep their 60-win roster together.

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.